I used to see faces. Not just actual faces of people [although I do see them, when I’m wearing my contacts]. And not like in an “I see dead people way” either. But every time I made a decision – tough or otherwise – I’d see a member of our team, and I’d imagine their reaction. It wasn’t always the same team member, and I wasn’t even aware I was doing it, but when I think back, I can still see the people who sprang to mind, unconsciously, when I was making big calls. Of course there’s a confidence factor, but I don’t believe that’s the whole of it.
While I definitely don’t claim that my sense of self assurance is infallible, I’m fairly certain that I’m good at my job, and I trust that I have good instincts. I’m a natural problem solver and I’m great at thinking quickly and finding solutions. I’m capable of making big decisions and acting with confidence [this is not a cover letter, I swear, I am going somewhere with this]. If you’d asked me a few months ago if I was led by the opinions of others, I’d have said no. And then I started working with Megan Luscombe, who did what she does best, and called me on my sh*t, big time, just by asking me a question.
Megan asked me to imagine that I was presenting to an auditorium full of people, and that at the end of my presentation, the crowd did… nothing. Dogs howled in the distance. Plastic bags rolled across the stage. Blank faces fixed dead stares in my general direction. It sounded like my idea of hell, and I told Megan so. Megan told me very matter of factly [10 minutes into our first ever session] that this would be my downfall as an MD. Cool, cool cool cool. Floored as I was, I got it in principle; if I was acting with individual responses in mind, how could I be operating with the needs of the business as my priority? Along with the obvious implications of unfairness [who are you responding to? The loudest and most forceful personalities. And what about the needs of the rest?] I believe a team can sense a leader who is constantly second guessing themself and changing their course as a reaction to others.
Assuming Megan is right [and I’m here to tell you that she is, about everything, all the time] I must admit that I am still battling with the concept a little. Apart from my ability to bash out a spreadsheet to solve any problem, I would rate my empathy for my team as one of my best qualities as an MD. On first examination, this seems like the very opposite of an empathetic response. What? I’m supposed to just not care how everybody feels? Seems a little Norman Bates, to me. The thing is though, neutrality and empathy don’t have to be mutually exclusive. If you are so caught up in how your day-to-day decisions are going to make individual team members feel, how is it possible to set and work towards a clear vision for the company?
So, how do we stop looking to our “audience” when making big decisions?
Stay on track. I remind myself daily of the goals, both financial and cultural, that I have set for this business. With Megan’s help, I wrote a statement of intent – something I want to achieve for TDP, and I keep it scrawled on a post-it on my desk. When I’m making big calls I check in with myself on the reasons behind it. If those reasons don’t serve my goal, I need to take another look at them.
Be prepared to be disliked. This one is tough. I spent many years believing that my consideration of every person in my “auditorium” was just about empathy, but of course it’s not. A genuine concern for my team is a huge part of it, sure, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an element of good old fashioned “please like me”, mixed in there. As confident as we are, it’s human nature to seek a bit of validation from those around us, especially if we need their buy-in. It can be lonely when you’re the one calling the shots, but I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that we can lessen the blow of tough business decisions by trying to please all the people all the time. You know what actually lessens the blow of a tough decision? Knowing it’s the right one for the business, not just a few of the people in it.
Act with integrity. This might sound obvious, but it’s hard [and it should be!] to stand behind your decisions if you know deep down that you’re cutting corners, or asking things of your team that you wouldn’t be prepared to do. While some decisions may be unpopular, or feel difficult, it’s easier to drown out the noise if you’re proud of your own actions and your own work.
Build the trust. To me, this is the most important point of all. If you want genuine buy-in, you won’t get it just by making decisions based on what you think people want. Whether they like you or not, your team will get behind you if they trust you, but you have to earn it. Sure, being smart and making a series of good decisions will earn you some professional trust, but I think it goes beyond that. While your business capabilities are important, you also need your team to know that they can trust you as a person. Lead by example, be accountable, be professional and make your team feel safe. If I know that I have the trust of my team, then I don’t need to be scanning that audience for approval all the time.
Of course I still do see those faces sometimes, but when I walk into that arena, I do my best to close my eyes when I can. Or at the very least, I just really really squint.