Every leader has been advised to focus on how he or she “shows up,” usually accompanied by injunctions to be authentic, open, supportive and rigorous. Yet few aspects of leadership are as difficult as being aware of and understanding how others perceive us.
I had a stunning example of this in my first year as President of Pace. We had weekly meetings of the senior management group (which we called the Operations Committee). When I began, the culture at Pace was characterized by high and strong silos, and they carried over into our Operations Committee meetings. I soon noticed that each Vice President or Dean would talk directly to me and that, no matter what the issue, there was little or no discussion among the members of the Committee. The meetings were not contributing to building a cohesive and collaborative team, which was one of the principal purposes of getting together.
I thought I had a clever solution. When I raised an issue for discussion and the first person started to look at and talk just to me, I would look down at the papers in front of me. I figured that if I did not look at them, they would have to talk to each other.
Not long after I adopted this practice, I had members of the Operations Committee conduct a “180” (a review in which an independent interviewer talked only to my direct reports and excluded the Board Chairman and other Trustees to whom I reported). One of the comments that came back to me was to the following effect:
“Steve is smart and experienced.
He makes up his mind quickly and when he does so, he stops listening.”
I was gob smacked! “That’s not true at all,” I said to myself. “I never stop listening and I don’t make decisions until I have heard the full discussion.” After a lot of self-examination, it finally dawned on me that when I looked down at Operations Committee meetings, the members just assumed that I had stopped listening – a perfectly reasonable inference from where they sat.
We have all had the experience of learning that members of our team, or other parts of the organization, view us or our actions in ways we never intended or imagined. It is often a shock. As I said to a friend: “It doesn’t always make you feel good, but it is tremendously valuable because you learn so much.” I stopped looking down at Operations Committee meetings and discussed the comments from the interviews, my reaction to those comments, and what I had been seeking to accomplish. We were able to have an open discussion of ways to generate more group debate, the importance of respectful disagreement and of expressing contrary opinions. Although while stating that disagreement may happen, I tried to emphasize it was not discouraged, rather that I valued their views and wanted them to develop discourse.
What practices can we adopt to become more self-aware?
Intentional “noticing,” is the first practice. When you sense that someone is not reacting as you intended to something you said or did, notice both your comment or actions and their response. Think about how you acted or what you said and why you did so. Continue to look for similar reactions on your part for the next couple of days. It helps to write them down. Chances are that you are speaking or acting in ways that are deeply rooted in the path you took to bring you where you are today. They are reactions from your comfort zone; because they have worked in the past, they have become habitual reactions to certain comments or actions of others: poor performance, a bad attitude, anger, etc. And those reactions may not be appropriate or effective in new circumstances.
Next, notice the reactions of others as you speak and ask yourself if you are getting the kind of reaction you want as a leader. Is the response to you constructive or defensive? Is the person embracing your direction or sullenly accepting it? Will it lead to greater collaboration or hunkering down in a silo? This awareness will help you gauge how to alter your own conduct to generate the responses that will most benefit your company or organization.
As I learned from my experience with the Operations Committee, another helpful practice is to ask a coach or consultant to conduct a 360 or a 180 of 5-10 of your direct reports and, in the case of a 360, those to whom you report. In endeavoring to be a more effective leader, I conducted a 180 every few years. These reviews became a source of new insights about the ways I was being perceived: the successes and shortcomings of the way I was communicating with my Board and my senior management team and what steps I might take to be a more effective leader.
There are a multitude of 360 questionnaire resources available online, but a customized set of questions is always more valuable. However, when those questions are asked by an experienced coach or consultant in a face-to-face conversation, the questioner can follow up to secure deeper responses. You should expect the coach or consultant to do more than deliver the responses to the interviews. He or she will interpret and assess them and deliver a meaningful report of strengths and weaknesses.
I welcome your comments, thoughts and reactions.