We’re one month into 2013 and I’m wondering how all those New Year’s resolutions are coming along. You know – more trips to the gym, more time with friends and family, fewer carbs, fewer hours watching ESPN, Homeland and The Bachelor. In short, less intake, more out-put. As we all work to improve our quality of life, blatantly absent from most resolution lists is this: Become more aware of how we impact others, respond to situations and deal with surprises in the new year.
Three months ago I began working with a new client in the Bay Area. She’s a technical wizard running a department of emerging technical wizards, yet things have been going south lately. Her department is in turmoil – people are feuding, turnover is high, and there is rumor of work-place litigation on the horizon. While her department produces quality work and is well-regarded by the company overall, she was unaware that its “internal state” had eroded. Once reality hit, she wasn’t sure what to do next.
Despite numerous years in a high-visibility leadership role, she had never really gone through any kind of a serious leadership development process: no multi-rater feedback from her peers; no personality profiles to identify how she operates in the world; no consideration of her leadership style; and no executive coaching. There was nothing to help her understand the impact she had on others and the tone she set as a leader. She was, after all, a technical wizard so this leadership stuff just never came up – until now.
After collecting and reviewing various types of data from her and her department, a clear picture emerged. As the department head she was respected professionally but was often perceived to be aloof, unapproachable, sometimes autocratic and, frankly, checked-out from day-to-day operations. When she wasn’t in meetings she spent most of her time locked in her office doing important technical wizardry on her computer. Nor was she much interested in team member input when it came to decisions that affected their own work projects. During one of our telephone conversations she said to me regarding her department: “This is not a democracy.” I paused for a moment to let her words sink in. While I get the spirit of her comment, and even the realities of a leader who knows where the buck must stop, she was missing the point in a big way.
Research tells us weaknesses are often the result of strengths overplayed. In her case, her technical wizardry had come at the expense of any time or attention devoted to learning how she – she the person, she the leader – was affecting her team. Nor did she give much thought to how her behavior impacted the people she led. The result was that her people felt disconnected from their work and not appreciated or recognized by their boss. They felt they were not being developed professionally and were often left to fend for themselves in a high-pressure setting. Consequently, they began to generate their own assumptions about what motivated her, about why she was the way she was and what that meant for them. All of this created “weather” within the department – an environment where trust was being undermined, factions were taking hold, conflicts were not being addressed, operations were slipping, and no one seemed to be leading – least of all her.
Which brings us back to her statement, This is not a democracy. We all carry assumptions in our heads about “what is what.” In this case, she apparently thought her role as a leader gave her a green light to simply dictate her wishes and wisdom, without consequence. Was it her intention to be a dictator? Not really. She thought she would work more efficiently and productively by continuing to operate as if: I’m in charge, just do what you’re told, and all will be well. She assumed her position conveyed certain rights that come from being near the top of the work-place food chain. And since her temperament (analytical, cerebral, logical) and her style (get-it-done, black and white, zero-sum) were perfect for the “wizardry” part of her job, she never got the memo on the “people” part of the job. Thus when a crisis erupted, she didn’t have the emotional capital – the goodwill – from her people, nor did they give her the benefit of the doubt in a pinch. In fact, she didn’t know emotional capital from capital gains – until she realized she didn’t have it.
The good news is she didn’t dismiss the feedback and realizes she needs to change her mindset. Further good news is that she wants to change. She’s still a technical wizard, but now she’s opening doors she never knew existed, and she’s expanding her leadership repertoire. Lucky for her, she’s a quick study. Above all, she now knows herself better than she did last year, and is working to change how she responds to situations, interacts with others and leads her department. In short, she is starting to discover her mojo – the magic that reflects our uniqueness and the spark that motivates us all. This is a big first step, one of many more to come on her road to becoming a real leader – one who truly inspires trust and confidence. Our technical wizard is beginning to understand what George Bernard Shaw told us many years ago, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”