From the moment I entered my client’s office, I could see that this CEO was upset. After the customary greetings, I asked, “So…how is business?”
“Lousy,” he replied. “We’re not hitting our numbers, and it’s clear that no one around here really cares. Everyone is letting me down!” He motioned to his whiteboard where he had listed the names of everyone who had failed him: over 30 individuals including executives, employees, and a handful of others. I did a double-take when I saw my name at the bottom of the list!
While my client continued to vent, I listened intently, recognizing that his rant was a normal reaction for someone under a great deal of stress. Finally, he glared at me and demanded, “Well, what are you going to do?”
After an uncomfortable moment, I responded. “Would you go for a walk with me?” The CEO replied, “I don’t see the point…” I countered with, “If you will come with me, I think I can help you.”
Our walk took us to the door of the Men’s Room. My client hesitated. “You can do this without me,” he said. “Actually, I can’t,” I replied.
Entering the restroom, I led him to the large mirror overlooking the lavatories. As we faced our own reflections, I said, “On your whiteboard, I noticed that you had forgotten one person who has let you down. He is looking at you in the mirror.”
There was a long pause before the CEO smiled and said, “You know, I could fire you for that.” I returned the smile and replied, “Oh, I thought I was fired!” The CEO shook his head. “Of course not,” he said, “I just need help.”
“That I can do,” I replied, “but we must get past the blaming phase and start delving into the root causes of your current situation. I suggest three things in that regard. The first is you must own the problem, not blame others. Second, you should share that ownership with others, starting with me. Let’s also look at your whiteboard for those who might best be able to help you identify the root causes of your challenges and how to solve them. And the third, when you pull these folks together, you must really listen to them.”
I went on to explain that so much of isolation amid turmoil is a function of feeling that, as a leader, you must have all the answers. This is a fundamental part of what we call “lonely at the top” syndrome. We fail to recognize that much of this loneliness is self-inflicted. By garnering up your challenges rather than sharing them, you slam the door on the willingness and creativity of others to help.
I felt it imperative that my client recognize his tendencies to do this. Further, I had observed that when he met with his team, he almost always came with his own perceptions of what the issues were, along with his predetermined solutions for them. He was looking for ratification, rather than their best thinking regarding problem definition and solutions. And that’s what he always got: ratification. Ownership was totally his. Lots of head-nodding agreement, but little real buy-in or commitment.
The ultimate result of this was implicit in the names on his whiteboard. They had let him down. How? Because they were never fully utilized to support him in the trials he faced.
Our coaching session that day proved to be pivotal. Yes, as he engaged with key players from the whiteboard, the company was able to reverse their poor performance. That was the short-term benefit.
But more importantly, it changed the way my client dealt with his challenges and opportunities. Rather than holding these close to the vest until he exploded, he began to share them liberally with his people, inviting them to share ownership of both problems and solutions. He worked hard to avoid coming to team discussions with his own prescriptions. He began to look for ways to reinforce and ratify the best ideas that his people brought to the table, rather than always looking for their ratification of his decisions. In short, he became a facilitative leader.
Even for challenges that seem beyond your control, the three key elements I’ve shared here provide value. Such uncontrollables might include inflation, supply-chain disruptions, employee health concerns from COVID-19, or struggles to find and keep good employees.
Rather than feeling victimized by these issues, consider drawing together your best and brightest minds to wrestle with them. Start with the question: “What might we do within the scope of our organization to deal with inflation, the supply chain, etc.?” Then listen, learn, and create your own best solutions.