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“Leadership” is a Conversation

by Rand Golletz

One of the things I was proudest of, as a senior corporate executive, was the degree to which people on every rung of every company for which I worked had personal access to me. That was never a burden because it was the source of my personal value proposition. If people needed to discuss a problem or issue, whether they reported directly to me or to someone four levels down (I hate the term “down,” but it describes reporting relationships in shorthand, so I’m using it here), they almost always felt comfortable using me as a resource. With accessibility comes responsibility, however.

Here’s a story from my former life as a corporate executive:

I had just been promoted. Previously, I had about 200 people reporting directly or indirectly to me. When I woke up on Monday morning, my new team numbered about 1200. I was livin’ large.

In every job I ever had, I made a point of scheduling about 5 total hours a week of one-on-one time with people in my organization(s) who didn’t report directly to me. I did that for a variety of reasons:

• To influence people’s thinking, particularly around bigger strategic issues. People need to understand how what they do fits into the whole and why that matters.

• To set a tone and an implicit expectation for people reporting directly to me: You need to know your people – their hopes, their fears, their motivations, their triggers.

• To enable me to peer into people’s brains and get a sense of the quality of their thinking.

• To establish rapport and trust.

With that level of openness and engagement, however, comes a high level of responsibility.

At the three-month mark of my then short tenure, I had already had initial one-on-one discussions with about 150 people. Those meetings generally began rather formally. Each person came to my office with a note pad as if he was eagerly anticipating sage words that had to be recorded. I went out of my way to begin these sessions by inquiring about each person’s life story to break the ice. It’s amazing how quickly barriers came down.

My discussion with one young lady remains a vivid memory to this day. She entered my office red-faced and shaking, which telegraphed her nervousness. Sharing her life story was not at the top of her agenda. I mentioned that she looked concerned or worried, and I got up and fetched a bottle of water for her. Almost immediately, tears started welling up in her eyes.

She launched. Using every example she could think of, she spent about 45 minutes citing the ways in which her boss was a jerk. She included vivid examples; it was overwhelming.

At the conclusion of her diatribe, I said the following: “So, you obviously have a problem, and if I allow you to leave now, we’ll both have your problem.”

She looked perplexed, and I continued: “You see, if you leave my office right now, you’re going to believe that because you shared this problem with me, I’m going to solve it for you. You’ll expect that I’m actually going to do something to make your problem go away. Now’s the time for you to tell me exactly WHAT you’d like me to do about your problem.”

I went to my credenza and got a box of Kleenex for her. The welling in her eyes had become tears on her cheeks.

“Well, I don’t know,” she said.

I stood up, walked over to the white board on my office wall and documented a list of alternatives that included:
• firing her boss;

• discussing the issue with her boss;

• etc.

She didn’t like any of my ideas. Great, because I had no intention of actually DOING any of the things on the list.

“So, here we are,” I continued. “I fear that you’ve inferred that I made a commitment because I listened to your complaint, and I’m the guy in charge. Yet, when I tried to outline some specific, alternative actions, you won’t empower me to act on your behalf. So, we’re left with two alternatives: Either you’re just whining, which I know you wouldn’t do because we’ve talked in the past as a group about the uselessness of whining, or YOU intend to do something about this, and you came to me for support. I’m assuming that the latter is the case, and that you intend to take the reigns of this yourself and solve your own problem. Is that right?”

She replied timidly, “Well, yes.”

“Great! So here’s what I’m going to do to support your bravery. Every Monday morning, I’m going to call you to see if you’ve actually had a discussion with Frank (not his real name). This problem is between the two of you, and you need to solve it. I’m going to be pretty relentless, so be forewarned: Hearing from me weekly will be a lot more of a pain to you than actually having the discussion you need to have with your boss. OK, I think we’re done here.”

She shook my hand and left my office. I was certain that she was thinking: “Yeah, right, he’s going to call me every week!”

I did. For five Mondays in a row, I called her to remind her of her commitment. Each time, she said she’d do something; each time she didn’t, until week six.

I got a call from her. She sounded excited and asked if she could come to my office and discuss the matter. I said, “fine,” and she arrived a few minutes later with a HUGE, smug smile on her face. “Well, Frank and I had the discussion,” she said.

“Great! What happened?”

“Well, he was completely clueless. He had NO idea I had a problem with him. Anyway, it was an emotional exchange; I could’ve done better, but we agreed to get together again after I collect and compose myself.”

I helped her brainstorm an approach. To this day, I have no idea if she used it. Her relationship with Frank improved to the point of it being productive, but never wonderful.

Word of this conversation spread throughout the company. Presumably, this young woman told one person; that person shared it with someone else, etc. The reputation that I developed as a leader because of this incident carried me through many tough times. As a result, people gave me the benefit of the doubt when even I wasn’t always sure they should.

Some critical lessons for you as a leader:

• People will find out about your interactions, even the private ones. Make them count!

• In an effort to appear to be in charge, many leaders solve problems for people instead of helping people to solve their own. Being the big kahuna does not mean being the causer of all action and the decider of all decisions. Your job is to enable people to function at a high level, independently and interdependently, but not dependently.

• Many leaders react to the last interaction they’ve had. Someone complains; they must do something. Don’t be one of those. You’ll create organizational schizophrenia.

• You MUST plan your conversations. Casual conversations can become casualties. The words you choose, your body language, your tone will all be interpreted by people whose worldviews, perspectives, beliefs and experiences are different than yours. You must test for common understanding; you must make sure that what you’re saying is what other people are actually hearing. I recently heard a CEO deliver a presentation to an “all-employee” meeting. At one juncture, to make a valid point, he said, “We’re not here to make friends.” His intention was to convey the notion that everyone needed to focus on the tasks at hand in order for the business to be successful. What people heard was, business and friendship are mutually exclusive (or maybe even contradictory) – bad news for his credibility.

When planning the nature and level of your own engagement with people, ask yourself the following questions:

• What do I want the other person/people to get out of this?

• What outcome will serve my needs as well?

• What outcome will preserve/advance the quality of my relationship with this person/these people?

• What result will better enable this person/these people to make an enthusiastic and relevant contribution to our company?

Notice that I did NOT list as one of the questions: What outcome will demonstrate clearly that I’m in charge?

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