Managing Our Biggest Workplace Threat: Fear

Managing Our Biggest Workplace Threat: Fear

What are you so afraid of?

We were probably all asked that question right before our first leap from the diving board at our neighborhood pool when we were 6. Maybe someone lobbed that query your way when you didn’t want to join the group for a rip roaring good time on the fastest roller coaster in the park. You know, the one that goes backwards?! And, oh, don’t get me started on spiders….

Here’s the problem - we’re all grown up now and yet, sometimes, we still feel afraid. What’s more, we often feel those pangs of fear in our work environments. Why? Where do our professional fears originate? What should we do about them? Are the fears and anxieties you feel in the workplace normal? How do we understand our fears so that they drive and refine us versus inhibit and define us?

Know Yourself

First, take a moment as you read this and be honest with yourself. If you’re skilled at self-knowledge and comfortable being inquisitive of your own thought patterns, you’re probably comfortable admitting that you, too, have felt fearful in the workplace while doing what you do for an occupation. If you’re less comfortable looking inside the deepest depths of your own psyche, I want to challenge you, stop and admit it. You’ve been fearful, pensive, anxious or worried at some point in your professional life. We all have. For any of us who care about doing good work and contributing in our roles, performance anxiety is completely natural. We should care. We have enormous responsiblities and accountability for results and people. If we weren’t anxious about the gravity of those realities every now and then, there would be something wrong. Acknowledging our fear is one of the early steps in us mastering it so that we can understand how the gravitational pull of fear impacts our working lives.

Categorizing Fear

After acknowledging the realities of our fears and concerns, we next need to build a framework to understand them. Is our fear rational or irrational? Is it personal or organizational, meaning is it internal or external? Is our fear actionable or merely a data point or early warning system we must monitor and periodically assess?

For me, the first step I take in trying to understand if a fear is ‘real’ or rational is to jump forward in time and imagine that fear realized. I play the worst case scenario gambit in my mind. If the giant man-eating spiders that are capable of injecting me with neurotoxin and making me their paralyzed food store aren’t really amassing around me, I can probably settle down and not worry about them. That’s an irrational fear. Conversely, work-based fears, concerns or causes for anxiety might be more important for me to engage with. Imagining the worst case related to those fears helps me prepare for or prevent those conditions from coming to pass. This process of analyzing the origin for disease is important as a quick threat assessment because managing our energy is critical. As leaders we are constantly playing out scenarios and executing our plans. I can’t afford to spend energy on low ROI tasks, so, eliminating non-critical items is vital. Is a key member of my team underperforming, presenting a risk that will impact my business? Is my coaching adequate and am I serving my direct reports to the best of my ability or am I failing them? Are market conditions changing which show a trend of decreasing comps or revenue?These are examples of data points that relate to logical reasons for us to have concerns for our future performance and our concern for those we lead. It would be inadvisable for us to ignore those leading indicators and, as such, this kind of info can create a healthy fear or concern that we should listen to.

Putting fear/anxiety/concern into its proper place means asking questions about the scope of that concern as well. We need to dig deeper to understand how broadly that concern is being felt. Is our fear based on personal insecurity? Are we concerned about losing our job or role because our performance is not what it should be? Is the fear a market or sector wide issue that impacts not just us, but our team, our firm and the industry as a whole? The scope of just these three examples varies wildly and understanding the breadth and depth of your concern is important if you are to manage your fear.

The Big Fear

In the workplace, one of the most common specters we all grapple with is a fear of failure. We may miss our year… We could botch that project... The new territory opening depends on us and we could make a mess of it... This role I’ve worked for is mine now, what if I fail? Sure, those things could happen, and, we could be also wildly successful with all of them. While, it’s completely natural that we have anxiety about the worst happening, we need to give ourselves the chance to imagine the best happening as well. One could argue visionaries like Elon Musk and Oprah Winfrey created imaginings of their success which were more powerful than the fear of their failures. Hence, they’ve succeeded, and become role models of the power of mission, vision and purpose. Leaders like these and many others remind us that some fear exists only in the mind. Controlling it or overpowering it with our will to succeed or a vivid vision of our goal can be the key to powering through those feelings of doubt and worry. In this way we can use fear as a pole vaulter uses their tool to carry them up and over the obstacle before them.

For those of us who have been around a few blocks and seen a lot of things, our fears may be hard to acknowledge to ourselves because we believe we are supposed to have all the answers and be the steadfast captains of our industry. But coming to terms with our own fear is the first step to understanding how it can cripple us and taking action so that it doesn’t.

Yoda Was Right  

Now, stay with me, I am going to make some of us uncomfortable.

You’re insecure.

Before you agree or argue with that declaration, follow me a bit longer. The most charismatic people I have ever met, imbued with confidence and leadership gravitas are, somewhere deep inside, just a little (or a lot) insecure. It’s part of being human. We have ego, super ego, millions of years of social conditioning, defense mechanisms, tendencies, you name it. In fact, at your next meeting, sit quietly and watch those around you - and yourself - and try and pick out the actions of those around you that can be directly tied to insecurity and masking their internal dialogue. How do they stand? What is their eye contact? Are they repeatedly tugging on their coat tails or sleeves to keep that jacket fitted correctly? Do they have a verbalization or a laugh or something they do which is a tic? How do they mingle and small talk, or, do they simply remain off to one side of the group? There are thousands of social and group dynamic affectations we all fall into, with many of them being veneers we use to hide our insecurities. Not one of us should ever feel alone or ‘broken’ because we feel these emotions. These feelings are a natural part of being human. It’s vital that we understand these emotions will come and go and we should never allow them to amass the power to begin telling our story for us (or stories to us.)

But, why? Why do I need to understand fear which is based in feelings of insecurity or inferiority? Well, that great business coach Yoda was right when he told his young Jedi learner that ‘Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.' Yoda’s philosophies, not coincidently, resemble those of Buddhist or Taoist teachings and this lesson is a strong one for us to understand. Fear, particularly those fears based on places deep inside us where we feel vulnerable, can manifest in things like spite, jealously, anger and other negative emotions. I have seen entire company cultures destroyed by fear-driven venom just because leaders could not come to terms with their own vulnerability and learn to harness their fears versus allowing those anxieties to poison them. Don’t do it. Feel your emotions, understand them, seek to counter them with reasons to feel strong and confident. Don’t allow your fear to be weaponized.

So, after you’ve faced your fear, categorized it and assured yourself that you are normal, what should be our end game when seeking to keep our fear in check, and indeed, leverage it?

Make Your Fear A Tool

Ever have a warning light in your car flash at you and alert you to a condition you needed to address? How about a pain that caused you to take action and address a health issue? Warnings, while not to be celebrated, are a good thing. We need to be alerted to threats and our fears, some of them hardwired into us since the dawn of humankind, serve as necessary warnings to keep us safe and out of danger. 

In our professional setting, these fear-initiated warnings have a little different purpose than in daily life. Our fight or flight fear is designed to keep us safe. But, in our roles, we are driven and expected to achieve, to cross new boundaries. Stasis and safety are not the goal, growth is. The benefit to leveraging the natural fear we feel is all about living on the edge. If we manage our careers and daily performance in our roles firmly within the ‘green zone’ of our danger gauge in order to eliminate the need to ever feel anxiety, we’re not likely to grow. Growth and breakthroughs happen when we take risk and move outside our comfort zone.   

I’m a lifelong car nut and I occasionally take a dedicated track car to various high speed venues as part of my love of learning to drive competitively and to master high speed car control. I’m certainly not racing wheel to wheel or winning any Grand Prix events, but I love it and there is always a healthy amount of fear whenever I circle a track. While working with an in-car instructor on one of my track events, I asked him about knowing the limits of the track we were on that day and how I should push myself to reach new limits as a driver. Specifically, I asked about losing control and coming off the track, a possibility when doing 130 mph at a racing circuit and one that often comes with a warning to settle it down (or worse) from track officials. How do I drive as fast as I can without ever risking coming off the track and being seen as a hooligan who can’t be allowed to remain at the circuit? My instructor’s answer was simple: you can’t. Had he ever lost control of his car and come of the track, I asked. Sure, a few times. His guidance to me - how can you know your limit unless you surpass it? If fear restrains you to such a degree that you never cross the line of what your are capable of today, how can you be capable of more tomorrow? His guidance was skill-focused as he provided instruction to me that day while also helping contextualize the mindset one has to have to realize fear should be there to guide us, not limit us.

As one of my favorite musicians, Peter Gabriel, says in a brilliant song about fear called ‘Darkness’, ‘I have my fears, but they do not have me.’

Leaders Are People Of Action

When it all comes down to it, why does all of this matter? It matters because as leaders we must achieve results. We are in our roles to deliver value and growth for our organizations. There is risk in all of our businesses, and understanding those risks is a key part of understanding how we grow by venturing into uncharted territory while never allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by the threats all around us. Analysis paralysis and other fear-based work disfunctions are products of allowing fear to have too big a hold on our work personas.

Sometimes we have to tell those internal voices of warning and caution to shut up and boldly go where we have not gone before. 2018 was a year of such moves for me and, yes, there were moments I was afraid. But I also did things that inspired and fulfilled me and doing them would not have been possible if I had stayed ‘safe.’

I often return to one of my favorite quotes that serves as a reminder of how I want to live. It actually has a lot to do with countering fear. Attributed to many writers, it’s most often thought to come from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

 “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it; Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Take action today despite your fear. Be bold. Be creative. Be brave. Don’t try to be fearless because that notion is foolish and unrealistic. Come to terms with your fear, look it in the eyes and tell it, ‘I see you, and I’m going to accomplish what I came here to do anyway.’

Finally, if you lead a work culture, take action to create the kind of environment where your teams can take chances, face fears and drive their race cars off the track once in a while without fear of reprisal. That is the only way they will ever achieve their true top speeds.

Photo by Leio McLaren (@leiomclaren) on Unsplas

How To Build Stronger Teams Through Talent Curation

How To Build Stronger Teams Through Talent Curation

Do you collect things? Have a deep enthusiasm for a certain pastime and memorabilia from that pursuit has gathered around you over the years? For serious collectors, finding that next rare or sought-after addition to your trove can be inspiring and habit-forming. Just as important as that next addition, great collectors would tell us, is deciding what will remain in our assemblage. Very skilled collectors take this discernment to the next level and transcend just gathering stuff by becoming curators. Like a gardener pruning for the best spring bloom, curators are often practitioners of addition by subtraction. For paintings and sculpture, vintage automobiles or simple stamps, curating a collection means everything that gets included must earn a spot and everything that stays in must do the same.

As leaders, when we build teams, this skill of curation is no less important. How do we decide which talents to add to our teams? How will certain professionals bring something new to our group? How can we grow the individuals on our teams to be more capable tomorrow than today while also making the difficult choice to let someone from our group go on to their next assignment and perhaps benefit someone else’s collection? We are not line-managers, bosses, department heads or senior executives. We are curators of talent and the strength of our teams will be a direct reflection of how well we make choices to refine, grow and strengthen those in our charge.

Head And Heart Are Not Mutually Exclusive

We’ve heard all manner of phrases and quotes about what it means to hire for attitude not skillset. The truth, as we all know, is that both matter. I have had incredibly willing and enthusiastic leaders working for me and their lack of skill or capability seriously inhibited their success. Conversely, the most competent people in the world can debilitate a team or culture if their attitude is abrasive. Each of us has conducted interviews during which we try to get a sense of a professional’s ability, experience, learning agility and so on. I would submit that many of these aspects are table stakes. Capability can variously be tested and verified. Verification of attitude is often a reference call away. More elusive is our assurance that the professional we seek to add to our collection of talent can think and feel simultaneously. What do I mean?

I want leaders on my team who understand not just what to do next but also realize how that action will be felt by those downrange from it. As valid as business dynamic questions like, ‘How will our numbers change?’ or ‘How will our strategy be impacted?’ are, equally important are questions like, ‘How will my team respond to this change?’ and ‘What fears, concerns, skill gaps does this leader in my group have which I need to address before we do this ?’.

Decisions, action plans and growth strategies don’t get executed in a vacuum, people must enable them and people are impacted (positively and negatively) by them. When I act on curating my teams, I want to know I have leaders who can execute, solve, grow and fix while also recognizing that humans are emotional beings and their hearts matter as much as their heads. Why, you ask?

Leadership Is Influence

Even in very command and control kinds of work cultures, the most effective teams are made up of professionals who willingly choose to follow their leaders. While it may be possible to get things done simply by directing your team to do X or Y or Z, it is much more effective for our team members to choose to take on our next challenge independently, even enthusiastically. How do we inspire this willingness? Much of the responsibility for creating this kind of culture lies with us, as I have discussed in previous writings. But, once we have done so, it is imperative that we have curated a team full of the kind of leaders who care about our mission. These leaders must have the emotional intelligence which enables them to care about where we are going as well as understand what happens if we don’t get there.

Euphemisms like ‘carrot and stick’, when used to discuss how we motivate teams, are insulting and inadequate. The sorts of professionals I want to select for my collection have their heads aligned to seek personal reward for their work and recognize outcomes if they do not perform, while also having their hearts tuned to a larger purpose. The way in which their personal motivations align with our purpose is the key I need to understand as their leader. It is through this personal motivation that I can influence them. Simon Sinek would call it the ‘why’. For us as leaders of people, these motivations are the accelerator in the high performance car which is our team member. We can use our understanding of how to drive motivation as a way to push the pedal and achieve new speeds with this vehicle. Understanding how to unlock a person’s ‘why’, their motivation, is far more beneficial (and complex) then just dangling a carrot or waving a stick. Leadership isn’t binary and when you are curating your team, you should not choose people who are.

Curating Means ‘Killing Our Darlings’

William Goldman is and will always be my favorite writer of all time. As a novelist and non-fiction writer, he was incredibly skilled and varied in his work. As a multiple Oscar-winning screenwriter, he was the single largest source of inspiration for me with films like “Princess Bride”, “All The President’s Men”, “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” and so many more. When he died in late 2018, I mourned his passing by thinking back on his life of work.

In his brilliant book “Adventures In The Screen Trade”, Goldman discusses all manner of lessons and guidance for writers and professionals of all types. As a veteran of the rough and tumble movie industry, Goldman discusses the need to sometimes ‘kill his darlings’ when it came to his scripts. In practical terms, this phrase came to mean that Goldman was pragmatic enough to realize that not everything he wrote would work in every film. There were studio heads, directors, stars, budgets and other forces which each ultimately had a hand in determining what would make it into the final film we all saw on our movie screens. Goldman knew that even his favorite scenes, characters or ideas - his darlings - sometimes had to be sacrificed for the benefit of the whole film. That’s a difficult, and wise, choice for any creative. But that’s why William Goldman was a curator, not just a collector. Addition by subtraction.

When we build teams, we sometimes need to ask ourselves if we have ‘darlings’ and address them. To be clear, I am not saying ‘fire anyone who doesn’t fit’. But, we have to be at least as pragmatic as a Hollywood writer and realize we aren’t just writing a script - or in our case, assembling a team. We are working for a larger purpose. The success of our company, the smooth completion of an acquisition, the achievement of our year end targets. We need to constantly challenge ourselves to ensure that everyone on our team is adding to the achievement of these goals, and if not, ask what should change? Perhaps the painting is lovely but would it work more effectively in another section of the gallery? Maybe this favorite sculpture used to fit among our other work but now it’s time to offer it up to another museum and try something else in its place?

Curating and addressing our darlings doesn’t mean we don’t still love those people or recognize their beauty or skills. But we are assembling a collection of talents that enables us to continue to perform and that means always remaining open to change, upgrade, alteration or editing. It also means we aren’t curating our team just for today…

We Are Building A Team For Tomorrow

If you ponder the individuals and collective strength of your current team, you can likely list aspects for which the team is perfectly suited regarding today’s challenges and maybe an area or two where you have some gaps. How about the challenges of next quarter or next year? When you discussed the expansion, market share growth plan or new territory openings in your last board meeting, did you ask if today’s team is ready for where you’ll be in the next one, two and five years? Maybe it’s time to curate.

Human resource and training professionals have loads of wonderful tools and programs for assessing the skills, personalities and capabilities of professionals. Maybe you’ve employed some of these methods like Myers Briggs’ Type Indicator or countless similar assessment systems. Take a look at where your team is strong and where it may need new skills. Are they ready for where your company or group will be in one or two years? Can you get them ready? Do you need to add to your collection and infuse it with new attributes? Do you need to make room for some fresh perspective by providing an opportunity for one of your players to serve another team?

By appreciating strengths while also being honest about opportunities, it is possible to bond with our team members as individuals, heralding their contributions and abilities while, simultaneously, seeking to enhance our teams incrementally over time through talent curation. Maintaining this balance will ensure our organizations are ready for challenges we will face in the years ahead.


The Mission Driven Leader

The Mission Driven Leader

How often do we ask ourselves if we have the right reasons for wanting the things we want? Pursuit of any goal driven by our full effort and intensity can be an awe-inspiring thing. One person or a group of us engaged in a full-fledged effort toward a point out in the future is often the beginning of history’s most remarkable moments. 

But what if we want things for selfish reasons alone? What if we are engaged in roles, jobs, occupations solely for the reason of ‘doing our work’ or ‘earning a paycheck’? What about a company or a leader who is in it for the money or their ego or to ‘win’? Why are these kinds of empty, soulless value propositions often doomed to fail?

Leadership Must Be About More Than The Leader  

On a national and global scale we don’t need to look very hard to find examples of leaders who seem to be in their roles in order to satisfy their own goals of self-satisfaction and aggrandizement. This isn’t a new condition. Since the beginning of our existence on Earth, much of this value disconnect comes from the search for validation, love, connection and worth which drives us all. These are understandable needs. The issues begin when a leader takes a role without having a mission, purpose and higher aim for what they hope to accomplish. If their actions are driven by profit seeking or a thirst for adoration or if their ascension to power is meant to satisfy a broken part of that person, that leader is merely a cardboard cut out. Leading isn’t about us as the leader. Leading is about those we lead and, by extension, our unified and collective achievement of our goals made possible through the direction that the leader can provide. Seems simple, doesn’t it? Sort of a ‘duh, of course’, you may be thinking. 

So, why do so many leaders make it about themselves?

Decide On Your Mission Before You Decide On The Role

We all want to do well in life. We’d like to advance through our careers and it’s flattering when we are offered the chance to do so. We’d even say we worked for it and we deserve those promotions and perhaps we are right. But advancement and riches can’t be our only compensation or the motivation for us to pilot an organization is flimsy from the start. Some organizations have a mission or elevated purpose built in. Healthcare, national defense, law enforcement - these are all examples of occupations that come with a strong central purpose and elevated reason for existing. It stands to reason that leaders in these organizations can remain connected with a mission-driven philosophy without much effort.

But what if you sell widgets? What if your industry is less akin to the life-preserving variety? Well, we can still find purpose and cause in these roles. Even if you sell kazoos and funny party hats you should be focused on your commitment to bring joy to your customers and, if you’re the right kind of leader, bring value and growth to your employees. Any occupation or industry can be mission driven. As a leader of people - even one person - it is your responsibility to find the nobility in your occupation/business sector and infect your team with enthusiasm for why that philosophy matters. You can’t do that if you take a role for the title or the salary without asking yourself questions like, ‘How can I serve people and our organization from this role?’, ‘How will I grow in this role and pass my growth onto the people I lead?’, ‘How can I make things better by occupying this role?’. Have you ever worked for someone who you’re sure didn’t ask those questions before they took their jobs? How did it feel for you?

A Leader Doesn’t Choose - Their Followers Do

A superior officer, senior leader, manager or mentor doesn’t become any of these things by standing up and shouting “I’m in charge and I’m leading this place!”. That sounds silly, but, have you ever worked with managers who did the equivalent of just that? What these leaders don’t understand is they can’t choose to lead. None of us who has ever had authority took that authority or manifested it out of thin air. The best leaders understand one immensely powerful truth about leadership:

The follower chooses who they will permit to lead them. It is the role of the leader, on a daily basis, to reaffirm that the follower made the right choice.

You have smart people working for you. Probably brilliant, creative, incredibly capable people, in fact. Do you think they are susceptible to the sort of dynamic in which a line manager or senior leader lords over them in an oppressive ‘I’m Emperor Palpatine and you’re my minion, Darth Vader’ sort of way? They choose to work under your charge and there are a host of complex reasons they do so. Some of what they (and we) all want and need are practical concerns - compensation, benefits, etc. But these aren’t enough to renew the pact each day between that direct report and you as their manager. The skilled people in your organization want to feel they are connected to the mission. They want purpose. They want to feel pride for the work they do and their impact on their world. Are you giving them a clear pathway toward how to feel those powerful feelings every day? ‘I have a dream...’ and ‘We will go to moon…’ were visionary entreaties shared with millions of people in the form of overtures meant to say, ‘I believe we can go here and do this… Would you like to join me?’. And, millions did.

Have a vision, share it and ask your team to follow you. When tomorrow comes, ask them again.

Being Mission Driven Doesn’t Include The F Word 

Perhaps the most prevalent and destructive reason for poor leadership is the ‘F’ word. Fear.

Fear drives so much of business - from Wall Street and valuations on the open market to the actions and strategies discussed in board and meeting rooms everywhere. Within any organization is anxiety of missing results, reporting a bad quarter, fouling up the merger or acquisition and so forth. These are real concerns and as heads of our organizations we can’t afford to be cavalier about results and pretend they don’t matter. But, sadly, the failure to foster a mission-driven leadership culture - one that has heart and character at its core - is often derived from much simpler fears. A manager’s fear of appearing inept, a department head who is nervous about their level of acumen. There are all kinds of reasons why leaders listen to that fear-driven voice in their heads and the approach with their teams becomes more about saving face than inclusion and building a team which is greater than the sum of its parts. From those first tendrils of fear-based management, it’s a fast downward spiral into over-directive, dictatorial styles that ultimately become the draconian cultures we all hope to avoid in our working worlds.

Recognize your strengths and be aware of your gaps. Don’t over focus or leverage either of them in such a way that your message to your teams becomes driven by threat, consequence, warnings or other tell tales of a fear-based style. Fear will cause your teams to look down at their shoes and curl their shoulders inward. If you have a hope of achieving your goals, you need your team to look upward and push their shoulders back, ready to take on anything that stands in their way.

How long has it been since you created time for some quiet private provocation about your mission? When was the last time you uplifted someone on your team by reminding them of their real purpose? How sure are you that everyone who works in your organization knows what your collective mission is?

Maybe it’s time to reaffirm your mission, for you, and for the talented people on your team.


How Will You Be Better Tomorrow Than You Are Today?

How Will You Be Better Tomorrow Than You Are Today?

What would you do differently? Really, think about it.

Chances are, over the course of our careers, we have done a lot of good. We’ve impacted lives positively, delivered on commitments, achieved results. But, if you’re human (and honest) you’ve also made some mistakes. Or, perhaps you just didn’t do your best work on a few occasions. Our ability to demonstrate learning agility and gain wisdom which, in time, becomes our currency, is one of our most critical skills as an effective leader. How should we look back and assess our performance? What can we do to remain mentally and emotionally nimble, ready to accept and own our mistakes? How do we ensure we are better tomorrow than we are today?

Be Self-Aware Without Being Self-Conscious

Do you have those times when you’re on autopilot and you get to the end of the day and it was all a blur? And what about that ‘driving home like a drone’ feeling after a long day? You know, the one where you pull into your driveway and you don’t know how you got there. We can’t afford to be that way on a regular basis, but sadly, we are sometimes so locked into our old methods and behaviors we are like bystanders. Sleepwalking through our work, while detrimental to our performance, is even worse for our personal growth. The first step toward us managing our own growth and expanding our portfolio of wisdom is setting our internal monitoring system to ‘record’. Too often leaders are caught up in what they have to do, running, chasing, striving to achieve. Often, these same leaders don’t stop and think about how they are doing their jobs or, in fact, what they are doing. Sometimes, a simple internal inquiry is all it takes to begin building a habit of self-speculation and analysis. ‘How am I handling this?’… ‘How would I rate my performance right now?’… These kinds of basic internal evaluations can provide us the pause we need to course correct or confirm we are on the right track.

Being self-aware doesn’t mean questioning every action you take. Over examination of our own actions can result in analysis paralysis and soon you become neurotic. Leaders are required to act. Standing still, over-analyzing or becoming mired in self-doubt and criticism will not help you lead. But it can be healthy to do a ‘post-mortem’ on your day or even a conversation. Take some notes. Record where you got it right and one thing you can try differently the next time you’re in that situation. And, remember to pay attention to how you feel when you nail it. Recognizing what success looks like and recalling the sequence you used to achieve that alchemy can be a powerful away to build repeat performance.

Master Your Skill of Pattern Recognition

There are hundreds of ways you ‘do what you do’ and don’t even think about it. Sure, I’m referring to habits, but more than habits, I am thinking about your tendencies, biases, reactions, perspectives and comfort zones. Just as in our daily lives, in our roles as leaders we’ve developed some tools that work for us as well as some patterns within which we operate. Recognizing your patterns is an early step toward ‘catching yourself’ before you repeat old mistakes. The saying ‘past is prologue’ is a powerful harbinger. It can be a death sentence if we aren’t careful. Just like another saying, ‘those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it’, recognizing our patterns and past can help us stop the cycle.

The next time you respond to something incorrectly, get riled or agitated when you shouldn’t have or, perhaps, fall into a trap of behavior you know you’ve experienced before, take a moment. Do some behavioral forensics and ask yourself what led to your slip up. What were you focused on when you made the mistake? What caused you to miss the warning signs that preceded your misjudgment? Perhaps changing your pattern is the key to correcting a mistake next time.

Be Ruthless In Your Willingness to Self Correct

Unless you are carved out of pure gold and you bleed blue chip stock options, you’ve probably had a rather mortal pathway through your business career. That means you’ve achieved much you can be proud of, and you’ve also stepped in a big pile of it a few times. Hopefully you are all too aware of your less stellar moments and you’re comfortable owning up to them in a healthy sort of way. In fact, I’m going to suggest that if you haven’t said some version of ‘I’ll never do it that way again’ than you aren’t being critical enough of your own track record. And, for those of you working in environments where performance reviews are done annually and your line manager sits with you and gives you a grade, don’t wait for that. You should be grading yourself. Ruthlessly. You should be willing to call out your worst plays in the game and ask yourself what must change so you don’t make the same mistakes again. From these self-examinations comes improvement and from a repeatable routine built upon these improvements comes wisdom.

Getting comfortable with self-examination means getting perspective. I’ve often shared with my direct reports that I play a bit of a game with myself, particularly in group meetings, during which I ‘put a camera in the room’. I imagine I am filming my actions in order to do two things - assess myself for improvement as well as ensure I remain aware of how I show up to others in the room. This isn’t as self-absorbed as it sounds (really!), it is simply a device I use to achieve a balance of remaining present within myself while not being too in my own head. Again, self-awareness without self-consciousness. Once this technique is mastered, you can time shift a little… meaning, you can fast forward and get out of ahead of what you say, and what you plan to say. This is incredibly helpful in meetings during which emotions can be high or when you are speaking to a group and you want to nail your message and delivery. But, these are topics for another time….

Recognize The Right Thing Done The Wrong Way Is Still Wrong

A couple of decades ago I was a developing multi-unit manager who had just been promoted within a high-growth organization a couple of years after previously having been promoted. Within a few short years my span of control was 70 times what it had been and I was responsible for a lot of people, performance and, in point of fact, results. My ‘up to now’ was being stretched and I had a lot of learning coming at me in real time. And things were about to get tougher.

So, I’ve been given this second of two promotions in a few years and a leader much more senior to me is seated on the opposite end of a long table in a room full of people during a meeting taking place 24 hours into me having my shiny new title. We were engaged in a discussion about performance across the organization and one person’s name came up as an example of an underperforming manager. The senior leader at the end of the table looked over his papers, down the long table at me, and he made his desire very clear. He wanted this manager transitioned out of the organization. Period.

I had no issue with the directive, the performance of this professional had been subpar. The individual was a fine person, but their performance had been lacking for some time and, while I felt badly for them and for what had to be done, there was no ethical disconnect here, no malfeasance, nothing scandalous in the senior leader’s directive to me. As a human, I felt empathy for the manager. As a business leader, I was there to solve today’s problem. I knew my role.

So, over the course of the following 8 weeks I worked with the proper partners in human resources and other teams and I led a very detailed improvement plan this manager was directed to follow with the hopes they would transcend their poor results, but aware that they likely could not. At the end of that 8 weeks, the leader was no longer with the organization. I had facilitated a clean, clear, correct performance management.

And, I was dead wrong.

Was I wrong about the performance of this person being lackluster? No. Was there any reason this leader should not have been removed from their role? No. I had done all of the correct things and the reasons for doing them were also correct and justifiable. But I hadn’t done them in what I would today call ‘the right way.’

This was early in my years as a large-span leader and as a result, I took a very sterile, almost perfunctory approach to my management of this situation. I was professional and courteous, but I wasn’t caring. Deep inside I wanted to be, but I didn’t yet know how to be both direct and heartfelt. I had the image of the senior leader pointing at me from down the length of the long table, and hence, I managed the removal of this leader as the process of me carrying out a directive, not as the transition of a person from one stage in their career to another perhaps better suited to them. I had managed many professionals out of roles by this time in my career but this situation was a bit more complex and, because I lacked wisdom and context, my manner throughout the progression was cool and remote.

I’ll never do it that way again.

I remember this period of time often. I absolutely remember it any time I have to sit with a struggling leader and help them improve or move on. There is nothing that can change the fact that we are all responsible for our own actions and performance, so, I never have and never will apologize for curating talent. But, I now have the experience and courage married with a deeply-rooted commitment to dialogue with, coach and counsel the human, not just ‘speak at’ the professional. Crucially, experience in the years since has provided me with the fortitude to occasionally fight to keep some leaders longer before deciding they had to be removed. And, when a removal is necessary, I have often cried with leaders during their terminations while still feeling fully correct in the action being taken. With wisdom has come the ability for me to maintain my humanity and cherish the dignity of another person while looking them in the eyes and telling them they’ve fallen short.

I still make loads of other mistakes which I’m working on (I promise!), but I can tell you, I won’t make this same mistake again. To be clear, the senior leader who gave me the directive would not have called what I did a mistake. But, I knew I hadn’t done my best work. What if I hadn’t self-analyzed all those years ago? If life was just metrics and formulas I could have easily told myself ‘they deserved it’ and I’d still be having performance-based discussions in the same way. For me to grow into the leader that I wanted to be, I had to remain open to self-discovery and examination and apply lessons learned from past performance. Past does not have to be prologue and history does not doom us to repeat it.

Is your team on their own journey of self-discovery? Is your organization striving to build on its learning agility and emotional intelligence so that your leaders can improve daily? I have coached and developed leaders and teams toward continuous improvement that positively impacts results. Get in touch and perhaps I can help your organization as well.

— Kimball Carr is a writer, owner and multi-unit leader with more than two decades of business experience across a wide array of sectors. He has produced work for print, film and the software world and has contributed his leadership to 3 of Fortunes best 100 companies to work for. As a consultant, he works with businesses and individuals and is currently the co-founder of Grom Coast Surf & Skate, an apparel brand and retail store built specifically for kids. — 

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