So You Want To Be A Leader, Huh?

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A few years back, I was one of the leaders in an IT organization that was struggling. We knew it too. A couple of projects had significant quality issues, and as a result we were missing dates and overrunning the budget.

It was not for lack of effort. These were challenging projects and people were working their tails off. Our client was internal, and we kept them informed every step of the way, no surprises. Sure they were disappointed, but they respected the fact that we were putting quality first, so they were hanging in there with us.

A new VP was appointed in our client organization, an executive who had been hired from outside industry. He came to visit us for the first time, so we rolled out the red carpet and the cavalcade of PowerPoint shows, and settled in for a day of detailed project reviews.

We didn’t get very far before the beatings began. The new VP (we’ll call him Jim) came loaded for bear. In the end nothing we said to him mattered at all. He made it clear that our performance to date was totally unacceptable. He was loud and his message was direct. I personally took a great deal of abuse, and I had to sit and watch others take it as well. The language was colorful to say the least.

Every one of us in that room was made to feel totally incompetent, probably because he said things like “you people are totally incompetent”.

Did It Work?

The worst part of all of this, in my humble opinion, is that over the next couple of weeks we made great strides with our quality issues and began delivering on project commitments. Though we were still late and over budget, we never had another slip in the schedule. Our clients were ultimately more than satisfied with what we delivered.

Why is that the worst part? Because Jim was sure that our success was a direct result of his actions and his toughness. He remains sure to this day. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We didn’t respect him then, we don’t respect him today, and none of us would ever work with him again. His abusive behavior and our subsequent performance improvement were just an accident of timing.

It’s not that tough behavior wasn’t called for. Jim was a new leader in a new job, and here was a group of IT people whose failure to deliver was directly his ability to serve customers. This was no time for being soft.

When I think about tough leaders I’ve known, I don’t think about Jim. He wasn’t tough. He was loud, he was a bully, he was a lot of things. But he wasn’t tough and more importantly, he was a leader in title only. Tough leaders know a few very important behaviors make all the difference.

Insults and Loud Criticism vs. Brutal Facts

If you tell me I’m incompetent, insult me and question my qualifications, you’re going to make me mad. I may deliver, but I’m not going to forget how you treated me.

If you ask me how you can have confidence in me after I’ve slipped a due date three times, you’ve put the ball squarely in my court. I may be uncomfortable, (I’d better be!) but I know you’ve asked a very legitimate question. I’ve got no anger, no desire to get even with you. On the contrary, I want to win your confidence back.

Bluster and Threats vs. Clear Consequences

In that unforgettable meeting above, Jim had several tirades that included reference to closing our office and firing the whole lot of us. Those of us on the leadership team were angered, but we recognized the bluster for what it was. The people in the room who worked for us were scared to death, because they took Jim literally. Jim accomplished nothing good. He alienated the leaders he needed to build a new relationship with, and he scared the people who didn’t need any more pressure.

What would have been much more effective would have been private meetings with those of us on the leadership team, where Jim could have calmly and directly outlined expectations and consequences. I was more than prepared to hear that MY job was in jeopardy if we didn’t improve. Having to deal with the fears my people had for THEIR jobs was a distraction that could only hurt our progress.

Immediate Action vs. Considered Action

Emotional and reactive “leaders” like Jim are prone to want to prove they are action oriented. He didn’t do it that day, but I’ve seen people like him make on the spot decisions to install someone they trust to oversee a project, or decide immediately to bring in their favorite consultant to straighten things out.

Leaders should be decisive and take quick action if it’s needed. Most of the time, action taken in a day or two is quick enough. In that day or two, the leader has time to think about what they’ve learned, consult a few people they trust, and make a decision that is both good and fast. Considered action is almost always more effective than impulsive action.

1:1 Discussions vs. Group Meetings

Later (much later) I learned a few things about Jim. He was actually a nice guy in his life outside work. I never came to respect him as a leader, though. In addition to his inappropriate tirades in a group setting, he turned out to be equally ineffective in 1:1 discussions, for a totally different reason.

He was tough when he was putting on a show, when he was playing Vice President. In a 1:1 meeting, he went soft when questioned.

While he knew about missed project schedules, he had almost no command of any details. So he couldn’t contribute to a discussion of just how to get things fixed. With no one to impress, there was no point in shouting. And with nothing to contribute, there wasn’t much to discuss.

A leader in command of the facts can be very tough and direct in 1:1 discussions. They can ask difficult questions and be blunt about whether or not they’re satisfied with the answers. They can coach and criticize at the same time.

Toughness isn’t about making noise in a meeting. It’s about holding people accountable. That can be done effectively without ever taking away anyone’s dignity.

Author: Tom O’Dea

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