Leaders, focus on the umbrella

Recently over on Instagram, I shared a post from Liz and Mollie (@lizandmollie). It depicted a team hard at work at their computers, with defined roles, clear expectations, work-life balance and stable, achievable goals. But how you must wonder? Because of their “great manager” holding an umbrella, protecting the team from the usual organisational chaos: unclear priorities, ridiculous requests, massive uncertainty, unnecessary meetings and last-minute chaos.

After sharing this post, a number of my community asked:

But who looks after the manager?

Great question!

Who’s role was it to help the manager with their work-life balance, goal setting, and expectations? Who helps them combat unclear priorities, ridiculous requests, massive uncertainty, unnecessary meetings and last-minute chaos?

My first reaction to this was: This is exactly why leading a team is actually it’s own role. Leadership is a lot about holding that umbrella.

However, if you’re feeling like that umbrella is not sheltering you from the storm, that doesn’t mean you’re failing as a leader. Usually it means one of two things:

  • You’re not just holding the umbrella, you’re also doing, or

  • You are facing a tornado with an umbrella because your organisation has not built the storm shelter

Scenario 1: Focus on the umbrella

Being a leader does not mean being a “more advanced doer”. It is it’s own skill set with enough high value work to more than fill 40 standard working hours.

If you feel like the manager who is holding the umbrella but still feeling the brunt of the storm, the first thing to consider is whether you are trying to still execute work when your role is to lead.

This may not be fully in your control. Often the expectation of our workplace is that as a manager, or team leader, that we will still deliver “widgets” of work on top of our leadership responsibilities. However, there are some situations where it is clear you need to take your hands off the tools and focus fully on leadership:

  • if you have been attempting to lead and do at the same time for upwards of 6-12 months and still struggling.

  • Or if your team is over the “two pizza” size of 6-7 people (counting yourself as well).

If either of these sounds like you, then from a pure structural stand point your team really does need a dedicated leader. Sure you may still pick up the odd request or activity when your balanced work-life calendar allows for it. But on the whole, you’re probably in a space where you should be focusing your efforts *on* the team, not *in* the team. (Like the famous entrepreneurial advice goes).

If that’s the case, you need to move "doing" off your plate and allow yourself to just focus on holding the umbrella. How exactly you do this will look different depending on your context. And it may take some time. But I can guarantee if you don’t start today, it won’t have changed in 6 months time and you will feel more burnt out than ever.

Your first port of call to address this is your own team. Work together to make sure every aspect of the “doing” within your team’s responsibility is covered by someone on your team. Also be sure to check that you aren’t taking on things that actually belong in another team. This can often disguise itself as lots of rework or unclear scope coming into your team.

Once you are confident you have a plan to cover all the execution work, start a conversation with whoever makes these decisions in your business about how you feel leadership should be your main (only!) focus.

Gather evidence demonstrating your teams improved performance as you do less “doing” and more “leading”.

If your organisation hasn’t realised leadership is it’s own job by now, you may need to be the pioneer that proves it to them.

Scenario 2: Help build the storm shelter

This scenario is you if:

  • you're confident your workplace supports you to prioritise the leadership work, but

  • you still feel your team gets pushed and pulled around by organisational forces, and/or

  • you are still feeling burnt out with dealing with the relentless storms of chaotic priorities and last-minute-itis.

If this is your scenario, then your organisation’s “storm shelter” isn’t working. What do I mean by storm shelter? Well, you should not be the only level in your organisation holding an umbrella to create defined roles, clear expectations, work-life balance and stable, achievable goals. The levels above you should be doing the same for you, all the way up the chain. And I mean all the way up!

Your organisations vision, values and strategy should be the first layer that helps filter the noise and forces out in the market. It’s one of the primary boundaries that defines what’s in and out in your organisation (apart from the legal paperwork of course).

Your strategy should be making clear choices about what work is and isn’t at your organisation. Your vision should clarify the objectives that cascade down the organisation. And your values should tell you how you will go about executing your work. Together these form a filtering layer that helps the top level of leadership make decisions and set priorities.

And so priorities should filter down from management layer to management layer until it reaches you and your team. If you are burnt out from holding your team’s umbrella, there may be a problem with one or more of these upper layers of "shelter" against unclear priorities, ridiculous requests, massive uncertainty, unnecessary meetings and last-minute chaos.

Your ability to influence this factor will be limited by how many layers sit between you and those responsible for setting your vision, values and strategy. If possible, you can help alleviate your load by initiating conversations at higher levels. Perhaps share a copy of “Good Strategy Bad Strategy” with your leaders.

Even if you’re not able to influence the top layers of strategy setting, or it’s the middle layers that are causing the problem, all is not lost. Even when it’s not well set, most organisations do have a strategy. So you can start making that strategy work for you even if it’s not perfect.

First you need to deeply understand the strategy that does exist. If your organisation’s strategy is particularly weak, you might like to supplement this with a bit of research on your market. Find out what is working and what isn’t working for organisations to succeed in your market. Gather data to support your case where possible.

Next you need to reflect on how your team’s function plays into that strategy. Get clear on which activities for your team you believe will best serve your organisation’s strategy and interests in the market. This will give you a strategic viewpoint to speak from when negotiating your team’s priorities.

The next step is to figure out where you can start negotiating:

  • Is there an upper level of management that keeps throwing chaotic requests your way?

  • Is there another team that is passing on work that needs a lot of rework or mitigations before you can do your team’s core activity?

  • Do you directly interact with customers and have no way to push back on their requests in a strategic way?

Figure out which conversations you need to have. Then start those conversations:

  • Share with that key stakeholder your view on how your team best serves the organisational strategy and what that means for your team’s priorities.

  • Help co-create or identify alternate paths for lower priority requests to get addressed elsewhere or be banked up for quiet periods.

  • If possible, negotiate “service level agreements” around last minute work, making clear the cost of dropping strategic activities to serve last minute requests.

This is definitely not one single conversation! I would start by identifying the number one pain point that creates chaos for your team and designing a small experimental alternative to handle that point. Once you demonstrate that either a) that need was low priority after all, or b) the alternate approach gets that need met, you will have established some credibility for your approach, making subsequent conversations easier to turn the tornado of poor strategy into a gentle rain of healthy organisational priorities.

In summary

TL;DR? If you are a great manager creating corporate nirvana for your team but feeling burnt out from facing the brunt of the storm, you can address this pressure by either:

  1. Using delegation and negotiation to create more space for you to focus just on the umbrella and not on the doing

  2. Using strategy setting and negotiation to repair the upper layers of organisational storm-shelter that aren’t functioning as they should be

Who helps the manager? Ultimately, you help yourself. But you do it by mustering support from your team to free you up to make their work lives great, or by fostering great leadership in the leaders above you.


Looking for more resources to level up your leadership? Swipe my list of top leadership resources to read, listen to or research here.