I’m pleased to present another chapter from my “More Human” book manuscript. It’s a personal memoir that traces the discovery and development of my More Human Leadership philosophy, a practice guided by 8 core principles. One of them is “Finding and Teaching More Human Leaders”, and this chapter is the story behind that bullet point – it’s how I made the transition from a “boss who managed” to a “leader who teaches and shows the way”. That transition was inspired by a big leadership fail, and a file of old papers in the back of a file cabinet…..
“What is past is prologue.”– William Shakespeare
It had now been two years since we acquired our cable properties in the Rocky Mountain states of Montana, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. I had already made 25 trips to the field from our home office in White Plains, New York, and was scheduling future trips that would put me in the Rockies at least once a month for the foreseeable future. I had met over 900 people that were on our team in the field, many of them three or four times. It was a lot of work , and I learned some things about myself and the kind of leader I wanted to be during that time.
I realized that staying connected with my team, in a way that went beyond memos, e-mails and conference calls, was vital to building the trust that was so needed in this company.
But try as I might, keeping meaningful personal connections with those 900 people (and that number was growing every day) wasn’t a sustainable strategy, and it nagged at me. Sure, I would keep traveling, and yes, I would keep connecting, but I knew the numbers (and the demands of the business) were working against me
The Leadership File And The Spreadsheet Assassin
These thoughts consumed me one afternoon as I was sitting in my office on a sunny summer day in New York. I had a precious few hours without phone calls or meetings to catch up on some paperwork. But I was kidding myself – there was really no “tidying” to do. I was looking for clues in my past to show me a way forward. So, instead of taking on the pile that was on my desk, that day I decided to tidy up some of my history files – files I had kept over the course of my career for one reason or another in the back of a file cabinet. I ended up pulling out an old manila file that had “leadership” hand-scribbled on the tab. It was a file I used over the years to keep memorabilia, news clips, key memos, and other notes that I thought might come in handy one day.
I found an old company newsletter from my first management job in 1987. In it was a picture of a fresh-faced, 28 year-old me, circa 1988, with an accompanying article trying to pitch a sales campaign. As I read my clumsy attempt to inspire I started thinking about those early days when I got my first real shot to lead.
I was doing was our first round of operational budgeting then, which happened just a few months after I was hired. We needed to hit a certain number, but when the field came back with their “bottom up” detail spreadsheets, we were well short of it.
I pressed the managers to find more dollars, and the pushback was clear – there wasn’t much more they could do, so they stood firm.
I had three choices at that moment – just submit the “short” budget to my boss and convince him that it was the best we could do, go back to the managers again and convince them we could do better, or just unilaterally make the necessary changes to the numbers and get them to match the wanted target, thus pleasing the boss.
The pressure I felt was massive – this was our first budget on my watch, and it just couldn’t be so woefully short. The fear of failure was strong, since I had never really experienced it before – it was a great unknown I didn’t want just a mere few months into my big new job.
So I went with the easiest option. I spent a whole night, by myself, making a bunch of wholesale changes to each of the operating budgets, until I hit the target number.
I then went to my boss, and declared victory, “hitting” the number. He was happy, albeit temporarily. Those numbers were never going to be hit.
Then, I sent the budgets back to the field, signed-off and finished. The calls came fast and furiously.
“We can’t do this! How could you do this without talking to us!”
I had to take a hard line position, to save face.
“Hey, you wouldn’t change it, and we HAVE to hit that number, so I did it”
I had become my boss’s personal spreadsheet assassin. A professionally trained slicer and dicer without much thought or feeling. It was a very bad way to start a productive relationship with the field. I didn’t have their backs – I was protecting my own.
The Value Of The Teacher
Now, as I sat at my desk in NY with that Newsletter in front of me, I found my first clue. Nobody really showed me the ropes before I jumped in. I was completely left to my own conception of what “leadership” was. And on top of that, I had a boss who essentially just told me what to do, with disastrous results when it came to my relationship with my teammates.
Quite painfully, I had experienced creating a feeling of distrust with those who worked for me. Not only did it not foster good work from them, it did not foster a good working relationship between us. And good working relationships were now starting to feel like the most important thing in the world to me.
“It would have been great to have a mentor and a teacher back then”, I thought.
As I shuffled a few more papers in the file, I gave more thought to that difficult time in my career, and my “on the job” learning.
Back then, the lessons came fast and furiously, because our managers were right – we never hit those budget numbers. It seemed like we were constantly scrambling for dollars and sales, so I spent a lot of time hunched over spreadsheets, or sitting in sales meetings concocting our next discount campaign.
I felt very disconnected from what was really going on “out there”. I had a sense that I could benefit from talking to as many field staff as I could, and seeing the communities where we were doing business, but that sense wasn’t strong enough for me to step up and find the nerve to convince my boss.
Finding A Leadership Voice From The Vice President’s Desk
I pulled another old company newsletter from the file and I remembered how these came about.
Back then I wasn’t traveling to the field. It wasn’t deemed to be “necessary”, even though we were scattered around 19 states. While I accepted that line of thinking at the time (as opposed to my current love of the road trip), I nevertheless wanted a way to personally communicate and connect with the field.
I decided to create a company newsletter. It wasn’t a high-gloss production by any means – I used one of our interns to gather stories and write the copy using a very basic publishing program. We looked for stories of good deeds and “above and beyond” actions. We posted birthdays and work anniversaries.
And, I wrote a column “From the Vice President’s Desk”. It was my opportunity to get my words in front of every employee (should they choose to read it). It was in those columns where I started to be a little more personal, a little looser, and not so buttoned down – a little less “manager”, and a little more “leader”.
When I sat down to type those columns, I got to think about message, and tone, and putting out a vision. I knew it wasn’t going to be a substitute for a real face to face connection, but I put a lot of energy into it, and as a result we were able to put a human face on the corporate office, and create a sense of community and commonality among the entire organization.
I paged through the old newsletter, and before I put it back in my “Leadership” file, I realized how important it was to me – of all the artifacts I could have kept, among ALL the memos and spreadsheets I produced during that time, these newsletters made the cut, and many many others did not.
I valued the human connections. I valued the people behind the work. And I wanted them to know that, even in this rudimentary way. That is, if they read it. That caveat then only reinforced my resolve to keep going out to the field now, so I could KNOW that a message was at least being heard and acknowledged.
My early lessons had made a big difference in how I had come to a more human understanding of leadership. But they were lessons learned the hard way, and that thought gave me my most important clue in moving forward.
If I was going to be a more human leader, I couldn’t let the other leaders on my team learn “the hard way”, like me. I needed to do more than connect with them. I needed to do more than manage them.
I needed to teach them. Now.
And I needed to ask them to please do things for me.
The Leadership Moment Of Truth And The 10 Battles That Leaders Must Win
There are some moments in your career that leave an indelible imprint – moments that end up defining WHO you are.
They are moments where you literally plant a flag and say “This is it! This is where I’m going!!”
And sometimes, you get to ask a brave follow up question, to those who have witnessed the moment.
“Will you follow me??”
What came out of that leadership file ended up in a little conference room in Billings, Montana a few weeks later.
There, at an annual budget meeting with the entire operations management group in attendance, I made an important decision.
I decided to NOT make my keynote talk a discussion of the numbers. (I was DONE with being a spreadsheet assassin.) I wanted to talk about leadership. It would be the first time I’d ever publicly articulate what “leading” meant to me, and try to teach what being a leader was all about.
It wasn’t without some back and forth discussions with my boss, who questioned the need to talk about leadership theory at a budget meeting. Nevertheless, my newfound relentlessness on the need to teach won out, and he relented.
I framed it that day as group of 10 leadership battles that leaders will constantly face, in any quest to be great.
And I chose my side of the battle, and asked the team to follow my lead.
These were the 10, and the way to “win” them:
- People vs. Process – It’s as simple as this: a process is only as good as the people executing it. Focus on the people first, and while you’re at it, make sure your charges truly understand the context and purpose behind the processes.
- Filtering vs. Push Down – Good leaders know that they need to function as a contextual “filter” for their team when directives and messages come from above. In trying times or in stressful situations, these messages can be harsh and while that’s something leaders should handle, oftentimes if it is just “pushed down” to the rank and file in the same manner, or worse yet, with a compounded harshness, the messages will be met with anxiety and fear – not exactly the emotions needed to execute well.
- Trust vs. Fear – Leading by instilling fear, while it can get things done in the short term, simply doesn’t work over the long haul. Building trust is the much better approach, although it takes a heck of a lot more effort. That’s why the “fear card” tends to stay in the deck even though we know it shouldn’t. Keep it at the bottom by always thinking of the Golden Rule as you go about your day – it will never lead you astray.
- Humility vs. Ego – It has to be about THEM, not YOU. It’s the knack of giving the credit to everybody else and blaming yourself. Channel all of that ambition towards your team, and watch it blossom.
- Will To Succeed vs. Hope to Survive – It’s all about tone and the words you use when it comes to inspiring your team to get results – one of the biggest distinctions you can make is how you speak and act about the challenges in front of you. Do you simply “hope” to succeed? Or do you project a quiet determination that clearly shows you will do whatever it takes to get the job done? As Sun Tzu said long ago in the Art of War, “An army destined for defeat fights in the hope of winning“.
- Empathy vs. Detachment – The “old school” of leadership used to warn us that it was a bad thing to get emotionally attached to our teammates and their welfare. That school is now closed. We have to understand what’s going on in their hearts and minds – the better to pinpoint and address performance issues, as well as properly match skills AND personalities to key responsibilities.
- Big Picture vs. Lost in the Details – A leader needs to frequently step back from the day-to-day details and paint the “big picture”-putting each teammate’s job in the context of the business, and its contribution to overall success. Teammates need to understand that what they do matters – once they see how they “fit”, they will more easily take ownership of what they do and how they do it. This makes a huge difference in the overall attitude and energy of the entire group.
- We vs. They – This may sound overly simplistic, but pronouns matter. If you use “I” or “they” (meaning your bosses) too much, your team will use “they” or “you” in return. This sets up a wall between management and the rank-and-file that is very, very hard to knock down. If you ever want everyone marching to the same drum, put “we” consistently in your vocabulary.
- Engagement vs. The Ivory Tower – It’s all too easy to stay behind a desk all day dealing with all the paper, phone calls, and e-mails. DON’T be held hostage in the Ivory Tower! Get out in the field – engage with your teammates, roll up your sleeves, talk to customers – especially if there’s distance between you and your actual operations. If you lose that vital contact with what’s “really going on out there“, your ability to make good decisions will be severely compromised.
- Leading vs. Managing – This is the big one- the ultimate battle. The easiest way to make the distinction is just open a dictionary and read the definitions of “manage” and “lead”. Which person do you want to be? Do you want to “direct and control“, or “show the way“? Once we realize that it’s much more effective to guide than to control, it really becomes no contest. We’ve won. Game over.
Once those battles were defined, and asked them to follow me, I posed one more question:
“It boils down to this – do you want to manage, or do you want to LEAD”?
I have to admit, at that point I couldn’t help thinking about that scene in the classic comedy Animal House, where the character played by John Belushi makes this long (and factually inaccurate) speech to fire up his fraternity brothers, and asks the question, “Who’s with me?”.
I wish I could tell you that the whole team stood up and yelled, at the top of their lungs, “we want to lead!”, and then charged out the door with me, like the fraternity charged behind Belushi. Only in Hollywood, I’m afraid.
It turned out to be just a seed I planted – one that wouldn’t bear fruit until a few years later. But it was an important start.
The stakes had to be defined. It was a huge win for me, and my leadership future.
Which side are you on?
Let’s be leaders.
Will you follow me?