I love summer barbecues. There’s nothing like getting together with friends and family over food. The best barbecues I’ve been to are pot-lucks, where everyone brings something to share and you leave with a new recipe you can’t wait to try.
A barbecue also makes a good metaphor to discribe the levels of contribution someone is able to make. There are three basic categories of things that someone can bring to a barbecue.
- Meat. A barbecue is about meat. Burgers, brats, hot dogs, chicken wings, brisket, pulled pork, you name it. You can’t have the barbeque without the meat.
- Sides. When I’m looking forward to a barbecue, the meat is good—don’t get me wrong—but I’m looking forward to the sides. Potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans, corn on the cob, bicuits, chips, watermelon… good stuff. If any given side isn’t there, you might miss it, but you’ll manage.
- Condiments. Crisp lettuce leaves, sliced tomatoes, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, dill pickle chips… They’re nice to have. They absolutely add to the experience, but it’s likely no one will notice if they’re not there.
Whoever is bringing the meat needs to be reliable. The person bringing a side dish has a proven track record, but there’s a chance they won’t come through. And the person assigned to bring condiments? They’re learning. They’re developing the skill of making and keeping a commitment.
Some people are comfortable and capable of doing whatever you need them to do. Point them at a cow and they can kill it, dress it, carve it, throw it on the grill, and hand you steaks, 8 oz slices of medium-well perfection.
Nobody starts there. That’s a skill that is developed. It takes time to learn and opportunities to practice. Most people haven’t had the chance to grow like that yet. They may only know how to prepare a side or show up with a condiment. Sometimes, just showing up is a step outside of their comfort zone.
As a leader, your job is to make sure everyone brings what they can to the table, not just today, but tomorrow. It’s easy to lean on the same, capable people who have proven themselves in battle time and time again. This has downsides.
First, you risk burnout. What do you think will happen to the people whom you ask to bring meat time after time? They can handle it, but it still takes a toll. They need a chance to field the easy jobs, too.
This is all the more important when you’re relying on informal influence rather than positional authority to assign responsibilities.
Second, you’re going to limit variety. We like to optimize. Give the same people the same assignment, and pretty soon, they will settle into the same dishes. We know what works. Everyone loves it when Sandy from the house on the corner brings her Aunt Mabel’s pecan pie, but have you tried her ribs? She needs a chance to bring those to the table, too.
Third, you’re sacrificing long-term wins for short-term ease. It’s hard to teach, train, and develop a Condiment Person into a Side Dish Person. You have to be more detailed in your instructions, show them the ropes, and guide them through the process until they become self-sufficient. It’s so much easier to just make an assignment to someone in the Meat level who can take it off your plate entirely and get the job done!
But what happens in the long term? The Meat-level people eventually leave. They accept new positions. They retire. They go on vacation. They get sick. They—gasp!—say no. Where will you be then?
Why not have someone at the Meat level take someone from the Side Dish or Condiment level under their wing and show them the ropes for you? You start to cultivate and nurture the Condiment-level person, you create a leadership/mentorship opportunity for the Meat-level person, and you start to lead at a higher level. Win-win-win.
Finally, you aren’t creating opportunities for people to grow. Growth is important for all of us. When we’re at the Condiment level, we want to contribute more value. We may not know how to level up, and it’s scary. If we never get the chance to grow, we’re not going to feel satisfied.
Here’s the million-dollar question: what are you bringing to the barbecue? Are you someone your friends can count on to come through with the meat? Or do you have a history of making commitments that you don’t keep?
Build others’ trust in you by making commitments and working feverishly to fulfill them. Underpromise and overdeliver. Every single time. As a leader, extend opportunities for others to serve, no matter what their current level of contribution is. Mentor them and help them grow.