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Training Leaders Or Herding Cats?

April 28, 2016

Joel and Bill were wrestling on the floor. Jackie was bouncing a basketball off the wall. . .and occasionally Kelly’s head. Arthur was dribbling a soccer ball around the chairs and other boys’ legs. Meanwhile, about half of the 10 boys were actually trying to listen to the instructions of how to run a human foosball game. 

In other words, another typical Boy Scout meeting. 

In addition to work and home, I spend part of my week as a volunteer Boy Scout leader. Our boys were all between the ages of 12 and 13. Our scout meetings are Wednesday nights. Most weeks, it’s just our own group. But, on the first Wednesday of each month, we meet with a larger group of youth aged 12-17, for a combined activity. Each group takes turns planning the combined activity that occurs on the first Wednesday of each month. Next month it’s the scouts turn to plan and run the activity. We have more than 80 youth, boys and girls, the youngest, 12 years old, the oldest 17. 

Trying to get  nearly 100 youth to do anything all at the same time is a challenge. Trying to get them all to listen to a bunch of 12 year olds? That’s why we were taking this week’s lesson time to practice for next week when the boys would have to lead the group. 

Bob is the other leader. In fact, as the Scoutmaster, technically, he’s in charge, but we typically divide up the work. Our challenge is whether to try to allow the boys to lead, or simply step in and run things ourselves. Of course, the “best” course is to allow the boys to do it themselves. We’ve all heard the saying about “teach a man to fish.” Well, if you have 80 guys trying to bait hooks and getting their lines tangled, and arguing over whether boppers should be white-side up or red-side up, and why-can’t-we-just-play-baseketball? it is easier to simply hand everyone a fish and remind them not to spill on the carpet. 

One of my first program manager jobs was at Microsoft. I was working on the early Microsoft Vista software. Our team was building accessibility tools for screen readers. One of my first responsibilities was to prepare a presentation to give to our other technical teams about the advances our team was making. I struggled through mastering the content well enough to present it. My PowerPoint slide deck was not coming together as quickly as any of us would like. There were still plenty of blank spaces. 

One day, I came in and my boss came by my office as I was getting my computer set up. 

Rodney, I’d like you to send out your slide deck to be reviewed today.

Well, I’m still working on getting a couple of slides completed. I’m still struggling with the programmable access module.

Don’t worry about it. I created those slides and sent you a finished copy. Let me know what feedback you get.

Well, I had some feedback for him. At our next 1:1 I pointed out that he had given me an assignment and then he’d completely cut me out of finished product. He’d handed me a fish while I was trying to figure out how to cast. He acknowledged that he’d overstepped and we figured out how to address similar issues in the future. 

When I hire people, I want people who can do their jobs better than I could do their jobs. That’s not always possible, and even when it is, there’s a learning curve. While the new people are coming up to speed, it’s often quicker to simply do it myself. But, that’s the mark of an inexperienced manager. 

I have thirteen children. The youngest two are part of that scout group I mentioned. As our children grew we had to teach them to work. I don’t mean that I had to teach them that work was important, I mean that at times I literally had to teach how to do tasks. Have you ever tried to teach a six year old to vacuum a room? You get one REALLY well vacuumed section right in the middle of the floor and nothing else. It would be much quicker to simply do it yourself. Of course it would be. But, by the time that child is 12 or 16 or 25, they need to know how to vacuum a room. Putting in the time training them when they are young, will pay dividends both for you and for them later in life. 

Bob and I reminded ourselves that we were training future leaders. 

Okay, boys, let’s go over it again. Next week when those older kids are looking at you to tell them what to do, you’re going to to want to have practiced this. Let’s line up on the rope again.

Maybe next time we’ll simply take them all fishing. . .or hold a cat rodeo. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2016 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

(If you are curious, human foosball is played similar to normal foosball, except that you have lines of people on a rope. Three rows face one direction, three face the other direction. Players cannot let go of the rope. You play it with a soccer ball. )

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