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Engineering Vacuums

| James Riley |

When I first started my career, I ran into a problem as the organizations I worked for were content to keep me in a specific position indefinitely. I sought out my managers to find out how I could build a career path but was met with blank stares. I wasn’t content with this setup so I began looking around for what I call vacuums, places where there was a need and an absence of appropriate skills to fill that need.

As an example, I realized that the IT space was being served by a bunch of geeks (I am one too) that lacked even fundamental business knowledge. This led me to learn more about how businesses operate and what drives them. That pursuit helped me properly understand that the purpose of technology in a business is to serve the business and its purposes. This drives the core of our purpose at JNR Networks as we work with our clients to understand their business needs first. Only then, can we actually understand and implement their technology needs. This knowledge and perspective made me stand out to employers as I was able to see a bigger picture. Ok, enough of a sales pitch about what we do…this blog post is really more about leadership.

As I write this blog post, I am in an airplane, flying over the Atlantic, headed to a week-long off-grid strategic planning get-away. We started these several years ago with two purposes. The most obvious one is that it is beneficial to get away from the daily work and focus on strategy. The second reason might be a little less obvious…it is to create a vacuum.

As we grew as an organization, I worked to mentor our team in order to teach them to take over more and more areas of our business operations. While we had and have a great team, this effort was met with quite a bit of frustration as, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get team members to step up and take the lead on the things I was training them on.

Trying to understand the issue, I sought counsel and backed up to get a better perspective on the problem. The quote that sums much of this up is that the bottle neck is always at the top. You can look at this statement from a number of different angles and they all apply here…I was the problem. From this, I went back to my team made sure to cast a vision, asked them what problems they saw and asked them how I could better empower them. This helped a little but we made very little progress and we were all still frustrated.

While we were still trying to figure this out, we were planning a family vacation that would take us all the way into the backwoods of Canada, with little to no cell service. As I discussed this with our team, they all jumped onboard, saying that they knew I needed a break and they made it a matter of personal pride to make sure they were prepared to handle things while I was gone, with minimal interruption.

I’d love to say that there were no problems whatsoever and it worked perfectly but there were problems. Our team did an amazing job handling those problems and worked to make wise choices. Most of the choices were spot on and a few missed the mark. It’d be easy to say that the whole thing was a failure but the outcome was just the opposite. As a team, we were able to assess the things that came up, the decision making processes used, where they were sound and where they needed improvement. Another amazing thing happened as I came back. Many of the areas that our team had taken over in my absence, areas I’d struggled to get them to step up in previously, never came back onto my shoulders…the team continued to lead in those areas.

Looking back on this, we realized that, no matter how much my team was trained and how much I tried to empower the team, it was just too easy for the team and I to just revert to the way things had always been. When I became unavailable, a vacuum was created. When that happened, our team, well trained and entirely competent, stepped up and filled the vacuum.

Over the years, we have employed this strategy as I get away once or twice per year to perform strategic planning and we plan for my absence so the team can take what they’ve been learning and apply it in my absence.

As both my team and I grow, we are finding that we can transition many responsibilities without as drastic of vacuums but there is still the reality that a transition requires one person to vacate the position so the other can fill it. We also find that, when we properly plan for them, vacuums also are an amazing catalyst that can give opportunities for people to step up when they might not otherwise.