Tuesday at the Management Excellence blog is for anyone getting started (or starting over) on their leadership journey.
I can tell you with absolute certainty that I didn’t think about my own leadership legacy during the early part of my career. No one does. After all, who has time to worry about something so squishy and distant sounding when you’re focused on getting things done? And make no doubt about it, I was laser focused on translating the formula for success in corporate life into my own personal gain.The formula in my mind was preoccupied with driving great results by pushing others.
Yes, my style as a young manager was more muscle and not finesse. I was playing a short-game…minute to minute with little concern for the long-term. And for awhile, the scoreboard was in my favor. I grew my responsibilities, title and income at a rapid rate. And then the wheels began to wobble as people cycled through my teams and off to other areas and even my own satisfaction with what I was doing (and how I was doing it) began to decline.
Thanks to a great mentor, I began to understand that the good short-term results were coming at a high price in terms of morale, burn-out and my own professional reputation. I believe he described me as a “machine,” and it wasn’t intended to be flattering. The connotation was more about being demanding and soulless and less about efficiency. He made me think about my approach and my style and I didn’t have to look far to find evidence that supported his case.
The relationships with my team members were shallow…mostly transaction-based, and the environment was demanding. I was demanding. Perhaps a bit of a minor tyrant. I took pride in my “get it done at all costs” reputation. As it turned out, I was running things like a sports team interested in winning a championship now with little concern for the team members or building a culture of excellence that would sustain the test of time.
Over the months following the “machine” comment, he challenged me to think about and then act on the output from three provocative questions. The introspection prompted by these three questions changed the course of my work, my career and likely my life. How will you answer them?
3 Questions to Help You Build a Great Leadership Legacy:
1. At the end of your career at your retirement party, how do you want people to describe the impact you had on them?
I remember laughing at this one. Retirement seemed a long way off then, and today, it just feels like a foreign concept. Nonetheless, this good question challenged me to consider the impact I was having on each individual versus thinking solely about the numbers and achievements. With a few more years under my belt and many remarkable accomplishments from my teams and for my firms, I care very little about the glories of great numbers…those are outcomes we are accountable for to our stakeholders, but they’re never the purpose or the drivers. The great quarters and years are like dusty trophies on a shelf in the basement. What I’m most proud of are the many successes of the great people who got their start on my watch. This simple question caused me to pause and then pivot in my thinking about my purpose in leading others.
2. Who are the leaders from history or in your life (not just business) that you most admire? Why? What was/is it about their approaches or actions that you find inspirational and instructive?
I still love this question and I use variations of it in my different programs and classes. I became (and remain) a student of history and a passionate observer of the effective and ineffective leaders in my firms and in my life. In particular, I’ve developed a long-term obsession to better understand how leaders facing great adversity dealt with their circumstances. Thinking through this question in the context of great leaders of history (or perhaps your personal history…via family members) is humbling. You recognize how important it was to have vision and then overcome extreme uncertainty and hardship while striving to keep people inspired by the vision. Whether it was the survival of Britain or the retention of the entire Union, neither Churchill nor Lincoln knew how they were going to prevail, they just knew that they had to for the greater good.
3. What type of environment do people need to prosper and do their best work, AND what is your role in creating this environment?
This compound question in particular has served as the foundation for my exploration of and experimentation with teams and approaches in pursuit of high performance. Ultimately, the leader sets the environment and issues of respect, trust, credibility and accountability are all wrapped up in forming and framing the environment for high performance. Most of us intuitively understand this at some level, but the question is are you living it every day? The environment I had created as a young manager was anything but healthy.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
The comment that I was functioning like a machine irked me. In hindsight, it was pivotal in my career. I’ve enjoyed myself more and I have a reasonable belief that I’ve helped people grow and have helped my firms and teams prosper because of my active cultivation of an approach based on my answers to the questions above. I use a question in my keynotes that challenges leaders to offer a pre-post-mortem on their impact on big initiatives. Extend this to your career, and ask: “At the end of your career, what will you want people to say that you did?“
It’s time to start doing it.
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