I once had a colleague approach me and request some “CEO Time.” This individual didn’t report to me and we had very little regular interaction. When we did, it was often centered around our love of food and adventure when not related to work. As we sat down to talk, I immediately sensed the tension and angst present and I prepared myself for whatever was coming. I was pretty certain that it wasn’t going to be good. I was totally unprepared for what happened and it has served as one of my best leadership lessons.
“Why don’t you care about my professional development and all the rest of what you condescendingly refer to as the ‘line’ employees?” I sat there stunned, a million different thoughts running through my mind. What followed was an amazing conversation and learning moment for us both. Here are some key leadership take-a-ways from that day.
- Choose your words carefully and don’t assume they mean the same thing to others. The term “line employee” for me represented my colleagues in the trenches. They were the heart and soul of the organization and I had great respect for their work and critical contributions. Many took it as the CEO reminding them they were at the bottom of the org chart and should “mind their place.”
- Don’t be so focused on publicly recognizing and supporting “career ambitious” individuals. Not everyone wants to be the next director, vice president or CEO. Yes, it’s critical to support and encourage the next generation of leaders. It is equally important, and I would say even more critical, to encourage and support a culture where everyone’s contributions are valued and celebrated. Just because someone has decided upward advancement is not part of their current future, doesn’t mean they don’t want to learn and grow. I realized that most of my career stories were generally about how I advanced in my career, and not around how I grew my value to the organization.
- Culture matters and if you say you have an “open door” then you’d better be ready to listen when someone walks through.
I remember that day like it was yesterday and my sense of both pride and horror at the beginning of the meeting. It took everything I had not to immediately respond and refute their assessment. Instead, I listened, asked questions and engaged in a dialogue. At the end, I deputized this individual to hold me accountable, including in public, when needed. I became a better leader and they a true friend all these years later.
Diane Probst, CCE says
We can always listen and learn although difficult at times. We get so focused and busy, we sometimes put in the back seat the feelings of others. Frustrations can easily surface. We all know what happens when we get frustrated. We live in a crazy world today. We have to continually find ways to address our frustrations.