Friday, September 20, 2019

Leadership: The Art of Honesty and Affirmation

I've worked for and with some fantastic companies but one still stands out as a model of wise and pragmatic leadership and talent management:

Candidates had an opportunity to meet with employees at each level of the business, giving both sides an ample opportunity to sum each other up. Not surprisingly, their openness and attention to detail in the hiring process resulted in a high success rate among new hires.

The partner who interviewed me exuded friendly, polished confidence.  The contrast to myself - I was in graduate school at the time - intimidated me for the first few minutes of the interview until I noticed he was re-phrasing everything I said to make it sound better.

For example, he saw on my resume that I was graduate student body president at UCSD and asked what that involved.  I said I ran meetings and sometimes met with the dean to discuss student affairs or speak at a campus event. He responded, 'Ah, so you're an experienced facilitator, negotiator and public speaker.'

The entire interview was like this and as we shook hands at the end of the interview he told me I’d made it to the next round and wished me luck.  Interesting, no?  He could have easily tripped me up with tough questions but he built me up instead.

They paid less than competing companies and explained it like this: "We pay a bit less but we'll train you and give you so much practical business experience that you can walk out of here and earn three times as much after two years. Or stay the course and work your way up to partner." Sounded fair to me.

There was a full-sized campus near Chicago to handle classroom training needs, but onboarding at my home office included an online simulation in which I spent a week managing a virtual project team. My simulated team members came to me with various problems, complaints and requests and it was my job to keep them motivated and productive. After the program concluded, an HR director pulled me aside to tell me I got the highest score ever on this part of the exam.

I hadn't done anything special.  I just followed two very simple rules that I have continued to follow in every leadership role: 1) I said yes to all reasonable requests from my team; and 2) I let people go with good grace when they were ready.

My first manager gave me the best - meaning useful, not glowing - employee review I've ever had to date. I don't remember the specifics of the review. I received an adequate rating accompanied by some positive feedback about my hard work, discipline and quality output, yada, yada, yada. Then came the useful part that stuck with me.

'I've gotten some feedback about you that concerns me a little,' she said, after all the nice bits. Apparently I had a habit of asking the same question over and over again in different ways until I got the answer I liked.'  Several folks had mentioned it to her, and not in a good way.

This isn't all bad,' said reassured me. 'A good consultant and project manager needs to be tenacious. But you may want to tone it down a little.'

I leapt valiantly to my own defense: I was just seeking clarification. I was just trying to save everyone from making huge costly mistakes. I was just this and I was just that.

'Stop,' she said mildly with a hint of a twinkle. 'I know you have your reasons and I'm sure they are good ones. But here's the thing. If one person says something about you they may be biased. If you get the same feedback from several people, however, take a mental note and watch yourself in action.'

This excellent advice has served me well over the years and I hereby pass it on.

TAKEAWAY: Everyone knows honesty, good will, and building people up make great places to work.  Why don't companies insist on these qualities in all their leaders?

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