It’s easy to neglect your core responsibilities as a leader when it involves having uncomfortable conversations. Learn how to develop a maxim to overcome uncomfortable situations.
As a leader, one of your chief responsibilities is developing the members of your team. Great leaders build more leaders. You have to commit to their growth and create new opportunities for them to expand and learn new skills. That’s hard to do because for somebody to learn a new skill, you’re going to have to create an opportunity for them to do something they may not have done before. In doing that, you create risk because that individual might fail. And if they fail, that failure reflects on you. So a lot of times we’re afraid to take those risks on people to create growth opportunities.
That’s why you need a maxim to remind yourself that one of your chief responsibilities is doing that development work for the members of your team. My maxim to remind me that my chief responsibility is to develop people is, “It’s easier to correct course 100 yards into the journey than 100 miles.” I had a member of my team who was having some problems. One day he gave me some numbers and a report, and the numbers were off. I said, “Well, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. I’ll figure it out tomorrow.” I did this because I knew it was going to be a slightly uncomfortable conversation to have with him. A few days later, I heard about an interaction between this individual and a member of his team that hadn’t gone very well. I said, “I’m gonna need to talk to him about that. I’m not happy with what I’m hearing, but I’m not gonna do it today. Maybe I’ll do it next week.” The following week, I went past his office and he was berating a member of his team. He was speaking to them in a very condescending tone. I said, “I’m really gonna have to talk to him about this, but I’m not gonna do it today because he’s not in a good mood. The feedback won’t be well received.” I put off that more difficult conversation. I kept avoiding times when I should have given this individual some feedback.
Well, one day he came to me and said he was resigning. He had found another job and he was going to go work elsewhere. I was so excited because my problem was now gone. On the way home, I called one of my colleagues and I was relaying the good news, saying, “Hey, he quit—the guy who’s been giving me all the trouble. I don’t have to deliver the feedback now. He’s leaving the organization.” My colleague called me on it. He said, “Mike, you failed.” And I said, “What do you mean? How did I fail? He left. The problem is gone.” And my colleague said, “You failed every member of his team because your job as a leader isn’t just leading that individual. It’s leading the entire organization. Those people were getting beaten up on a regular basis. He was hurting their morale. And they were probably looking to you to solve that issue. You failed every member of that team. You have to remember that correcting course is easier 100 yards into the journey than 100 miles. You should have had the difficult conversation sooner because you could have either corrected performance or taken appropriate disciplinary action if he didn’t change the way he was operating.”
My colleague was right. I had failed the members of that team. So this maxim reminds me that when development conversations need to happen, I need to get over the fact that it’s going to be an uncomfortable conversation. I need to just have the discussion. It’s hard to do, but this maxim has changed my behavior on several occasions. There have been times when other members of my team since then have done something that I wasn’t exactly happy with. And my initial instinct was, “Well, I’ll just wait. It’ll fix itself.” And I said, “No. My maxim says I need to go have that conversation right now.” When I’ve done that, I’ve been very happy with the result because we correct behavior, get people pointed in the right direction, and do so before the problem gets bigger.
As you think about your team and about your responsibility to build leaders, to develop and challenge people, how are you going to remind yourself to take those kinds of risks? How are you going to remind yourself to have those difficult conversations when they need to happen? Has there been a time in your past where you created a growth opportunity for somebody and they succeeded well beyond your wildest dreams? Or a time where you avoided giving some tough feedback and there were bad consequences that occurred because you didn’t step up to the plate as a leader? Within those situations is where you’re going to find your maxims. Find that trigger. Find those words that were used in that conversation or the name of the project where the person succeeded. That phrase, that trigger, is what’s going to bring you back to that situation. It’s what is going to remind you of those feelings and get you to behave in a different way.
I know my maxim does that for me. When I have that difficult situation and I think of my maxim, I remember how uncomfortable that conversation was with my colleague when he told me I had failed. I remember how embarrassed I was of my failure as a leader. Those feelings drive me to change my behavior now because I never want to be that disappointed in myself again or that embarrassed. So you know what? I’m going to take action today. That’s how having a maxim based on something in the past can drive your performance in the future.
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