At the time, I had no idea how to respond to the feedback: “You need to show your team you’re not a machine.”
I was a first-time manager with two years in the role. And, I had been operating with a very wrong sense of what my job was. It took a mini-crisis and a painful intervention for me to learn some powerful leadership lessons that shaped the rest of my career.
Greater Performance by Pushing Harder Was the Wrong Mantra:
For the year before that less than specific feedback, I had viewed myself as a system and process person. I took great pride in bringing order to chaos and creating operating routines that improved our abilities where our customers needed our help the most.
- The numbers said this approach was successful.
- Our customers and my management viewed the approach as successful.
- And judging by the volume and quality of work my team was generating, it was working.
Yes, everything was fine until one day it wasn’t.
There we were cruising along a high rate of speed when suddenly the wheels started coming off. First, one key contributor quit. And then another. And finally, the team held a mini-intervention.
I was the interventionee. (New word?)
What It Felt Like to Work for Me:
It was through this process that unfolded over weeks I learned some valuable leadership lessons.
The first critical lesson: the people who left didn’t quit the firm. They quit me.
The rest of the people were tired and frustrated from being pushed to ever-increasing levels of productivity for no other reason than to increase productivity.
There was no sense of purpose or more significant cause. And to top it off, the boss (me) was more machine-like than human.
I was relieved to get this feedback. Yes, it hurt a lot, but I was still relieved.
Internally, I knew I had been more focused on what I thought my boss and her bosses wanted from us, and less focused on what the team needed.
I also naively assumed that everyone involved would appreciate the so-called success of steadily improving numbers.
I was wrong.
Important Leadership Lessons Learned the Hard Way
Through a series of conversations, we defined a new way to work together.
Everyone accepted accountability for their own and the group’s performance. No one wanted to revert to old, chaotic ways of doing things.
It was here where I learned the power of personal accountability as a core value. No exceptions.
Additionally, it turns out the following items were critically important to them:
- Input into how we did things
- Opportunities to innovate in their areas of focus
- Coaching from me on how to improve performance.
- Support from me for pursuing their development aspirations.
And then there was the issue of purpose. This was one of the greatest leadership lessons of my life.
Everyone understood the importance of our performance indicators. However, targets alone don’t create meaningful purpose.
This group wanted to become widely respected as the best at serving customers in our industry. And, they wanted to be a model for a high-performing team inside our firm. And to do these things, they needed me to be more human and less machine and help them get there.
I had a lot of work to do. But now, it was the right work.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
I’ve never let go of my drive to succeed. However, I have changed my definition of success to reflect one that strives to create great outcomes for and with people. Being human, empathetic, and focused on the people around you doesn’t mean that you have to settle for mediocre results. It’s quite the opposite.