Have you ever gotten in your car, driven to work, found a parking spot, sat at your desk, and wondered: How did I get here? If you ever experienced this, you were probably on automatic pilot, unconscious of what you were doing because you do it so often. Now let’s say you got in your car, started to drive, and suddenly a detour took you far out of your way. What happened then? Perhaps you began to worry about missing an important morning meeting. Probably, you drove with heightened awareness, your grip tightening on the steering wheel. And maybe you arrived at the office grouchy, immediately complaining to your co-workers about those so-and-sos who messed up traffic during rush hour.
Everybody believed Paul was the problem. His teammates complained in anonymous interviews that he was overly critical and negative. They said he dominated conversations, and became aggressive when someone disagreed with him. Despite acknowledging his deep technical knowledge, Paul’s teammates said that if he left the team they would be more effective. Ouch. But Paul wasn’t their only complaint. They also grumbled about not having influence with the senior executives who sponsored their work. And they criticized Mary, the team leader, for not confronting Paul or their senior leaders. I had been hired by Mary to facilitate the development of her team. Part of my agreement with Mary was to provide the team with the anonymous input from my interviews. I commonly use this approach (called action research), but I had never heard such a hairball of negativity from a team before.
When clients proclaim, ‘we’ve got to hold people more accountable’ I can’t help but smile. Why? Because the declaration, itself, displays such a lack of accountability. ‘We’ve got to’ diffuses any responsibility for taking action. But imagine if the speaker said, “I’ve got to hold people more accountable.” Then we’d be getting someplace. The first step to holding others accountable is to hold oneself accountable, and most of us believe we do so. But even the most powerful leaders among us often take on the mindset of victim, the enemy of accountability.
I occasionally visit art museums with family and friends, but I’m not very good company. My enthusiasms get the better of me and I become a tad, well, pedantic. I might go on about the difference between impressionism and neo-impressionism, or talk at length about why the paint in Mark Rothko’s paintings is decomposing, or something equally meaningless to most people. In short, I’m a bore. But what I really love is to wander by myself through unoccupied museum galleries on quiet weekday mornings. Then, I can contemplate a painting for as long as I wish, with no one complaining about tired feet or wanting a snack. As I meander, my thoughts do too. At times I can connect what I’m viewing to the topic of organizational leadership, a subject I’m equally passionate about.
Kevin sagged when he recounted his past few years as president of a troubled division of a major insurance company. “I’m damaged goods,” he started. “I loved my career until they promoted me to turn around this failing unit. I became a real jerk. I screamed at people. I was called a bloodthirsty mercenary by the press. I downsized so many people that employees here called me Darth Vader. Heck, I wouldn’t even work for me anymore.” I was struck by Kevin’s searing self-criticism. I know him as a strong, yet humane leader with a great track record and a strategic viewpoint. In fact, his turnaround efforts were acknowledged by outsiders as both necessary and successful. How could he be drawing such negative conclusions about himself despite such a long history of success?
I met with the head of the European region right after a daylong meeting of a global leadership team. I asked what he thought of the decisions the team had made. He said the meeting was “the usual nonsense. We nod our heads, and go back to our parts of the world and do whatever we want.” Another client, the leader of an IT function, was told to reduce headcount by 20% but not miss deadlines on high priority projects. Despite disagreeing with the wisdom of the decision, she laid off eight programmers. She then hired a flotilla of temporary programmers to meet her schedule targets. This ended up costing more and led to lower morale of the remaining employees.
The challenge for most executives is that the skills they developed as middle managers are inadequate for the next step up. They know their business, have mastered supervision, and have honed their decision-making skills. But what’s often missing is a mental framework for becoming a more strategic leader. One way we help leaders develop their strategic thinking muscle is through the use of experiential exercises. In just a short time, these activities allow participants in leadership development programs to make decisions in a safe environment that reveal flawed “mental models” while they develop new mindsets.
Over half of my executive coaching clients have “improve delegating effectiveness” as a development priority. All are experienced senior players; each has a long, successful track record. And yet, they all share a simple, yet profound blind spot that turns them, and the people they delegate to, into jug heads. Last year, I began work with an especially talented client. As the new CEO of a mid-sized Chamber of Commerce, her board suggested she engage me to help her “change the Chamber’s leadership culture.” After she quickly reviewed her background and the Chamber’s priorities, Chris got right to the point: “I’m not sure I’ve got the right team. They’re fairly experienced, but they lack urgency. I have to keep following up just to make sure things get done and I really don’t have the time to babysit senior staff.”