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The Business Is Never About You!

I was chatting with a member of my management team in the hallway the other day and something she said really stuck in my head. We were talking about the organizational performance turn around that we were in the midst of and she said, “You’ve really added simplicity and definition to what we need to achieve.” I was a bit taken aback and it made me start to reflect on the role of a leader. Over the last year my team has accomplished a great deal to bring credibility and value to an under performing organization, but if I am honest with myself, it wasn’t me…and it wasn’t about me. Our accomplishments have been collectively achieved because we rallied around a single and simple idea of value to the business. I’ve seen many leaders make the mistake of assuming organizational success was personal achievement. These people forget who does the real work.

I listen to the vocabulary that people use to understand their perspective. When leaders talk about their organizations they will either use terms like “I”, “Me”, or “My”, or they will use terms like “We” and “Us”. This is a very telling distinction. Defining business goals is about bringing benefits to customers, taking care of your employees, and bringing value to investors. Good leaders realize that their role is to help articulate organizational value, crisply define goals, measure progress, and communicate the state of the organization and its value creation. Leaders do not use their staff and their organizations to further their careers, but it is a byproduct of bringing value.

A few weeks ago I was speaking to a peer that was explaining his desire to shift from a theater perspective to a global one. He said “people want me to go global”, and “I am starting to deliver…”. The fact is that his people were delivering and people wanted his group to have the global focus. The vocabulary was what triggered my wariness. I’ve found that this type of personal success focus from a leader angers and offends the people who do the real work. It also drives down morale. People that are really accomplishing the successes feel undervalued and lose trust in the leader taking credit for the work.

The same principle of giving appropriate credit holds true on cross functional teams. I was on a team of people many years ago that were defining company standards for the implementation of an IEEE technology. The Program Manager gathered a great deal of work from team members and delivered a draft with only her name on it. After that, nobody on the team was willing to deliver anything further. Team members didn’t say they wouldn’t continue to produce, but we all missed our deadlines and the project went nowhere. People avoided working with that person because they didn’t trust her.

When you have to deliver something that requires broad input, its very easy to forget to give credit to all those valuable people that contributed to the end result. The whole idea of footnoting and bibliographies is about giving appropriate credit. Why do we consistently forget to do the same thing in our daily business? Giving appropriate credit is crucial to leaders. There are those that are ambitious for personal recognition and those that are ambitious for business results and team success. Without the appropriate humility to understand that your people are the reason for your success it might be difficult to recruit good people in the future. Our reputations always precede us.

2 comments to The Business Is Never About You!

  • David

    Two thoughts here….

    One, I remember when I first started working at the big C that there was a structure for managers to give little rewards to the team contributors that were good contributors (i.e. dinner certificates at Chili’s). I wonder if the company has managed to continue recognizing the little people that help to make the managers vision successful.

    Two, it’s clear that you recognize that it’s the members that make an organization succeed, yet why is it in interviews I’ve participated in recently I am specifically told that using a reference to we is a bad thing…. I understand the behavioral interview style, yet one who recognizes that their contribution leads to a teams success should be rewarded, right?

    Another good read on this is “The Leadership Challenge” by Posner.

  • Brian

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. I found real application in it immediately. It immediately brought to mind recent examples of both the good and bad sides of this behavior in my organization. Not just examples where I was on the receiving end, but examples in which I was on the giving end. For such a short article I was surprised at how relevant and thought provoking it was.

    I jotted down a single word as constructive criticism, but, your last sentenced used it. Humility. Better yet, you framed it as appropriate humility. I bookmarked the site and will make sure to take a look each week! Great stuff!

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