Moving from Management to Enablement

What is an “Enabler Manager”?

An enabler manager is someone who elevates their team members, empowers and inspires them, and enthusiastically helps them grow their careers.

If you ever attend a management training course, you’ll likely be told that it’s very important to “enable your team”. Actionable advice on how exactly to do that, however, is less commonly found.

Get the basics right first

To become an enabler manager, you have to first be an effective manager. Otherwise, you’ll be trying to enable an ineffective team, and that’s going to be an exercise in frustration for you and your group.

If you are already successfully running one-on-ones, empowering your teams, delivering effective performance feedback, setting SMART goals, avoiding micromanagement, and delegating work, then keep reading. Otherwise, consider reading High Output Management and the HBR 20-Minute Manager books first, and putting their advice into practice. There’s a lot more to being an effective manager than just reading those texts, but they’re a heck of a good start.

Inspire to the Mission

There’s a reason why we introduce our company mission during any first-time phone screen with candidates applying to work with us, and why we reinforce the mission after they are hired. A strong, compelling mission galvanises and motivates people in ways that just working on a backlog of tickets can never hope to match.

With an inspiring and authentic mission to guide them, the team will find ways to help without you asking, and they’ll usually choose very effective items without any direct guidance. Your first step in becoming an enabler manager is therefore to reinforce your mission regularly.

Delegate Autonomy, Not Tasks

Task delegation can be only one short, precarious step away from becoming overbearing micromanagement. It’s important to match your employee’s task-relevant maturity to the level of detail that you use when delegating work to them.

Being too detailed in how you delegate tasks might be perceived as spoon-feeding, or having a lack of trust in that person’s skills. It will unlock very little of their potential. Even for very junior engineers, this type of over-detailed delegation can bind them – and you – into career stagnation.

Instead, you should focus on empowering your team members to the point where they can become fully autonomous for certain areas, freeing you up in the process. I use a simple framework for doing this safely, which I’ve named ICRA. (Some readers might spot that this is an anagram of RACI, which is a popular framework for clarifying responsibilities. The two are heavily related.)

Autonomy Delegation using ICRA

Managers apply ICRA by first picking an area for which they are currently solely responsible, and then creating ever-increasing team involvement for it. They start by Informing their team of what they do in that area, next they Consult with them when working on it, followed by making some of them Responsible for it, and lastly making one of their team Accountable for it.

For example, imagine a software manager who manages the release process for an off-the-shelf product. They would use ICRA to delegate autonomy for that process to their team as follows:

  • The team is informed of how the release process works. The manager makes sure everything is documented accurately, walks the team through the steps as they happen, and perhaps has some people shadow her as she ships a product release. Some people on the team might now demonstrate their interest in learning more, or helping with it in the future – and that’s helpful for the manager for when she eventually chooses who will fully own that responsibility.
  • The manager consults the team for feedback on the release process, and how to improve it. The team feels more trusted to have their feedback sought, and the release process will almost certainly improve as a result of their input.
  • Some people on the team are delegated responsibility for the release process, and they collectively take care of running it (with the manager still coordinating them, monitoring their work, and remaining accountable for its success).
  • The manager finally chooses someone on her team to become accountable for shipping product releases.

The ICRA model enables the true empowerment of a team, done through a deliberate and careful transition of ownership from zero to complete autonomy.

Run a Responsibility Audit

Enabler Managers strive to always do less of what they’re currently doing, and more of what they are not. Conducting a simple “responsibility audit” is an important step in becoming an Enabler Manager:

  • Write down all of your responsibilities, and not just what is written in your job description. Include everything you currently do, as well as the items you wish you could do but never have time to get to.
  • Put each item into one of these buckets:
    1. Things that only you can do (compensation reviews, for example), and anything you really want to do but can’t get time for.
    2. Things that your employees could take on.
    3. Things other teams should do.
    4. Things you could stop doing.

For any items in #2, prioritise them, and then delegate them completely to your team (using the ICRA model if they are anything other than trivial tasks). Importantly, these transitions should be an ongoing process during your managerial career, and not a once-off phase.

Cross-team delegation is harder, but if the items in bucket #3 are swamping your calendar, then you should consider it. This happens frequently during times of heavy company growth, or after an acquisition: what used to be appropriate for you to tackle can now be done in a more scalable fashion by another team. For example, engineering teams in a startup usually handle support cases themselves, but if they’re bought by a larger company, the new parent organisation probably has a dedicated support team. Delegating tech support to that team is an opportunity for scaling, deeper focus, and team empowerment.

It’s harder to find things that you should stop doing entirely, because it’s very easy to remain biased towards continuing established routines. Thankfully this audit process helps surface those kinds of items, allowing you to stop doing them, and in turn freeing up more of your time to grow the careers of your team members.

A responsibility audit is something you should run frequently. Run it every quarter if you can (especially if you’re in a high-growth company), and never less frequently than once a year.

If you have a mentor, ask if they can shadow you for a little while to observe some of your daily routines. Then ask them for their input on which things you are doing that your team could do instead. If shadowing is not possible, show them your latest responsibility audit and ask for their opinions on it.

Your Calendar is a Responsibility Report

Examine the last couple of months of your calendar. How many meetings were you invited to that you could have a team member attend for you instead? Would that employee relish the opportunity to take on that new responsibility? If so, enable them to do so. Build up their influence and reputation in your organisation and give them a positive platform so they can be successful.

Recurring meetings are notorious for causing responsibility to stay glued to you. They create habits that become difficult to break, which in turn means that empowering your team with greater responsibility is tough to do.

Expire every one of your recurring meetings every few months, and when it comes time to renew them, decide if they’re still needed. Even if they are important meetings that you decide to renew, could someone on your team run the meeting for you instead?

Avoid Delegation Anti-Patterns

If you decide to pursue an intense program of delegation and team enablement, be aware of some common pitfalls you could encounter:

  • Detailed micro-inspections of your employee’s progress in new areas could quickly devolve into micromanagement, which will severely demotivate them. If you use a “trust but verify” approach, balance it very carefully when you delegate responsibility.  Consider using a “trust and confirm” process instead.
  • If someone on your team isn’t performing, consider giving them more responsibility, not less. It’s counter-intuitive, but you might not have delegated enough responsibility to them to sufficiently challenge or inspire them.
  • If you delegate everything off your plate but don’t instantly take on more initiatives in their place, you’ll quickly be seen as just a delegator, not a leader.

The team has to see the benefit of them taking on things you’ve done in the past, otherwise resentment towards you could build in their ranks. Make it known what new and more impactful things you’ve been able to now take on because of them taking on your prior responsibilities. Most importantly, make sure the work you delegate to them positively impacts their careers and professional growth.

Measuring Your Enablement Success

On the surface it might appear to be difficult to measure your effectiveness as an Enabler Manager. Thankfully it’s actually quite easy to quantify!

  • Conduct regular 360-degree reviews that include specific questions on enablement and empowerment, and track the results over time. For example:
    • “Has the manager recently taken on new challenges?”
    • “Has the manager’s employees grown in influence and responsibility?”
    • “Have they handed off ownership for things that were traditionally seen as only their responsibility?”
  • 1-on-1 meetings are a great source of measurable information. Team members can reveal if they are challenged enough, or if they feel like their responsibilities have remained static. Be sure to ask your team members directly if they think they are “responsibility poor”.
  • Conduct anonymous surveys of your team to ask if they have been empowered to tackle new responsibilities, and if they are growing professionally.
  • If you are conducting your own regular responsibility audits, keep track of how your responsibilities change over time because of the team enablement you’ve initiated.
  • When your manager asks you to take on a new initiative, is your first thought, “I’m too busy with other stuff already!”? If so, you now have a strong data point that you should consider enabling others to take on some of your current responsibilities.
  • Measure how much “headroom time” you get each work day. This is time you are free to spend as you see fit: reading, learning, writing, brainstorming, planning longer horizon work, and so on. If you are continually swamped with daily tasks, you might be missing an opportunity to enable someone on your team to take something off your plate.

Enabling Your Team Empowers You

Having other people take on what you do is not just the key to your team member’s growth: it’s also the key to yours.

Insecure managers rarely get promoted. They hoard responsibilities and fear others taking on their tasks, afraid that they’ll be seen as disposable if others take them on. However, enablement is a virtuous cycle: the more you empower your team, the more they’ll free you to take on projects that require a longer horizon or a deeper focus.

If you do run a regular responsibility audit or use an ICRA approach, track what you have successfully delegated to others, and what new things you’ve been able to take on since then. These are management achievements that you should list in your own performance review.

Imagine you are considering promoting one of your team members, but then stop to think “I can’t have them move out of their current role, nobody else is able to do what they do!”. Guess what? Your own manager is running the same thought process about you.

Become an Enabler Manager to open up your own career opportunities, and build the careers of your team in the process.

Photo by Everton Vila on Unsplash

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