Confident Leader

The No 1 leadership lesson no one dares tell you

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The hardest fact of all is that our success is ultimately limited by our biggest weakness. And, our biggest weakness is usually the one that no one dares to tell us about.

Sure, we can all sugar coat the idea and talk the talk about ‘being the best that we can be’, ‘working to our strengths’ and ‘hiring people in the areas in which we are limited’ but the harsh reality is that there are certain areas of our behaviour that inhibit our success and the higher we get up the leadership ladder, the less likely people are to tell us about it.

How much courage does it take to speak truth to power? More courage than most employees – or colleagues – have.
True leadership is about being aware of yourself. You’re so much more effective when you’re able to observe and control your responses. So, why do so many recalcitrant, self-absorbed, poor-listening, micromanaging, mediocre people end up running businesses? How the hell do they manage to get promoted? And promoted again?

I have a theory that many leaders would rather let performance and revenues slow down than have the hard conversations with their fellow executives. In my experience the majority of problems in any organisation, when you pick them apart, are simply communication problems. Yet we let them fester. Why? Because often these conversations mean we have to tell someone how they are perceived by others. And that can be very uncomfortable. For you. And for them.

We often see organisations where the majority of people are giving lip service to honest communications between them, but smiling sweetly at behaviour that is unacceptable. They’re ignoring behaviour that is against the values of the business. And it’s costly. Really costly. Not just the hard costs of losing good staff but all of the soft, intangible costs that ripple through the culture of an otherwise wonderful business.

Jane is the CEO of a second-tier accounting firm. She’s new in the role. Headhunted from overseas and the first female CEO in a long line of men before her, she has a lot to prove. She’s motivated, clear and focused on her first ninety days during which time she’s restructuring the business, re-juggling the leadership team and agreeing her strategy with the board.

From the outside all looks great. On the inside things appear very differently. Jane is a so focused on managing up and achieving the board’s expectations that she’s forgotten about bringing her team along with her. She’s a poor listener, an annoying micro-manager and dictatorial in her communication. Within a few short months, two of her direct reports have resigned and the rest of the team are less than happy.

In a recent conversation, the CFO shared his feelings with me — an external consultant — and they went something like this: “If this is what the future looks like, I’m better off elsewhere.” But had anyone in the leadership team actually provided Jane with straightforward, actionable feedback? You’ll be surprised to know that not one courageous direct report had even tried. Why? Well I have a theory about this too. It takes even more than ordinary levels of courage to give your boss or your peer some unrequested feedback. We don’t have the venues to do that. And it’s just plain awkward.

It’s easier to leave things left unsaid than courageously and vulnerably state your view and assist a colleague with some constructive feedback. And, of course, the ultimate leader, the executive team member or the CEO, gets little or no constructive feedback at all. Sometimes, even when they ask for it!
It’s rare that a direct report will tell their boss the whole story for all of the obvious reasons – their future, their relationship with their boss and the impact that the feedback may have on the future of the business relationship. There’s a risk-mitigating voice inside their head that justifies maintaining the status quo no matter how bad it is.

Our comfort zone — dealing with the challenges of a recalcitrant boss who lacks self-awareness — seems easier than the alternatives of giving them some feedback or looking for another job. So, we continue, day-after-day, to smile sweetly at the behaviours that are inhibiting the future success of our otherwise wonderful business with words to our colleagues such as “Jane won’t last long. I’ll give her 6 months. Surely the board can see she’s underperforming? Surely someone in the executive team is coaching her?”
The comfort zone is where we maintain the status-quo. We can armour-up for battle knowing full-well that nothing fertile prospers there.

Eventually, we find ourselves spending too many Friday nights at the pub pouring our guts out to our colleagues because ‘work’ isn’t as enjoyable as it used to be. And with no feedback on the ultimate cause of the problem, other problems surface and ripple through the business for the first time in forever. Client and staff retention rates drop. There’s an increase in sick leave. Smaller numbers of staff attend company events. It gets hard to attract talent. Little by little, the company loses it’s sparkle. In fact, it just doesn’t ‘feel’ the same as it used to.

Okay, you get my point. But, here’s the thing.

You have worked so hard to get to where you are. You’ve spent time at school or university, time working your way up the ladder, time taking extra skills-development training, time learning about the business and industry that you’re in. Time just working damned hard, for years. And, yet what if there was just one crucial limiting behaviour strangling your success?

What if all of the effort that you have put into your career and your life up until this point isn’t enough to get your business more profitable, to get your staff happier and more engaged, to increase your revenues? What if this is it? The brick wall? The impenetrable brick wall, which we don’t even see as we keep banging our head against it? Yet, what if the potential answer to your current challenges lay in the answer to a few simple questions? Would you be interested? You would? Great.

Then the starting point is to get some feedback on yourself as a leader: your strengths. your limitations and your critical areas for development.

In my experience, the most efficient way to do this is through using a 360 degree feedback tool. Make it anonymous and get feedback from as many people as possible – peers, subordinates, clients – definitely clients – managers and other key stakeholders who know you well like the professional consultants who work with your business.

What’s really interesting to me is that it’s often what we think of as our greatest strengths that ultimately become our greatest limitation.

In Jane’s case, for example, her greatest strength is her ability to deliver results. She has a reputation for turning big businesses around and she’s a stickler for getting the detail right.

But the challenge for Jane right now in her new role is that her very success is increasing the pressure on her, and she’s forgotten to bring the team along with her to lighten the load. And do you think that this is familiar territory for Jane? Do you think that she’s been in this situation before? Damn right she has!

If you’re thinking of spending serious dollars on a culture survey, I would like to challenge you with the thought that often the best place to start would be to increase the self-awareness of every member of the leadership team and transparently share with each other, courageously, those critical areas that each member of the team needs to work on to increase the success of their division or department in line with overall strategy.
And don’t let the 360 degree feedback turn to dust on the shelf. Share each others’ evaluations and talk about how to tie your learning outcomes into regular feedback and communication. Make it part of your regular dialogue.
Only then do your culture survey of the rest of the business. See, I’m a believer in keeping things simple. The fish rots from the head. And when it rots, it stinks up the whole business. Big time. Just ask Jane! (She just got fired, by the way.)

About Soozey Johnstone

Soozey Johnstone is a writer, thought leader and advisor to senior executive teams. She is the author of I Am The Problem, outlining nine key obstacles that lead to business success – and why some businesses grow and prosper while others fall by the wayside.   http://iamtheproblem.com.au/ www.method9.com.au https://www.linkedin.com/in/soozeyj #IAmTheProblem @soozeyJ

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