In one of my former jobs, I was conducting a highly-complex systems training session with a group of people…and I had a “challenging” leadership moment. It was the kind of moment where corporate politics was the game, jockeying for position was the play, and keeping my cool in the middle of it all was the only wild card I had. You’ve probably been there as a marketing leader. It sucks. It’s the kind of situation where you can’t wait to get home and vent to whoever will listen (my cat got an earful that day).
Let me set the scene for you:
The class I was teaching had a pre-determined list of tasks that participants had to accomplish before the class was over. Those tasks looked pretty simple when viewed as a bulleted list on a computer screen. In actuality, the finesse required to accomplish the tasks with excellence warranted plenty of soft skills refinement and conceptual foundation building. In short, it took a lot of time to get people to a place where they were set up for success.
I’d given my participants a brief break and walked over to my desk to grab something. A colleague of mine, whose level of positional authority was equal to mine (and who had a reputation of regularly playing corporate politics), came over to me and said:
Colleague: “Have your participants completed the tasks in [insert name of LMS software] yet?”
Colleague: (passive aggressively) “Oh. Okay.” (starts covertly scribbling notes on a piece of paper)
Me: (trying not to sound pandering) “Don’t worry. We’ll get there.”
My colleague’s inner monologue at this point was probably saying, “Awesome. Now I can blame you for not following protocol when I’m asked why people on your team have overdue tasks in the system.” My internal monologue, on the other hand, was screaming, “You have NO CLUE how people learn! A brain doesn’t consider due dates when it comes to ‘getting it.’ MY JOB is to help people understand some really complex stuff, so I’m NOT going to obey your arbitrary timeline and obsessively regulated process for the sake of making a piece of software happy!”
We parted ways with manufactured smiles and went about our day’s work. I kept my cool, but there was a battle brewing. There was tension. Every subsequent interaction with this colleague was strained as if we were both trying to figure out what the other person’s angle was.
“What tactical move is she going to make to gain position?”
“When is the next “gotcha” moment going to spring up?”
“Is he going to fire the first shot in this battle?”
Fast-paced leaders who are built like me don’t understand planners and pragmatists who think like my colleague. One party wants to energize, flex, and inspire. The other tends to dig in, plot, and strategize.
It’s the infantry officer shouting, “Follow me!” to the troops in the trenches versus the general developing a battle plan months before an engagement.
One knows that the best laid plans fall apart in the fog of war. The other knows that victory isn’t guaranteed by gusto alone.
My colleague and I both felt we had a tactical advantage on our cubicle-laden battlefield. We both believed senior management would bolster our position when we asked for reinforcements. We were both right…but I was too stubborn at the time to admit it.
If you’ve been caught in situations like this before, I feel you. You want to execute your own plan (which is probably only in your head – you don’t like to write things down) and you feel like you can tiptoe around minefields if they show up. Other people think you’re too unstructured or label you as “one of those creative types.” The tension this causes within a team that has differing opinions about how to execute a project can be destructive. Here’s what you can do if you’ve experienced conflict or tension with others because of your “Follow me!” approach to leadership and creativity.
Evaluate the tension once it’s identified/encountered and be willing to set your ego aside.
Given the situation I laid out at the beginning of this post, it took me about a week to purposefully reflect on the encounter and admit to myself that the rigid process noted by my colleague did have value. It wasn’t necessarily about a “gotcha” moment or a CYA play. The structure of the process and the system associated with tracking it wasn’t inherently evil or put in place to keep my creative side in a box. It was, in fact, a check and balance. It was there to mark the boundaries within which I could “do my thing.” My task was to lead others to learn a series of concepts and procedures during a defined period of time. There was a system in place to ensure that the participants understood those concepts and procedures. That’s not a bad thing. How I got participants to that point was largely up to me, but setting my ego aside to acknowledge others’ thoughts about how to guide my troops to victory had merit. I just didn’t do it until after the tension was palatable and I failed to revisit the issue with a clear head after the fact. That’s where you can do better.
Focus from milepost to milepost, not just the end goal.
This is where I was way wrong. I was shouting, “Follow me!” knowing that I had to take the proverbial high ground to get an advantage (i.e., get the job done). But I ignored the fact that the battle plan called for rally points along the way. How do I know everyone is with me if I don’t stop to check in? Darn. Leading from the front is tough. Not everyone follows at the same pace, and that’s hard to accept when you’re a leader who operates in a flow or by riding a wave of momentum.
Slow down once in awhile…and maybe even stop for a moment.
Force yourself to do it. Question your methods. Declare war on YOURSELF if that’s what it takes. Conflict slows things down, and even if that conflict is within yourself it could be a good thing. Wrestling with yourself first is better than arguing with your colleagues after you’ve already started down your own path.
Communicate with the team about the objective and the plan for getting there – the mileposts along the way.
You can’t keep this stuff a secret. If you do, you’re inviting skepticism, questions, and probably a few naysayers. The most successful workshops, projects, and strategies are executed when there’s a team working toward a common goal (and that knows the rally points along the way). Teams like that hold each other accountable (even the leaders), and leaders of teams like that don’t have to work as hard. They don’t have to carry as much weight thinking that they’re the only ones who have the objective in mind.
My colleague had a point. She was thinking like a General overlooking the entirety of the battlefield. While I knew that she didn’t understand what was happening in the trenches, I couldn’t lift myself out of them at the time to consider the overall plan of attack. The good news is that our interaction created conflict inside of me. It slowed me down a bit. It was during that time that I stopped long enough to learn that re-visiting strategy before blindly charging the hill is a better way to take (and hold) crucial ground.
For leaders of marketing teams, this means entertaining the voices around you instead of assuming your direction is the only one that will lead to success. It means re-visiting every project after the fact to objectively ask the team what worked and what didn’t (even if you end up being an item on the ‘what didn’t’ list). We operate in creative, fast-paced environments but that doesn’t mean everyone is as fast as you. Slow down and consider the big objectives first before you try to take the first hill in front of you and lose focus. Rally with the team periodically to check in on the battle plan and provide reinforcements when necessary.
Wars don’t have to be fought between you and your colleagues if you do these things. You can reinforce each other instead. Had I been able to step back from my own perspective, maybe the tension wouldn’t have brewed. Maybe I could have avoided putting boots on the ground in a battle that never needed to happen.
I haven’t spoken to that colleague since the encounter. We went our separate ways, unwilling to declare a truce and put our egos aside for the sake of the team.
I suppose the best lessons are learned following a bitter defeat.