Teach Your People to Kill Their Own Snakes


CEOs, do you often have trouble delegating?  Do you let delegation move upward rather than downward because it’s easier?  And, quite frankly, you know it is more fun to solve the problem yourself than teach someone else? After all, you got to where you are by being a world-class problem solver.  You know how to do a whole lot of jobs in the company, especially if you are a founding entrepreneur. 

Entrepreneurial CEOs, you fondly remember the days when your company was just three people working out of a basement. A couple years pass and all of a sudden you have 200 people on staff and are doing $50 million worth of business. But you still love the excitement of somebody coming up and saying, “Boss, can you help me solve this problem?”

Monkey on Your Back?

The ‘Upward Delegation’ issue was hit squarely on the head by a Harvard Business Review article first published in 1974. It was republished in 1999 and is one of HBR’s two best-selling reprints ever.

It’s called, “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” 

The article describes the situation you may know so well… Someone comes to your office at 7:30 in the morning with this monkey on their shoulder that’s jumping up and down, screaming, chattering and raising Cain. It’s called a PROBLEM. And, you are asked if you ‘gotta minute’ to help.

Problem Shirked 

What happens next is your direct report adroitly shrugs her shoulders and gets that monkey to hop on over to YOUR shoulder . They walk out of your office thinking, “I did a pretty good job with that. I got the boss to solve that problem for me. I didn’t have to take any risks. I didn’t have to make a decision. I didn’t have to put myself out there.” And the boss says, “I did a really great job. I solved the problem for my employee. Isn’t that cool?” 

100 Automatons

The trouble is it creates a business totally dependent on one top person solving all its problems.

You have one genius and 100 automatons waiting to be told what to do. As a CEO you become – if you’re not already – enormously frustrated. You find yourself saying, “I’m paying all these people all this money, how come nobody takes any initiative except me?”

But your fingerprints are probably all over this. You have taught your people that you will solve their problem if they just bring it to you. If you teach your direct reports that, they teach their direct reports that and it ripples down the line.

World-Class Snake Killer

When I discuss this challenge I use a rattlesnake metaphor because I grew up in Florida where we see a lot of Eastern diamondback rattlers. As a CEO, you are a world-class snake killer. You know how to kill every snake in the place. So when somebody walks into your office at 7:30 a.m. holding a live six-foot writhing, wriggling monster diamondback rattlesnake known as a problem, dumps it on your desk and says, “Boss, can you solve this?” The world-class snake killer in you comes alive and you dutifully pull out your hatchet from your bottom drawer and chop that snake into six pieces (solving the problem) and say, “Now take your solution and get out of here. I’ve got my own work to do!”

If that happened only once a day you’d be great. Twice a day might be okay, but by 5 o’clock you have done it eight, twelve, fifteen times and you wonder why you couldn’t get any work done on your strategic thinking list.

You need to teach people to kill their own snakes so you have the time to work ON your business, developing effective business strategies, reinforcing values and staying focused on the big picture stuff only you can do. 

Go download “Who’s Got The Monkey”. And, resolve to require that each of your direct reports bring you the solutions they recommend along with the problems.  Then, require that they tell you which solution they want to implement.  Get your people used to ‘solving their own problems’ and be a ‘Teacher of Snake Killers’ – it’s your highest and best use role as CEO.

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