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Redlining: How to Avoid It

As an executive coach, I’m fortunate to work with leaders all over the globe in organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to government agencies to academic institutions to non-profit entities.

Many of my clients describe their lives in breathless terms, in large part due to the pace and intensity at which they are expected to perform. To enable them to accomplish more by doing less, I ask them to consider the concept of their leadership as a car’s engine and the capabilities of their team as its gears.

In a car, gears utilize the engine’s power and translate it into speed. In high gear, the engine runs comfortably at around 2,500 revolutions per minute (rpm). To get to the same speed in a lower gear, the engine must run at over 5,000 rpm, close to the “redline”— the maximum speed the engine can tolerate without causing long-term damage.

At work, your team’s many capabilities determine how effectively your leadership translates into achievement. A team with sufficient gears will allow you to operate comfortably by leveraging your energy and effort. But if your team consists of insufficient gears or you’re not using them properly, then you will need to run harder and faster—closer to the redline.

Redlining in a car is not sustainable. Inevitably, the engine burns out and the gears wear out. Redlining at work isn’t sustainable either. Leaders become stressed and good people leave.

How leaders can find themselves redlining is understandable.

In the early stages of our careers we are trained, incentivized and rewarded by our ability to accomplish tasks, solve problems and get things done. In fact, our value to the organization, our promotability and our identity is very often defined by this.

In the middle and late stages of our careers we take on more senior leadership roles. Instead of continuing to accomplish tasks ourselves, we guide others to accomplish them.

This change in thinking and action is difficult. It’s hard to take our foot off the gas when we’ve always been directly responsible for accomplishing tasks. It’s hard to rely on others.

But both to avoid redlining and to go faster by expending less energy, we must shift gears.

Leaders need to develop strategic insight to identify future needs. Creating the space to be able to reflect strategically is essential. This is impossible without delegation.

Building internal capabilities–namely people, products and processes—to meet those future needs is critical. Leaders need to evaluate, modify and develop the individual and collective skills of their team. In doing so, they can build the right number of gears.

Leaders, ask yourself:

  • Am I working too close to the redline?

  • Can I use my current gears more effectively?

  • Can I add a more gears to my gearbox?

  • Am I willing and ready to shift gears?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, then it’s time to shift gears. Shifting gears means:

  1. Accomplishing more by doing less

  2. No longer working on the redline

  3. Working faster and more productively without burning out yourself or your team

Most importantly, shifting gears means you can speed up the journey... and still enjoy the ride!


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