Thursday, August 20, 2009

Speak true. Live free.

I have violated the cardinal rule of blogging - by not posting anything for more than a month. Forgive me, anyone out there who is waiting to see what comes next (all 10 of you and anyone you pass this to). The truth is I have scrawled notes on all shapes and forms of bits of paper, backs of boarding passes, in the margins of my journal and from news bites I read or watch. I have just not had the brain time to pull anything coherent or interesting enough to use this space.

It has been a busy 6 weeks or so, summer friends and family visiting Southern Cal, and a higher vibration at work as we prepare for 2010 business planning, all the while still hoping to live that long.

One thing I learned years ago, first by seeing what NOT to do in my first real big business job, and then by seeing what TO do by learning from an amazing mentor, is that as a leader in any environment your behavior and your energy can really set the stage for how everyone on a team relates, performs and feels.

If you are hierarchical, closed and threatened by another's opinion you will close down, or shut them out. Not only does this wreak havoc on morale, it also eclipses any opportunity for cross-discipline sharing, building and learning - if everything is kept in linear order, in check and in silos. I had a superior (not a direct boss) who led like that and people feared her, disliked her and operated on the premise of only doing the bare essentials. She was miserable, it showed on her face and in her walk. It showed in the way she chain smoked (remember it was 15+ years ago now, so that was a more common event). But she went through her day thinking she was the boss and she had the power, and somehow she thought that meant she could control people and tell them what to do or not. She was the kind of leader who would ask you your opinion, then if you disagreed with her, you were punished or excluded from further discussion. I can write this story now, all these years later as the statute of limitations must for sure be in effect.

Then in another large corporation I experienced the opposite. I worked with an inspiring, inspired leader. He was confident enough in himself that he wanted new ideas to come from anywhere, and it really didn't matter. He worked hard, laughed a lot, always said thank you for a job well done, had a great sense of humor, walked super fast, was always the first one in the office at 7am each day and clearly loved his work and his life. It showed in the respect he gave everyone around him. He loved nothing more than when the team was successful, and that success was defined by innovating a new product or strategy to steal market share from our biggest competitor across the valley, or being first to market with a new idea. More times than not, he stood back and basked in the success and gave the credit to the person who came up with an idea, or built on one to get to the next level. The team succeeded, he succeeded, and none of us ever really cared who got credit. There was no "inner circle" or excluded ones - there was just the work and that's what we focused on. He pushed me to the edge a time or two with his high expectations. When I thought my marketing plan was the most complete ever written, he challenged me to go deeper - not by telling me or inferring I was stupid or doing it wrong, but by telling me I could dig deeper still and learn a lot more. He gave me the personal challenge, and put his faith and confidence in what I could do. And he wasn't threatened or insecure about whatever the results might be. He was right, and I worked the many extra hours and made tons of phone calls to decipher our competitors' strategies.

So why the blather? Because we are in the midst of a tough time right now economically and it is these times that test us all. What kind of leader will you be? I work hard to be the second, and to give to the team members I work with the same gifts David Barry gave to me. I know I am not nearly as focused, grounded or intelligent as he. But when I am pushed off my center these days I just remember the things he taught me. Focus on the work. Support each other. Stay open. Share the credit. Be nice, it's a lot more fun. Have a sense of humor. Appreciate people's gifts and their faults and work with them both. And to paraphrase one of my favorite performers - Speak true. Live free.

1 comment:

  1. ** T -- this is one of the most spectacular think-pieces I've ever read. It allows us to go back and pick out the milestones in our lives -- the leaders with whom we've crossed paths who were supportive bosses or teachers -- and those who weren't. All of us can relate to what you've written and right now I can think of just 5-6 names of people most responsible for shaping the way I think about my life and work today -- and the way I write and express myself accordingly. I'll never forget when I first got out of college, at my first writing job. I wrote news copoy for an all-news radio station, KOGO AM 600, still on the air here in San Diego.

    ** There was this guy, Mike Dewey, who used to work for ABC News in NYC -- and he was in the twilight of his career, but was unthreatening and moreoever, willing to share his wisdom. He pulled me aside and chewed me out -- saying that I had brains but no aptitude for writing in an engaging way. He said I wrote like I was in college trying to impress my professors -- instead of writing to grab attention in a headline way. He said it was obvious I could go far, but broadcast news writing is not as easy as people think and it's definitely NOT writing for newspapers. In short, I began writing news copy with straight-ahead language, even using colloquialisms like "hassle," and "rip-off," etc.

    ** This changed me overnight. I became a blunt person and later, when I was promoted to news director, running a staff of 26, some who were double my age -- I made sure my staff didn't think I was a jerk. I wanted to be respected, but I also wanted to share what I knew and become a leaning post for them -- while still being demanding about precision and being open to their problems. I wanted to aggressively chase goals, build ratings, make money and to never flag in my efforts to get people's attention. It turned out to be my M.O. when I left to become a news shill, going to work for a Fortune 500 company. My supervisor only hired people with daily metropolitan news experience and he was terrific. He said I would never have to lie, but I should always use good news judgment while protecting the company.

    ** Becoming a flack meant I would avoid single-client pitches -- and instead promote big-picture issues whereby my company or clients could ride in the lead or secondary position with competitors. Way more credible. I can't tell you how awful it was when I was a news editor calls from PR types armed with lame single-client pitches.

    ** In sum, the take away from your great post -- is you reminded me again that bad bosses are filled with insecurity about having employees who were better than they were at certain skill sets -- they fret about how they will "appear" to their bosses or their clients -- thinking only of imposing "high-school regimental rules" that have more to do with validating and consolidating their perceived power -- and less to do with the quality of the end product.

    ** Let's face it, we are always in love with an "atta-boy!" or a "good job!" compliment. It never gets old. It improves confidence and makes people work HARDER. It costs leaders NOTHING to do this, but some won't. They're not fit to be leaders. Whether they like it or not -- their attitude, even if they don't care how they come off -- adversely impacts the psyche of every employee. I've seen confident young people -- in companies large and small -- turn into soft boiled clams when faced with incessant indifference or tyranny. Employees don't have a gun to their heads to work anywhere, but in this economy, they're probably putting up with this more than usual to preserve their jobs. The best bosses are those who were fun to be around. You like them enormously and will follow them into battle. And they all have one thing in common -- the ability to convey basic descency and respect -- while maintaining a firm hold on what's expected of them as a leader.

    ** I missed your posts, T. They always give me a boost. Glad to have you back.