Marcus, the chief executive officer of a mid-size consumer software company, was once again talking with Alex, his chief people officer.
“I think maybe I haven’t been a very good boss,” Marcus said. “I mean, the company is doing great, and the board of directors is happy. But, I’m starting to wonder if that’s more in spite of me than because of me.”
“Why do you wonder that? I don’t imagine anyone in the company would say your leadership hasn’t been critical to our success.”
“I’m starting to think I’ve never actually led. That I’ve only ever been in charge.”
Being in charge ignores conflicting perspectives
“I’m surprised to hear you say this,” Alex said with bemusement. “You’ve never struck me as someone uncertain about their impact.”
“I’m full of bluster, you mean.”
“You always seem confident in your opinion,” Alex said diplomatically.
“I have been. And, I still am. However, watching the recordings of the ‘squishy people stuff’ seminars, as I’ve been calling them, has opened my eyes. Shown me how many perspectives I never considered. And how many perspectives I’ve steamrolled over.”
Marcus looked over at Alex, expecting to see an expression of astonishment. Instead, Marcus saw a great big smile.
“I’m really glad to hear you say this,” Alex said. “You don’t know how many meetings people have before presenting a new idea to you, trying to get their approach just right to get your approval.”
“Why am I just hearing about this now?”
“Would you have listened? Or cared?”
Alex made a “well, there you go” gesture. Then, “What brought about this change in perspective?”
Being in charge ignores the impact of decisions
“The speaker who talked about managing our impact. How, if we are to have the impact on the world we want to have, we need to present ourselves and our actions in a way that encourages that change. Rather than steamrolling people into the shape we want them to take.”
Marcus paused, then continued, “I’ve built a great career out of ignoring the impact I’m having—or being ignorant of it entirely. I was in charge, and people did what I said. We got in tough scrapes now and again, but I got us out of them. Now, though, I believe most of the scrapes came from me forcing processes and people beyond their tolerances. I didn’t worry about the impact of my choices. If I had taken time to consider that impact, maybe I would have made different choices. Avoided the scrapes altogether. Or, at least, minimized them.”
“We have lost several key people because of decisions you made,” Alex agreed. “They weren’t willing to pay the price your decisions were imposing on them.”
Marcus blew out a frustrated breath. “I wish I had known. Not that I would have listened. Thank you for telling me now.”
Lead by inviting people in
“So, now I have to start managing my impact. Any ideas how I might do that?” Marcus asked Alex.
“Invite us to participate.”
“To participate in what? In every decision? I don’t always have time to take a poll.”
“We know that. And, we’re not a democracy. This is your company.”
“I’m never going to do something I believe is wrong just because I need to show I value people’s opinions.”
“Inviting us to participate in decisions doesn’t mean you’ll always take our recommendations. It means engaging us in conversation. Understanding why we hold the opinions and feedback we do. Helping us understand why you believe your plan is correct. Asking us to help you make your plan better.”
“OK, I think I get it. Showing you all that I value your opinions increases your willingness to speak up. Discussing my plans with you, rather than simply telling them to you, increases the likelihood my plans will have the effect I want them to have.”
Step away from being in charge and into leading
“I’ve had a great career,” Marcus said, reflecting. “How much greater might it have been if I had led rather than just been in charge? How much greater might my companies have been? My employees?”
“I know how you can find out.”
Marcus quirked an eyebrow inquiringly.
“I can’t say how your past might have been different. However, every step you take away from being in charge towards leading will change this company and these employees. Invite us in. Engage with us. You’ll discover just how much greater your company, employees, and career can be.”
This is part two of a series explaining how to start leading uncommonly:
- Discover why this squishy people stuff matters
- Step away from being in charge and into leading (this post)
- Lean into your Council of Counsel