Published: February 1, 2013
Jennifer Selby Long, Selby Group
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Fix My Boss

It was a cold and dreary winter day. I sat in a conference room with a VP of Operations and his team of nine directors for their quarterly operations review. The most senior director, Paul, began his presentation. As the minutes ticked by, my mood began to match the grey day outside. It was downright depressing, and not because Paul reported bad news. On the contrary, Paul’s organization was excelling, with most of the dashboard a cheery green, and just a few spots of yellow and red to indicate areas where they were struggling.

Paul was an operations star who could manage a larger global scope than anyone else in the company. He had earned the respect of everyone who worked with him. Never one to arrive unprepared, Paul was now reporting on a mind-numbing 43 projects. Each slide in his seemingly endless deck shared every statistic we could ever want to know about the activities on a given subset of tasks on each project over the past three months. Every question, however obscure, was answered immediately, accurately, and with the utter confidence that can only come from knowing your voluminous material cold.

There was just one big problem with all of this. Paul wasn’t happy and he wasn’t engaged. He had been a global operations star for over a decade. He was part of a very small club, the rare few who can effectively manage complex technical operations in over 100 countries at the same time, no matter what happened. Need two thousand PC’s up and running in a remote Chinese city this month? No sweat. Need four hundred highly specialized technicians in Brazil for three months? Child’s play. Need a network installed in the throes of a civil war in northern Africa? Been there, done that. How about renegotiating an unfavorable mega-million-dollar contract with a key vendor? Shrug.

Paul felt agitated and unappreciated. He firmly believed his boss had pigeon-holed him as a “super-manager” and would never give him the level of strategic responsibilities that would excite him at this point in his career. Privately, he told me he was certain he was one of the strongest leaders in the company and that his boss just didn’t get it. Paul received calls from executive recruiters every week, and he was seriously considering going to work for a competitor he felt would appreciate his leadership.

However, the quarterly operations review revealed an essential truth that Paul had missed. On the inside, he saw himself as a strategic and very senior leader. On the outside, he still communicated as if he were one or even two levels down, indeed, a super-manager. By launching into detailed slides without context, reporting on past activities without context, and presenting data in rapid succession without interpretation, he might as well have been screaming, “I’m the best bleepin’ manager you’ve ever had, and that’s all I bring to the table.”

So what can we learn from Paul? Plenty, because Paul was holding on to an ego-driven belief that put blinders on him. In fact, if Paul could let go of this belief, he could get everything he wanted.

The belief was that his boss didn’t “get it.” Likewise, your boss may or may not really understand or appreciate your potential. It’s impossible to know for sure. However, you can greatly influence the situation by examining your own assumption that it’s all his or her problem.

Paul believed that by presenting data that proved his amazing performance, he was conveying what a stellar leader he was. He also believed that it was up to his boss to understand what a fine leader he was and treat him accordingly. Both of these unquestioned assumptions became barriers to Paul achieving the extraordinary leadership of which he was capable.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, people only heard data from Paul, not a vision. No wonder they saw him as a super-manager. Sure, he mentioned his strategy from time to time, in quarterly strategic planning off-site meetings, but never referred back to it before presenting his updates in operations reviews. By doing this, he made it difficult for people to engage with him. He required people who already have too much to remember to try to dig back into their memories and accurately recall his vision and strategy, and to interpret the data against that vision and strategy. One of these people was his boss, who worried that Paul’s poor communication was holding him back.

If you are not seen as the leader you believe yourself to be, check to make sure you’re communicating like an extraordinary leader. It may very well be that your boss is clueless (some certainly are), but if even 10% of the problem lies with you, you’ll just take it with you to your next boss instead of changing for the better.

Start with this list of questions. How well and how often do you do each of the following?

1. Leaders very explicitly point people toward a vision of the future.
   
2. They create a strategy to move the organization closer to this vision.
   
3. They remind everyone of the vision and the strategy at every opportunity, assuming that it’s perfectly normal for people to need to hear it several times before it resonates with them or can even be remembered amid all of the noise.
   
4. They keep their attitude positive and constructive. Instead of judging others as “not getting it,” they seek a better understanding of the circumstances that make it difficult for others to embrace this vision and strategy. This includes an honest examination of how they themselves may be making it difficult for others to embrace the vision and strategy, not just an assessment of outside factors.
   
5. They don’t just present data and assume the numbers speak for themselves, they interpret data so others will understand if there is progress toward the vision or risks to achieving the vision.

Luckily for Paul, one of his peers recognized what was happening in the operations review, and subtly provided the leadership role by saying things like:

“So I interpret this data to mean that we have more risk in the first strategy going forward. Is that how you see it?”
   
“Wasn’t one of the key elements of your vision a career path for all key talent? It looks like we’re 70% there, but there are significant challenges to reaching 100%.”
   
And when a heated debate ensued, she listened with a positive and constructive mindset, and then said, “What Paul is saying, George, is actually pretty close to what you’re saying. Let’s go back to the vision and strategy for this group and see if you’re really misaligned or actually in violent agreement, like I think you are. The strategy Paul’s referring to includes...”

Much to his surprise, Paul’s boss also turned out to be one of his biggest supporters. Paul just hadn’t been able to see it when his ego was bruised. With practice, feedback, and focus, Paul was able to see how he unconsciously created much of the problem that so frustrated him. He realized that much of the solution was in his control, not dependent on anyone else, that he held more power than he thought.

It was such an honor to work with Paul and his boss. I was truly elated to see his transformation. Of course, “Paul” is a fictitious character combining the traits, situation, and challenges of several clients, and it was exciting working with each of them. Do you recognize any aspect of yourself in the character of Paul? If so, that’s fantastic, because it means much of the power to get what you want lies with you, not with anybody else.



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