Who’s In Charge Anyways?

I used to race weekly on a 30 foot sailboat many years ago while living in California. I remember the first time I raced in the cold waters of San Francisco Bay, with the winds so high that I could not walk in a straight line as I headed to the marina. That first race was incredibly exhilarating and I learned more about sailing during those years than I ever did pleasure sailing. However what I learned the most was about people and their behaviours while under stress.

I was fortunate enough to be a crew member on a boat that embraced being a supportive team. We were not a team that wanted to cross the finish line first each week. Instead we were a team that enjoyed the ride. There were more than a few times where we had a lousy start and made a quick consensual decision to turn the boat around and sail in the opposite direction of the fleet with the music blaring, snacks and fishing poles not far behind.

It was a team that not only enjoyed being out on the water but we learned how to optimize our collective skills. We all had strengths to contribute and the skipper who owned the boat knew it. The only time voices were raised was when we were about to hit another boat…or an innocent sea lion. When we made mistakes, which we all did, we figured out what went wrong together instead of just focusing on just one crew member’s actions. Then we discussed how we could improve the next time which allowed the entire team to reconnect as humans who make mistakes and move forward.

When I was earning my degree in Health Services Management, way back before the internet was available, we studied the classic and timeless Harvard Business Review article written by William Oncken, Jr and Donald L. Wass called “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” It was originally published in 1974 and reprinted in 1999. This article always resonated with me and discussed how well we use our time and skills within the business world. My favourite quote from this article is “Most managers spend much more time dealing with subordinates’ problems than they even faintly realize.” Some may call this micromanaging or others may even call it being controlling.

Since I now have the luxury of searching online where this analogy came from, I was surprised to learn the history of the phrase. Some believe it originally referred to a “monkey on your roof” which was the burden of carrying a mortgage. The roof changed to a back sometime in the 1940s and referenced removing oneself from drug abuse. Either way, it means you are unable to easily shake something off to move forward with your life.

The journey we are all on, whether we are racing a sailboat or working within a large corporation, is completely and absolutely unpredictable. Trying to control it only makes for a long and sometimes painful ride. And along that way there will be lots of mischievous monkeys trying to catch a free ride. It is an astute leader to identify the most skilled person for transferring responsibility and give them the confidence to proceed with next steps on their own. Then happily hand them the monkey’s leash.

Whether on a sailboat or in a board room, is a leader really in charge of everything? No. Does the leader need to be involved in every tiny little decision? No. Embrace everyone and the contributions they bring with their talents, gifts and skills. There may be those who can strategize the next step just by closing their eyes and feeling the wind on their cheek. There may be others who may be inclined towards logistics and can already picture the boat crossing the finish line exactly one metre away from the committee boat. There are others who may be so intuitive they can sense when the boom is about to hit someone’s head and quickly alert them before it happens. Trust that the monkey is on the right back and being fed and cared for adequately.

As a project manager I could plan my teams so tightly that we all end up in a dark closet and never find our way out to the light of a beautiful day. The analogy of a monkey on your back is about removing that which burdens you, and allows the monkey to gracefully land on another team member that can do the job. Then simply trust in that person and their abilities. That is teamwork and that is collaboration. And remember thatsometimes the most invisible have the most knowledge to share, and they could change the outcome with their words in a short instant.

Do you feed your monkey well, and then choose the best skilled person to take over their care? Or do you just keep accumulating an entire monkey pack on your back? I would love to hear how this resonates within your business practice.