As I looked round the room at my executive team, the acid in my stomach got worse.
Dave, our Operations VP, was convinced that Erica from Finance was out to get him: ‘you watch what happens at the end of the quarter, she squirrels the provisions away and makes me look bad, she wants to get me fired!’ Jeff, in charge of rental, couldn’t abide Dave: every time he opened his mouth a verbal scrap would result ‘even the most rookie supervisor can manage their expenses, but with you Dave, you spend, spend, spend like a drunken lottery winner, no wonder your results stink.’
And me, as HR VP, I just let them get on with it, complaining to anyone who would listen that you get more rational behaviour in the monkey cage at the zoo.
The only thing that united us was our low opinion of Hank the Yank, the new boss, sent from home office to sort us out. He had a grizzly temper and the attention span of a fly, buzzing from issue to issue as he desperately searched for the silver bullet that would fix the operation and turn around our grim results.
It was no way to run a $2 billion company. We had 3,000 employees depending on our leadership, despairing shareholders ready to dump our stock, and we couldn’t even agree whether to order bacon sandwiches or croissants for breakfast.
Anyone who tells you they have a magic bullet, silver or otherwise, for complex and systemic problems belongs in a travelling fair. What you have to do is find the right place to start. We had fired executives, seen new CEOs come and go and played host to consultants carrying out strategic reviews. None of it worked. For us, the right place to start was with the team.
Making us take part in a high-performance team session had been greeted with a mixture of cynicism and contempt. We were like a collection of hedgehogs keeping a prickly distance, and there was no way that we were going to take part in a team hug!
But over the next two days something important happened; we began to turn up as human beings. We learned about each other as individuals, our backgrounds and stories, and what we valued and wanted to achieve for ourselves, families and teams. Importantly, we also came to grips with our impact, both good and bad.
We see our business relationships as stories where we are the hero or victim and our colleagues either supporters or villains. Our story about Hank cast him as a gadfly with a short temper and Jeff had Dave as immature and out of his depth. We get trapped by these stories, convinced that we are right, look for confirming evidence and share our prejudices with others as co-conspirators. Add the pressures and competitiveness of a senior leadership team, and you soon have a swamp of dysfunctional and destructive relationships.
Hank saw himself as highly creative: buzzing around with ideas was his way of stimulating debate and innovation. The lack of response from the team made him feel ignored, a hot spot from his upbringing that led to flashes of anger.
Rather than overspending, Dave had a structured plan for investing in his business, but he hated to have his judgement questioned: his usual response was to fight rather than explain.
The high-performance session gave us the language and the perceptions to break out of our cycles of automatic listening. This didn’t mean that Dave could spend as much as he wanted, but it did mean that the team recognized his tendency to react to questioning and helped him keep his cool. As you understand people as individuals, trust grows and team members learn to ask for and understand their colleague’s motivations and intentions and to seek feedback on their own impact.
As for Hank the yank? He became a trusted friend and leader who led a successful turnaround. It all starts with the team!
Mike Davies is an experienced executive coach and business leader.
Mike is a Troy Media contributor.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the authors’ alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.
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