Story is powerful. Story is where we came from and where we are going. It’s what defines us, sets us apart, and allows us to connect with each other. As part of a larger organizational narrative, story provides the core of a mission.
Knowing this, image this introvert’s reaction when she was asked to “tell a story” at a company training designed to support employee engagement and a culture of care by improving connections, relationships and community. That’s a lot to put on this girl’s shoulders. I quieted my internal dialogue and decided to talk about leadership.
Here’s the story I told.
I am married and have a 17 year old daughter. With a license and a zippy little RAV 4, she’s out of the house more than she’s in. So, my husband and I did what most middle-aged, almost empty nester couples would do – we took up competitive shooting. Note: I use the term “competitive” very loosely.
Now, one of the things I like about competitive shooting is this: when I go to the range or step into a course of fire, whether or not I achieve the outcome I intend to achieve is largely dependent on me. That’s also the lesson I’ve learned about leadership time and again throughout my career: leadership has little to do with what you know and more about what you actually do.
I was in the Army for 9 years, 9 months, and 27 days (but who’s counting) and transitioned from leadership roles in maintenance, supply, and ammunition to corporate human resources (HR). I started with the HR department at a paper mill before moving across town to a family-owned manufacturing business as the head of my very own HR department of one. Of all the roles I’ve held, this is the one where I learned the most about business, HR and getting out of my own way to achieve results.
I was a member of the Executive Team reporting to the President. As part of or professional development, we hired an Executive Coach to work with us as individuals and as a leadership team. We participated in a 360-degree assessment and kicked off the coaching engagement with one-on-one meetings with our coach, Carol, to review our results.
I met with Carol and was surprised to learn that the rest of the team wasn’t nearly as enamored with me as I was with myself. It came down to my responses or reactions when things didn’t go the way I thought they should go. Say what?
Carol asked me about the policy manual incident (oh, so it had a name now), so I recapped the incident: after a particularly tense encounter I had with an employee upset about another manager’s propensity for making exceptions to policy for his staff, I took the policy manual into the manager’s office, placed it on his desk, opened the front cover of the binder, and pointed out that his signature was on the first page, not mine. I informed him that it was his policy manual and he was to follow it. I did a crisp about-face and left the office.
Yes, I was a real joy.
As we talked through this incident, Carol countered every one of my “yeah, buts” with a virtual mirror and some questions:
- Is this the way I wanted that interaction to go? No, but sometimes a girl has to do what a girl has to do, right?
- Why was this important? As a management team, employees count on us to do what we say we are going to do. Consistency and equity build trust and confidence and when the policies are not applied equitably, it erodes the trust and confidence we are working so hard to build.
- Did I achieve the outcome I intended? No, not even close
Carol worked with the team for the next few months and as I changed my approach, the rest of the team changed with me. I continued to work with Carol after her engagement with the company ended and when I later left the company. I’ve lost touch with Carol but the lessons stick with me.
This one lesson in particular is timely to share considering the week I just had:
When I feel compelled to react, I stop and ask myself these questions:
- Will what I have to say move the conversation forward?
- If it will, does it need to be said by me?
- If it does, does it need to be said now?
If the answers to any of these questions is “no,” that is my clue to zip it. When I don’t listen to the clues and blow by the warning signs, I think back to my time with Carol, clean up my mess, and commit to being better tomorrow.
People are unique. Leadership experiences are too. What’s your story?