Leadership and the Art of Pruning


My Mother is an avid gardener. Even in a small place around our house she plants all sorts of things, flowers, veggies, etc. There are seasonal plants and then there are perennial plants that have been in the garden forever. These perennial plants typically are the ones that grow tall and wide. I have always loved the way they make their presence felt in the garden, providing shadow in the summer and breaking winds during the storms. One of the things that I hated was my Mother cutting these trees. And by cutting I don’t mean from the roots but just pruning them.

Recently I decided to strongly register my protest with her regarding her tree pruning activity. It was at that time she explained to me the criticality of tree pruning. After listening to her about the reasons and process of tree pruning, I couldn’t but help think about organizations and the importance of pruning from a leadership perspective.

[box type=”shadow” ]Like gardener, a leader must learn and practice the art and science of pruning talent and associated responsibilities in his organization.[/box]

Pruning of talent and responsibilities can be done in many ways. But before the process can begin, there are a couple of things that Leader needs to take into account:

  1. Goal and reason behind pruning
  2. Using the right pruning tools
  3. Pruning timing

Cutting the Topiary

Let’s examine some of the pruning opportunities that typically show up every organization. This information should provide you with some basic directional knowledge about organizational talent and responsibilities pruning.


1. The Floaters:

These are employees who have been in the organization for a while and have tried their hands on different roles and associated activities. Their role seems to change every 6 months to a year, in some cases moving from one team to another.

Unless as leader you have a hand it these changes, this is a tell-tell sign of an area where pruning is needed. It’s best to have a heart to heart conversation in such situation with employee to find out the appropriate solution.

2. The Over Shadowers:

These are the employees who dwarf everyone with their presence in the team, in a negative manner. It is always good to have mentors who are the guiding post in the teams. But as Leader, your responsibility is to ensure those same people don’t start over shadowing junior less experienced team members.

The symptoms of over shadowing are very clearly seen, for example:

  • Same team member name appears everywhere (typically when things are going good).
  • There are not enough good ideas / innovations coming from the team
  • When team start losing its diversity, especially in problem solving and operations.

As a leader you should keep getting exposed to various members from different teams. This will help you in getting better understanding of ground reality and cut through the political and bureaucratic mess.

3. The ‘Single-Point-of-Failure’ Experts (aka bottlenecks):

Everyone loves to be the expert on a particular topic / product functionality / technology as part of their team. It’s good to have experts – the ‘Go to Guys’. Having them helps team stay ahead of the curve and reduce the time it takes to solve the problems.

But if you keep hearing that there are projects are getting delayed due the fact that your ‘Go to Guy’ has become the bottle-neck or the critical issues is not solved because your ‘Go to Guy’ is out of office, then it time to think of pruning.

In a case like this, pruning can be done be cross training others on various topics or creating responsibilities sharing with your ‘Go to Guy’, etc.

4. The self-proclaimed Gatekeepers:

These are a one of the most interesting types of people in the organization. These people almost always show up as long poles when postmortem is preformed on projects that have gone south.

They typically show up last minute proclaim their stake on the approval process for the project to move ahead. It’s OK for such situations to arise once in a while, but if the occurrence is frequent then as leader you need to address this situation by fixing the process or people or both.

If not addressed in a timely manner this can cause teams to feel demoralized and pull down team productivity and output speed.

5. The Life-Timers:

These are employees who have been in same role for a very long time. More often than not they have been performing the same job function over a period of time and most of the time they are very good at performing their job duties.

As a leader, you have to be concerned when same type of problems keep coming and are being solved by the same set of people in the same manner. Irrespective of business impact that these business problems have, it is critical to examine if such pruning opportunities can be fixed by more experienced employees or employees from different business background or by training the life-timers.

[box type=”note” ]This talent and responsibilities pruning is an extremely critical and ongoing process for a leader at any level in the organization. As the organizations grow and organizations age, the impacts of ignoring pruning issues can get more chronic.[/box]

The top leadership should take time and effort to ensure the other leaders in the organization have tools at their disposal to identify pruning opportunities and address those opportunities in the timely manner.

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