Hands-Off Leadership: Using Autonomy as a Secret Weapon for Productivity

Hands-Off Leadership: Using Autonomy as a Secret Weapon for Productivity
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Andrew Fayad is the CEO and managing partner of eLearning Mind, an e-learning design and development agency that helps companies transform their existing learning materials into memorable and engaging e-learning experiences. This article was written in collaboration with co-founder Simon Casuto.

It's early Monday morning and Simon (president of eLearning Mind) is sitting amongst darkened computer screens and empty desks. Most ELM employees won't walk through the doors of our San Diego office until 9 a.m., but Simon likes having an hour, or an hour and a half, of quiet time to start his day. "I wake around 5:30 and catch up on news," he says. "Being up early also frees me up for communication with the New York office."

It might sound like a regular day-in-the-life routine, but the way Simon and all of the founders at ELM approach the morning is actually a calculated method for peak productivity in both the New York and San Diego locations. Not only does a couple hours of quiet time let Simon work uninterrupted, but it sends a clear message to all of our employees: autonomy is a good thing.

Productivity can be a slippery concept. Laden with opinions and subjectivity, we realize that there's not a one-size-fits-all solution to help a business work faster and smarter. But for ELM, productivity hasn't been a matter of cracking a whip or looking over employees' shoulders: it's getting out of employees' way so they can do the job we hired them to do.

"Musher" Management

Some managers and leaders believe that in order to squeeze every ounce of potential out of their employees, they have to follow a "dogsled" mentality: standing at the back of the sled, calling out orders and urging employees to work faster while the manager is pulled along. But any good dogsled racer can tell you that the best results occur when the racer ("musher") gets off the sled and starts to push, letting his team lead while he assumes a supporting role instead. Without the added weight and with extra support, the racing dogs are free to explore their top speed and full potential.

From day one, we wanted ELM to be a place where leadership meant giving guidance and yes, getting out to push and support when necessary. Leadership is necessary to be sure, but it's a lot more hands-off and a lot less face-to-face than some would have you believe. We hired our employees; we trust them to deliver. That trust often means hopping off the sled and pushing along while letting employees take a turn at the front of the pack.

Hands-Off Productivity

For Simon, productivity starts with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call and some solo time at the office. For me, it's taking the time to address personal needs before getting into a performance state of mind. Both of these strategies address our respective idiosyncrasies and capacities. But we recognize that not every one of our 30+ employees operates the same way. Our job, then, is to work to ensure that each team member can be productive in their own way. Here's how we make that happen:

    1. Plan an actionable strategy. Every Monday the three of us (Simon, Jack and Andrew) hold a weekly founder's meeting. During our meeting, we outline the strategic goals we need to accomplish by Friday, but we also identify the moving parts required for success. Doing so allows us to set expectations with real action items to give employees the tools and direction they need to have a productive week. On Fridays, we reconvene for a retrospective look at how we did. Where did we win? How did we lose? And how can we do better next week?
    2. Prove your trust. It sounds counterintuitive, but getting out of the office (meeting a client at a coffee shop or working offsite for the day) makes a huge difference in encouraging employee productivity and leadership. As leaders, we find that this balance helps create a culture of autonomy and decision-making. While we're away, employees are more apt to make decisions on their own and experience the autonomy that contributes to leadership and job satisfaction. Natural delegation occurs: I experienced this with our first marketing director when I went on vacation. When I came back, he was making quick decisions on his own instead of always feeling he had to run them past me. This is exactly what we want in an organization like ELM. We hired our employees, we trust our employees, and we make sure they have the space they need to make decisions and come up with the ideas and solutions of which we know they're capable.
    3. Get off the sled. Micromanaging employees can weigh them down. Not only are they expected to do their job, they're expected to do it while someone watches over their shoulder. We've found that sometimes it's best to reduce the burden employees carry by actually checking in less frequently, spending time away from the office and putting our trust in their judgment. At the same time, a hands-off approach helps us be more productive leaders. Giving employees their space also gives us time to remove ourselves from active, "in the weeds" roles. Simon's early morning routine allows him to execute tasks that likely wouldn't get done (or done well) with lots of colleagues and direct reports checking in around him in the office. A hands-off approach reduces employee burden but also allows us to run faster as founders.
We contend that the best leaders aren't those who crack the whip and allow their teams to pull them along, but those who are willing to get up, push their teams and even step back if necessary for employee growth. Whether it's Simon getting his work done at the crack of dawn or employees who feel empowered to make decisions, autonomy makes for more productive, confident and innovative workers. We might not all wake up at 5:30 a.m., but we make sure that every ELM team member has the chance to be a leader throughout the workday.

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