One of the recurrent things being said about the Millennial employees (by now the great majority of the workforce) is that they want to be self-directed. For many managers, that has somehow translated into ‘want to do everything on their own and should be left to do so’.

It doesn’t help that some of the scholars of the field, such as J. Keith Murnighan, professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University seem to be backing up this point:

“People on your team will reveal skills you never knew they had, and will accomplish things that go far beyond your estimate of their capabilities. They might not do things the way you would do them, but they will get results you never expected – positive results – because everyone has hidden talents, and most leaders never discover them. … Your role as a manager is to be a facilitator and orchestrator. Help your staff to get their work done, rather than interfere with their work. Orchestrate the work of team members, so that things go smoothly, with a hands-off approach and a collaborative mood.”

Hands-on leadership works better today

While I can’t totally contradict the professor, there is another type of leadership that is more appropriate for today’s rapid-changing, crisis-facing business world.

The orchestra needs not only a good conductor but also an excellent first violin – someone who knows how to play the instrument, not just be aware of how the piece ought to sound.

Small businesses, start-ups, growing tech enterprises, as well as established multi-national organizations can all benefit from a hands-on leadership approach.

The key is to build it all on good strategy. In the words of Professor Gilbert W. Fairholm, “leadership is not a starring role. True leadership describes unified action of leaders and followers (stakeholders) working together to jointly achieve mutual goals. It is collaborative.”

There are several benefits to being a hands-on leader rather than a detached manager:

Get a better understanding of changes that occur in the market – managers are often so preoccupied with analyzing reports and pie charts that they miss crucial information about what is really happening in their niche. Being occasionally ‘in the first line’ rather than up in some office with a magnificent view can make a real difference in perspective.

Develop a stronger relationship with the employees – depending on the size of the organization, knowing everybody may or may not be possible; however, working alongside the teams from time to time will help people feel important and listened to.

Become ready for change when it arises – in times of market transformation, organizations have to act fast. Leaders who keep away from the actual business will take longer to make decisions and they are likely to be only partially informed ones anyway.


Read more: How organizational leaders can facilitate change


Avoid the micromanaging trap

Being a hands-on leader does not mean doing everyone else’s job. Employees should be encouraged to grow and be creative.

An efficient leader should step in to set goals and propose improvements, then step back and let people achieve them. It’s important to give people space to work and allow for trial and error – people who fear making mistakes don’t ever innovate and any business needs that today in order to move forward and thrive.

Also, leaders ought to strive to be as disruptive as possible in their involvement endeavors – it’s best to sit and watch for a while, look for the best opportunity to intervene rather than inadvertently plop up into people’s daily activities with the intention of taking over some of them.

A major transition, a time of crisis, or a very important project are all good opportunities for leaders to step in and show their commitment and support – as well as do some of the work. In times when decision-making does not significantly change the trajectory of the company, it’s a good idea to consult the employees and let them decide (even when they don’t have all the comprehensive reports and forecasts).


Read more: 5 Tips for a good digital training strategy in times of crisis


How to act as an effective hands-on leader

First and foremost, a good hands-on leader should never find him or herself disconnected from the actual business. Ivory towers existed in mythology and they should be a thing of the past, not a common practice in today’s corporate environment.

Leaders need to be in the midst of all that – testing new services, listening to (if not also taking) calls from customers, participating in marketing, HR, and even office maintenance meetings.

Furthermore, they should:

  • Ask for direct feedback from employees – and do something about what they learn, otherwise, it will be pointless.
  • Regularly communicate with core teams about their projects, their progress, and the hurdles they encounter along the way.
  • Coach employees on tasks that are in their direct area of expertise and get coaching on ones that are less familiar.
  • Always lead by example – this is probably the most powerful tool in a leader’s arsenal; people believe and follow those who walk the talk.

Read more: The three keys to success for influential leaders

Closing thoughts

At a time when decisions need to be timely and changes are waiting around every corner, it’s crucial that leaders stay connected both to what is happening on their market and inside their organizations. A hands-on approach is the best way to truly move companies in the right direction with appropriate speed.

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