At some point in their career, practically all business leaders hit a well-known, oft-discussed, and absolutely impenetrable barrier: they can’t clone themselves.
By the time this becomes a problem, their business employs dozens of people. Their employees depend on it. Clients and suppliers count on it. Charitable organizations and community foundations rely on it. Operationally, the business is working at or beyond capacity,
It’s right around this point that the cloning problem becomes acute. There’s simply not enough time in a day for one person to make every major decision. Most CEOs find this reality so painful that they will deny it for months, sometimes risking their own mental and physical health in the process.
Meetings for Cloning
But ultimately, there’s only one solution. The CEO must delegate. And delegation, invariably, requires meetings.
The CEO’s intentions couldn’t possibly be better: he wants to align everyone so they are all pursuing the same goals and thus, hopefully, all making the same decisions he would. He wants to inspire everyone. He want to empower his A-players. He wants management to feel as strongly about the company’s potential as he does.
Then there’s the reality of the meetings themselves. They’re supposed to generate CEO clones. Instead, they’re boring. Interminable. Irrelevant. Ineffective.
Well, most CEOs do not believe that they are the problem – and most of them are right. One classic paperfrom the Harvard Business Review describes six completely different leadership styles and their impact on people and organizations. It’s classic because it concluded that there is no such thing as “the correct CEO personality.” All CEO personalities have advantages and disadvantages, and once a CEO hits the cloning problem, she’s already surrounded by people who respond to her personality.
So that’s not it. Since there are at least six completely different ways to get it right, let’s focus on the most common few ways to get it wrong.
Meeting Fails, In Order
1. Believing it’s possible to “download” something into a person’s mind
Today’s leaders want to teach because the market moves so quickly that they need to build a culture of adaptability, creativity and growth. Finding people with exactly the right experience matters less than finding people who can become "clones." HBR found that “learning and career opportunities are the biggest drivers of employees’ willingness to recommend their company as a great place to work.”
When thinking about a new hire, a new team, or a new initiative, there’s an overwhelming temptation to expect that a meeting or two will convey everything needed to those responsible. That's usually too ambitious. It’s like expecting a student to not only remember everything from a couple of lectures, but to be able to have accurate discussions about it for weeks afterwards.
Instead, remember that teaching requires engagement, repetition – and reference. The face-to-face aspect of the meeting will handle the engagement part. You don't have the time to provide repetition. But you can provide reference, which the employee can refer to as repetitively as needed. In fact, creating a reference can have the biggest impact. That's because good meeting records not only capture the data backing up decisions, but also the tactical, practical insights surrounding them.
The art of management empowers people in just the right way. Ideally, when a goal or task is assigned, it is expressed so clearly that there will be no question as to when it’s achieved. The challenge here is all about the way that it's achieved.
The CEOs knows exactly how they would do it. Certainly, explaining that ought to be very useful to the employee who will actually take it on.
But you can't actually clone yourself. So it’s critical that after “downloading” whatever you can offer, you back off. “Leaders give people the freedom to innovate, experiment, and take calculated risks,” according to HBR. It’s a conceptual shift. In science, a “clone” is a precise replica. In the business world, a “clone” is someone who can achieve the same goal…in a unique way.
3. The leader’s “marching orders” leave no trace
At the other end of the spectrum, some leaders assume that everyone at their meeting understands the business completely, so they don't need to go into much detail at all. The CEO has such intimacy with the business, and such an overarching mastery of the subject matter, that he assumes everyone at the meeting understands exactly what he’s saying – when, in fact, they only get the gist of it.
A Chinese proverb says that “The palest ink is better than the best memory.” That was written thousands of years ago, so it gives us an indication as to how ingrained this problem is. Our memories are flawed – especially when it comes to the details, and even more especially when a lot of important details fly by in a short period of time.
Leaders who need to clone themselves also need to leave behind some ink. Few do. In fact, the single most common fail at meetings is to forget to “capture the conversation and put into a form that can be easily retrieved later.”
What to Do
Leaders can avoid these pitfalls with these top-level recommendations (find many more in the Guide below):
- Rather than “downloading” anything into anyone, have an open, amicable discussion while someone else keeps copious notes. That way, your “clone” can remember the impressions and feelings he had during the meeting, and he can have the reference he needs to fill in the particulars later.
- Rather than micromanaging, define only goals with great precision. Worry less about how your employee accomplishes it; focus on the fact that they have.
- And finally, rather than leaving no trace, establish a system where your detailed knowledge can be transferred to others so they can take advantage of it.
Leaders who use these methods won't clone themselves, of course. But they will create employees who think and act the way they do, which is a more realistic – and attainable – objective.