I’ve worked with well-meaning, highly-principled leaders and managers for years. When the topic of coaching and developing their employees comes up, I often hear that they know coaching is important, they want to coach more, but they don’t have time because they are too busy “putting out fires.”
Right now, that probably has never been more true. The pandemic put many leaders in crisis mode, switching from “How can I help my employees take their performance to the next level?” to “What are the very basic needs I must meet so that my employees can get through their work right now?” For new managers, who already feel like they are in a constant state of putting out fires, these times are likely even more challenging. Urgent issues simply must take precedence over long-term benefits and goals.
As children we learn that if our clothes ever catch fire, we should “stop, drop and roll.” By dropping to the floor and rolling around, we snuff out the flames and solve the immediate problem. The more I hear the phrase “putting out fires” from managers and leaders, the more I think this simple firefighting advice applies to team leadership too.
No one I’ve ever talked to admitted to liking the fires at work. They put urgency and stress into our days. They put us in a position of solving a problem that in many cases we didn’t even know existed. And because of the urgency, often the problems are averted (or minimized), but the root cause never is addressed, meaning you fight the same fire over and over again. While no one admits to liking firefighting, I believe that at least unconsciously some people actually do like it because it provides an Adrenalin rush and perhaps even more short-term job satisfaction. If you do like that kind of work, you may want to consider if you are in the right profession and role.
However, if you prefer to spend your days doing more than fight fires (e.g., coaching and developing your team) use the firefighter’s mantra of “Stop, drop and role.”
You must stop fighting all the fires. Recognize that as a leader the fires don’t all belong to you and with some coaching and development the fires can be owned by others. Then you will have time to work with your team members to do fire prevention. Start considering fires as an opportunity for coaching and development. Does this mean you will never roll up your sleeves and help? Not necessarily. What it does mean is that if you are dealing with all of the fires, you can’t do the work you are truly paid to do. Stop!
You must drop the fire and hand it off to someone else. In the moment you might have to help, but you should also train employees to manage the issue. As you are helping fight the fire, you are preparing someone else to fight (or prevent it) next time. Drop!
You must remember your role. As a leader, your role is to develop others. As you invest time in employees, you are providing them opportunities to put out the fires. You are developing their skills to manage their work more effectively. And by investing the time to coach, you are creating more time to do it more frequently and more effectively in the future. Remember your role!
Bottom line: As a leader you must focus on important things like developing your people, not just the urgent things that pop up each day. So, even now, while it might feel like it takes more effort to train and coach employees virtually, seek opportunities to both develop employee skills and free up your time so you can focus on big-picture issues and planning.
If you want more advice on how to coach your employees and offer feedback they can use to improve their performance, we’re offering our Effective Remote Coaching and Feedback at a special discount price right. Plus, it’s on-demand so you can take it at a time that works for you. Learn more here.