“I’m told that I need to become more authentic as a leader. Can you show me how to do that?” Barry was a handsome, polished, well-mannered young man, impeccably dressed, conscious of every detail related to his image. He had worked hard on branding himself within his organization. He never lost control emotionally, his words were precise, and he deftly managed corporate politics and tricky negotiations.
The company loved using him as a spokesperson, because he looked so good on camera, and never said anything embarrassing. Barry received top individual performance scores, but his team wasn’t thriving. Two of his disengaged team members had recently transferred to other departments and immediately started performing, while another had left the organization. Barry wanted to grow his team and be seen as one of the more important leaders in his organization, while his boss was talking of eliminating his team and leveraging him as an individual performer.
At first I was stumped by the coaching request. Asking Barry to “become” more authentic would be like asking him to take off his clothes. Yet, “authenticity” has become a big buzzword in leadership today. Being considered “authentic” looked good. And Barry wanted to look good.
In order to coach Barry effectively it was important to go deeper, and not take on the authenticity challenge at face value.
Some of the key questions I asked were:
- Why were people on his team leaving?
- What was the key difference that enabled those team members to thrive in other departments?
- When people used the word “authentic” what were they actually describing?
- Why did Barry want to be a leader?
After interviewing some team members and a having few conversations with Barry, here is what we discovered:
- A few of the favorite managers in Barry’s organization were down to earth, friendly, and approachable. They often brought in lunch or dinner to the office and enjoyed the meal with their teams, informally talking about everything from family life to corporate strategy. These managers were described as “down to earth”, “real” and “authentic”. In contrast, Barry was seen as a perfectionist, hard-driving, and self-focused.
- The employees on Barry’s team who had transferred had felt intimidated by Barry, and they also did not feel seen, heard, or cared about. While they were clear on the tasks assigned to them, they didn’t feel as if their contributions were valued, and didn’t expect Barry to champion them or help them carve out their own career paths.
- When management used the word “authentic”, what they really wanted was for Barry’s team to be more engaged. While it seemed to make sense to tell him to become more like the managers everyone loved, it would have been more effective to give him different feedback, for example, “in order to be an effective leader, your team needs to feel seen, heard, and cared about, like you value their contributions, and like you will support them in their career paths”. This would have lead Barry to get curious about how he could do these things without being so self-conscious about changing his personality.
- Barry wanted to be a leader, because being a great leader was a sign of superior performance in his mind, and it made him look good. To not “cut it” as a great leader was unacceptable. It would mean his resume – and therefore he himself – was lacking.
Barry was an impeccable performer, and his sharp, calculating mind was an invaluable asset to his organization. His manager assessed correctly that the organization could best use Barry’s talents as an individual performer. However, he hadn’t been able to communicate his thinking without also inadvertently conveying that Barry was perceived to be lacking in some way.
Barry would have been willing to buy lunch and dinner for his employees, and emulate the behaviors of the well-liked managers, but this behavior would make him even less himself, making him less authentic, not more so. Also, it would have drained him, and reduced his performance in the areas where he naturally excelled.
If we had taken the coaching request at face value and attempted to work with Barry to develop an “authentic presence” it would have been a set-up for failure. Barry was so protective of his inner self that it would take years to open him up to the point where others could easily connect to him and experience that authenticity they were seeking. And even that could only happen if Barry was interested in doing deep inner self-exploration, which he wasn’t.
Instead of working with Barry to emulate certain behaviors, we focused on his strengths and values.
Through our discussions, Barry had some important insights:
- His real purpose behind “wanting to be seen as a great leader” was that he wanted to be valued as a superior performer in his organization.
- He didn’t actually enjoy managing people; what he enjoyed was out-thinking and out-shining people. But if he wasn’t on the “management team” he would be left out of key decision-making meetings in the organization.
- Barry realized that in his case, “lack of authenticity” was a label that others had used to describe their discomfort around him and their inability to sense a real connection with him. He realized that if he put more effort into paying attention to other people and acknowledging where they were coming from, they would feel more of a connection, and he was willing to do this work.
- Barry realized that his organization would value him much more if he played to his strengths and began to brainstorm on an ideal role that would be a win for both himself and the organization.
Barry had a conversation with his manager and proposed an arrangement that both were comfortable with:
- Barry was promoted into a new role with a title that put him on the senior management team so he could participate in key decision-making meetings. However, the purpose of his new role was not to manage a functional department, but to contribute his sharp, calculating thinking process to key decisions in the organization, and to represent the organization effectively to the outer world.
- Barry did end up with a small team, but his team members were selected specifically for having traits that aligned with Barry’s style and potential in the areas that Barry excelled in. Barry practiced acknowledging their points of view and giving them effective feedback and was able to create a positive team environment without changing his controlled and perfectionistic personality.
We were lucky in Barry’s case, that his management team valued him enough to think outside of their normal hierarchy for a way to give Barry the prestige he craved in exchange for his stellar individual performance.
Many organizations have star individual performers who find themselves “blocked” from adding value to the organization at the highest level, simply because people management isn’t their core competency. They try to force themselves to become a “leader” because we send a message that you have to be a great leader of people in order to be great.
I believe being a thought leader or a performance leader can be just as valuable as a traditional manager, but sometimes it takes a little bit of flexibility to line up the organizational structure so that it can leverage individual talent effectively.
If you find yourself struggling with a high performer who is not fitting in your traditional hierarchy, and want to brainstorm on options, feel free to contact me and schedule a phone call.
Or if you’re an employee who believes you may not fit into a traditional role within your organization, we could discuss your situation, as well.
Sometimes it just takes some discovery and a few conversations to figure out a win-win situation, and that type of approach takes far less time than it takes to coach an employee into a style that is unnatural to him or her, in order to fit in.