Friday, June 12, 2015

Deep Impact

I wrote recently about the way that a leader shapes an organization in his own image, whether he realizes it or not.  I received some good feedback from that article, so I thought that the topic deserved some more attention.  I don't think we fully realize the effect we have on those around us, especially those with whom we spend a lot of time (like, say, 50% or more of our waking hours).  We're eager to talk about our company culture, our benefits package, our dog-friendly policies, but we fail to recognize something even more important: our company's personality.

When choosing a spouse, few people would make their decision based solely upon the facts and statistics surrounding their potential partner.  Sure, we might look at how much they make, where they grew up, or their hair and eye color, but for the most part we don't decide to spend the rest of our lives with someone because they possess the right statistical makeup.  In fact, the kind of person who would make that decision probably only exists in the early stages of a romantic comedy, before they find themselves inexplicably attracted to someone who's the exact opposite of what they're looking for and are changed forever by the true power of love.  No, when we look for a mate, we decide based upon the intangibles: how they make us feel, whether they make us laugh, whether there's any chemistry.  Facts might start the conversation, but personality closes the deal.

So why do we choose a new workplace -- or decide to stay in our current one -- based upon facts and figures?  Does 401(k) matching trump likability?  Is your commute time more important than how you feel once you arrive?  Can a company have a personality, and do we respond to it as we would to a person?  I think it can and we do.  I also think that the leaders in every company determine that personality, starting at the top and flowing down from there.

Someone once told me that you could tell everything about a company by looking at their website.  If the site was coherent and flowed smoothly from one section to another, with a consistent story throughout, then you could trust that the company was the same: everyone on the same page and sharing the same vision.  If the site was a mess, with broken links, poor organization, and a melange of different voices speaking on different pages, then you could assume that's what you'd find once you walked in the front door: everyone working their own agenda and defending their own department, with no one talking to anyone else.  I don't know if that's always true, but I've certainly seen some strong supporting examples.  In the same way, if you look at a company's leaders, you'll have a good idea of how that company will feel to you once you've been there for a while.  You can't hang around with someone for long periods of time without picking up their mannerisms and you can't follow someone's lead for long without starting to see the world as they do and reacting accordingly.

The idea that a leader defines a company's personality isn't exactly revolutionary: Steve Jobs was the face of Apple, not just because he was the source of its innovative ideas but because he defined how Apple's employees saw the world.  Jack Welch's obsession with measuring everything made GE the company that it is, for good or ill.  Bill Gates's "take over the world" mentality took Microsoft from scrappy startup to monopolistic giant, and the company's personality changed as its stock price -- and Bill's ambitions -- grew.  We choose CEOs as the avatars of their companies, not just because it's easier to put them on the cover of a magazine, but because, in many ways, they truly are the personification of their company's zeitgeist.  They both shape it and embody it.

Of course, this isn't always a good thing.  Every person is equal parts light and dark, and every leader brings their good and bad qualities to work with them every day.  Interestingly, while I've observed that leaders are quick to brag about the positive impacts they've made on their organizations, they're often blind to the negatives.  This is human nature to some extent -- we're all inclined to think the best of ourselves -- but when we do this we're missing an opportunity.  If I can understand how I affect the people around me, in both good ways and bad, then I have a much better chance of improving my company's personality.  As a side benefit, I might also become slightly more self-aware and balanced in my approach to life.

The very qualities we praise in our leaders -- intelligence, forthrightness, dynamism, a drive to succeed -- have powerfully negative flip sides that often come out under pressure.  If I've been rewarded all my life for succeeding against all odds, then I'm unlikely to quit even when it's the right thing to do even if it means I'll take my team down with me.  If I've built my identity on always being honest, then I may create a culture of rudeness and conflict in the name of "honest discussion."  Intelligence can become arrogance, dynamic energy becomes relentless drive, passion becomes presenteeism.  Even less dynamic traits can sour under stress: the team player becomes a group thinker, the careful planner is paralyzed by change, the servant leader builds a fortified bunker around his team to protect them from "bad influences."  Every leader can guide his team to the heights or bury them in the depths, and in the process he can create a company that everyone loves or twist it into something hateful that even he doesn't even recognize anymore.

Looking back on my career, I can see every one of these tendencies, both good and bad, in myself and the people with whom I've worked.  So as a leader, how can I decide which of my tendencies are shaping the people around me?  As the story says, it's the one you feed.

When you're in charge, you're responsible for more than just yourself.  Your every action causes a reaction, your mannerisms become other people's habits, your ideas become other people's assignments. The higher you go, the broader your impact, and the more important self-awareness and self-control become.  When I'm alone in my cube, I can throw a tantrum and only disturb my neighbors.  When I'm responsible for hundreds or thousands of people's careers, a frown can ruin someone's day.  A good leader doesn't just glorify his impact on others; he respects it.  Here are a few thoughts on how to do that well:

Leader, know thyself.
If you were in and interview and they asked you, "What are your greatest strengths?" what would you say?  What do you prize about yourself?  What qualities have gotten you this far?  If someone has placed you in a position of authority, then you must have done something to earn that trust. Consciously or otherwise, these qualities are your go-to responses, the tools that you pull out first every time, and they define your leadership style.  Are you a good speaker?  Do you motivate others to do great things?  Are you a problem solver?  Do you roll up your sleeves and lead by example?  When you tell your workplace war stories, what do they say about you?  Knowing your strengths helps you understand the example you're setting for others when you're at your best, the ways that every day you say, "Be like me and you'll succeed, too."

Now, what's the flip side of every one of these strengths?  When your tools fail you, how do you respond?  Does exhorting become yelling?  Does problem-solving become frustration and shoving people aside to do their jobs for them?  What did your least proud moments look like?  This is harder than listing your strengths, but it's far more important.  Anyone can tell you what they're good at, but a leader who ignores his weaknesses -- or worse, explains them away by blaming others -- is dangerous to his company and his team.  He may succeed in the short-term by sheer determination, but he'll burn people out or drive them away in the long term, creating expensive turnover and reducing the overall quality of the team in the process.  Any relatively smart person can do a good job for a while, or stand in front of a group of people and take credit for their success.  A good leader, the kind of person whom people follow willingly, has to look at himself with a cold eye, setting aside the easy answers and digging into the muck of his own personality to seek the dangers lurking within.  Let other people give you the praise: you have a job to do, and you don't have time be squeamish.

Look around you.
OK, you've looked inside.  Now look around.  How do people respond to you?  Are they listening attentively or waiting for their turn to speak?  Do they engage in dialogue or sit back and let you ramble?  Do they challenge you when they know you're wrong or do they let you hang yourself?  What happens when you stop talking?  You may think you know what kind of impact you're having, but in the daily bustle it's easy to stop listening, stop paying attention to what's going on around you and just focus on the task at hand.  I've spent weeks thinking that my team and I were happily solving problems, knocking down barriers, and getting stuff done, only to have someone finally point out that I was the only one doing the talking.  Everyone else had checked out and was just waiting to be told what to do because I had forgotten to let anyone else in on the solution.  I was happy; they were bored.

Leadership isn't just about being the smartest guy in the room.  In fact, the best leaders historically have been those who've surrounded themselves with people who were even smarter than they were and then turned them loose on intractable problems.  If you're the only one talking, or if everyone else is just waiting for instructions, then you're doing it wrong.  You're limiting yourself and your team to the boundaries of your own capabilities instead of harnessing the collective brilliance of a whole group of people.  You've become a single-brained organism with many hands.

If you see this happening, step back and give someone else a turn.  When they do the wrong thing -- which will probably be about fifteen seconds later -- ask questions instead of giving orders.  Let them find their way with some minor corrections instead of telling them where to go and how to get there.  It will be painful in the short term, but the long-term dividends will be huge.

Find your fool.
Every successful leader gets too big for his britches at some point.  We all start to believe our own press, whether real or figurative, and think that we have all the answers.  Get a few successful projects under my belt and I'll start to think that I'm God's gift to software development, that no one could possibly design a better product than I can, and that people are lucky to work for me.  When that happens, we are at our most dangerous.  We start to abuse people, expecting longer hours, more dedication, and a daily thank-you on the way out the door.  We stop listening to good ideas and start telling people how to do things "the right way."  We lose flexibility, falling back on the tools and techniques that brought us this far rather than taking a risk on learning something new.  In short, we become tiny tyrants.

Ancient rulers understood this problem, so they kept someone close to them who had special dispensation to let them know when they were losing perspective.  In biblical times, these were the prophets, chosen by God to speak up when the king began to abuse his people.  In the Middle Ages, that role was filled by the fool, or the court jester, who kept his place at court by entertaining the king and by telling him the truth when no one else would do so.  Through wit and wisdom, he reminded the king that he was still but a man.

Just as you need people who are smarter than you, you need people who aren't afraid to tell you the truth, especially when you don't want to hear it.  You don't need to be challenged constantly -- that's neither productive nor a sign of good leadership -- but you need one or two people in your organization who can shut the door, lower the blinds, and say, "Stop behaving like an ass!"  These ego-busting moments might hurt, but they can save you and your organization before you drive it off a cliff.  Find these people, cherish them, and keep them close.  Do more than give them permission to tell you when you're out of line: make it part of their job description and challenge them when they go quiet on you.  If you want to be a great leader, then your ego needs to be strong enough to take a healthy beating once in a while.

It's your choice: find a fool or become one.

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