A family friend hired me many years ago. He claimed he had an organizational problem at his company. “People don’t know why they work here,” he told me. “I need them to anchor into the brand of the company and see why we matter. I’m worried that key managers will leave because they don’t seem happy.” While organizational development work isn’t my specialty, Aaron was a friend who believed I could help.
One of the first steps I took was to observe where things weren’t working. I set up shop in his office, observing the interactions among the team and interviewing team leaders on their understanding of the company’s brand and value proposition. During many of the conversations about the company’s future, the discussion turned to Aaron, the founder, and CEO. His team described him as holding the company vision, being responsible for setting the mood of the teams (particularly the sales team), and steering the success of all employees. This was particularly interesting to me, as Aaron had said he wanted his employees to attach more to the company brand, not his.
One day, I asked to sit in on a sales team meeting and quickly identified a problem. During the meeting, Aaron sat at the head of the oval conference table. His sales staff flanked him on both sides and positioned their chairs towards him. There was very little banter or small talk as the meeting started.
Aaron asked for an update on key accounts to which each account manager replied with short, succinct, factual replies. After each person spoke, all eyes quickly darted back to Aaron for a response, recommendation or reaction.
A couple of times during the meeting, Aaron asked a question of the team, such as “Anyone seeing anything new from our competitors that we should be aware of?” or “What are clients saying about the new pricing?” to which no one responded. Instead, they’d all look at him for answers. Everyone in the room knew of Aaron’s extraordinary experience in the industry and his reputation as a “rainmaker” made him an admired boss. His team rarely spoke up in meetings, knowing his answer would inevitably be more insightful, revealing, and impactful than their own.
The room typically stayed silent for a few moments after he’d ask a question, and Aaron then answered his own questions to the applause of his team. Aaron seemed to delight in the accomplishment of having the right answer (yet again), and the group was dismissed.
Afterward, we discussed how he wanted his team to perceive him. I asked, what was his desired reputation? He told me it was important that they see him as being smart and knowledgeable, paving the way to success for them, and relying on him for guidance. The more we talked, however, Aaron started to see that his own bias to being “large and in charge” and always being seen as the smartest person in the room was holding his team back. They weren’t growing, learning, and feeling empowered, and their careers at the company were at risk. The challenge, it turned out, wasn’t that they weren’t sold on the mission of the company. The problem was that Aaron was holding them back.
We discussed various behavior modification and style options and at the next meeting, Aaron mixed things up. As each account manager gave an account update, he pushed for more information, asking open-ended questions so the manager would be encouraged to expand on their initial update. Then, when he asked the group questions, and they all waited for him to answer, he called out to individuals to give their insight or thoughts on the question. There are no wrong answers, he told the group, and they responded with some interesting and creative ideas. After the meeting, people seemed to smile more. They came to subsequent meetings a bit more hopeful. One account manager suggested a team retreat where they could brainstorm and strategize about growing key accounts, and Aaron recommended that individual lead the retreat, to their surprise and enjoyment!
A few months later, I checked in with Aaron and he gave me an update:
“I’d always thought growing a company and a brand was about keeping things tightly controlled. I thought I had to prove myself to the team leaders, so they’d want to stay and learn from me. Now, I realize I was holding them back. By empowering and recognizing them individually, I grew the team value exponentially. They now bring ideas to me, seem happier at work, and are growing their accounts. It turns out that my personal brand had a lot to do with growing my company.”
**extract from “Control The Narrative”. (page 225)
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