I’m an imperfect leader.
I’m still learning. Experience has shaped me. John Maxwell says, “Experience is not the best teacher. Evaluated experience is.” Today, I will share an experience I’ve studied over and over. It changed me. Thankfully, I’m a much better leader today than when I started.
I had just started a new role early in my career. I’d been sent to turnaround a damaged customer relationship. Before starting, a personal call from my officer (three levels up) made it clear (1) the organization cared deeply about the outcome, (2) the problem must be far worse than I had imagined, and (3) with this much visibility, there was a great deal at stake for me professionally. He shared his insight and reminded me $30 million was at risk.
My new boss shared his assessment of the critical issues. One particular problem scared me. He said I would inherit a weak team and needed to terminate one manager. How could I fix this customer relationship without a strong team? How could I start by firing someone I didn’t know and whose performance I had not observed?
Take a chance. Invest.
After a few weeks on the job, hearing from the customer directly, making my own observations, I had a clear idea of the path forward. There were multiple workstreams to initiate; but the team challenges were a priority, and manager he mentioned would prove to be especially difficult. What I didn’t realize at the time, working with her would become one of the most valuable lessons of my career. I’ve never forgotten her, and I fear she has probably never forgotten me.
Instead of terminating her, I believed she was a good person and deserved a chance. We had multiple coaching sessions every week. I was careful never to embarrass her in public, but I was specific in our one-on-ones. I provided examples of concerns and discussed better approaches. I sent her to training. While I saw occasional glimmers of hope, her performance did not improve much.
Looking back, I realize she was in over her head. She had not been able to grow into the requirements of the role after six months of coaching. While she bore some responsibility for her situation, I believe she had been done a disservice by previous leaders who promoted her beyond her capability (not necessarily beyond her potential, but too fast to fulfill that potential). I didn’t see any evidence they invested in her development.
It was painful. For both of us.
At first, she didn’t see the performance gap. She thought I was the problem. So, I focused on helping her recognize the gap. In our coaching sessions, I would “hold up the mirror” so she could see what I saw and hear what our customers were saying. It was painful for both of us. I knew there was no hope of improvement if she didn’t see the need.
While she didn’t embrace it, she began to recognize the gap. But it seemed she only half-heartedly worked at it and struggled to close it. The gap was too big. It was a bit like a roller coaster. We would make progress and then suffer setbacks. She grew increasingly frustrated and started calling in sick (perhaps some combination of stress impacting health and avoiding the inevitable). A few times she uncharacteristically lashed out at teammates and customers (yikes!).
It was time.
It became clear to both of us where this was headed. She wrestled with the realities of her situation. Human Resources helped me create several options, but she didn’t like any of them. I thought the best one was to step into a downgraded role where she was skilled to succeed and allow her a “reset.” We offered to “redline” her salary to avoid financial impact. We would transfer her to an organization where this history wouldn’t follow her. But her ego got in the way.
While I had shifted her work to avoid direct customer impact, it weighed on the team. With her inability or unwillingness to improve, and her resistance to the options we offered, Mr. Analytical Driver (yep, that’s me) realized I had done all I could. The facts were clear. The possibility of a turnaround had diminished considerably over six months. I sat down with her and explained the time had come for her to make a decision. She was not surprised. None of this was new information.
I’m not proud of it, but I delivered this message with Spock’s unemotional precision (Star Trek). On the inside I cared deeply about her, but you wouldn’t have felt it with my delivery that day. After I summarized where we were, I asked for her decision and leaned back in the chair for her response (consider this non-verbal message). I let there be an awkward silence. She realized this was the day. She had to make a decision. She teared up. Uh oh! She started to cry. Oh no!
I always feel emotions, but as an analytical driver, I excelled at setting those aside. Hiding them. Plowing right ahead despite them. Emotion is a sign of weakness, right? Feelings cloud facts and data, right? So, when she started to cry, I didn’t know what to do. This is business. It’s not personal. There are no tears in my data. My spreadsheet doesn’t cry. What was I to do?
What I did was the most insensitive thing I could do. With the dexterity of an Olympic athlete and the sterile reaction of Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon, I sat a tissue box in front of her and leaned back in my chair. It wasn’t the message I intended to send. It wasn’t what was in my heart. But I have no doubt the message she received: “When you’re done, we’ll finish this.” What a jerk! I admit it.
At the time I was oblivious to the impact of my delivery. The weight of it hit me later and lit a fire within me. I’m still embarrassed by it, but I share it because I know I’m not alone on this journey. We can learn from each other.
Evaluated experience is the best teacher.
This moment catalyzed change in my leadership. I’ve never forgotten her. I think of the experience often and don’t want to forget the lessons it taught me.
It was the right decision to give her a chance. But I should have brought closure faster. It was clear things weren’t getting better 2–3 months in, but I wanted to turn it around so bad I let it go on too long. This unnecessarily extended frustration for our customers, her, the team, and me. I couldn’t fix things for her. I couldn’t do the hard work for her. I could only help her if she made the choice, but that choice was on her. Only she could turn around her performance. Her level of effort should have informed the length of time.
It was the right decision to bring it to a close, but I should have shown more empathy. She probably thought I didn’t care about her at all. I didn’t know her and this was a “formal” process. I know there’s a line to manage, but I was far too sterile. I could have shared stories from my own life where I’d wrestled with growth or had to make difficult decisions.
Good coaching takes time, and I didn’t think I had time. I was in a hurry (although I spent six months!), so I did more telling than guiding. More teaching than facilitating. I didn’t recognize the root of the problem soon enough. Looking back on it, it was like she was good at math, so her previous leader promoted her to calculus, skipping algebra. I tried to close the gap by teaching her calculus when I needed to go back and start with algebra.
From my perspective, what I was doing wasn’t personal. It was all business. But everything is personal. This impacted her self-esteem and finances. I worked with HR to consider these personal and professional impacts and negotiated mitigating options. The best option was one we offered: A “downgrade” to algebra, but that clashed with her ego. We offered to redline her salary and move her to an organization where this history wouldn’t follow her. But I communicated with her like she was a machine, not a human.
The hardest part of leadership is navigating the people puzzle. An organization’s success is always tied to its people. The leader who understands how to lead from the heart is ahead of the game. I learned the value of leading from the heart that day. I’ve been on a journey to learn more ever since.
An important lesson for us as leaders, teachers, parents, and friends can be learned from my favorite Andy Griffith episode: “When you’re dealing with people, go not so much by the book, but by the heart.” It’s so easy to fall back on the book. Where do you need to apply a little more heart today?
Lessons for performance gaps and other conflict
Early detection and action
- To quote a favorite mentor, Gail Dawson: “Unlike wine, bad news does not get better with time.”
- I like to say, unlike coffee, conflict does not taste better after it brews.
- The sooner you recognize a problem, the sooner you can thwart it. Left undetected, problems grow and often outsize your ability to overcome them. The earlier you know, the more options you’ll have. The sooner you act, the more influence you’ll have.
- Doing right by the person has to be balanced with doing right for the company, the customer, and the team.
- It was right to give her a chance, but I let it go on too long.
- Sometimes, what seems the best course for a person (like giving her time) might end up being bad for them (like me dragging this on too long, false hope).
Yes, it’s business. But everything is personal.
- Don’t run away from the complexities of human aspects. It’s easy to hide behind process or policy. But, when you do right by people, people do right by you.
- Act with compassion.
- Speak with empathy. How you do or say something will have a much deeper and more profound impact than what you do.
- People aspects are easier to deal with when you plan for them ahead of time rather than clean up after the fact.
People grow at the edge of their comfort zone, but don’t push them over the edge.
- In helping others grow, they must progress into their potential.
- We grow at the edge of our comfort zone. As a leader, challenge people to get to that edge, but don’t push them over the edge.
- Too much, too soon, can have deep consequences. They might not always see that. Help them grow into their potential in stages. Learn to crawl before walk and walk before run. My mentors always encouraged me to look for next opportunities that would stretch me (grow) but also take advantage of my strengths and experience (set me up to make meaningful contributions and ultimately succeed).
Author: Kevin D. Phillips is a consultant, executive coach, and leadership developer helping clients increase profitability, improve customer loyalty, and navigate challenges of rapid growth. As Build Them Up® founder, he is on a mission to help leaders improve organizational results by investing in the people who create them. Connect at www.KevinPhillips.com or on social media at www.HowdyKevin.com. To learn more about his Great Leader Framework and subscribe to his community, join at www.NeverUnderestimatePeople.com.
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