There are a couple of really salient moments that stand out to me when I think back to my early days as an organization, change, and leadership consultant.
Some of these memories are funny in their innocence and unknowing, like when I thought all travel had to originate from our corporate office in Chicago – not my home, so come early morning of my first business trip I took the train to the office, where I called a taxi to take me to the airport – talk about planes, trains and automobiles.
Some of these memories are embarrassing and a little frustrating – like the time I won the ‘welcome to management consulting’ award because I had a hard time adjusting to the thought process that a good consultant never stops working.
Some of these memories, though, carry a deeper and more thoughtful meaning – they’re important lessons wrapped up in a fleeting experience that has somehow stuck with me through the years.
The one that I come back to over and over involves a confident, smart, ambitious and naive newly minted senior consultant (me) and a proud, hard-working but overlooked, frustrated and experienced manager of a coal-fired power plant somewhere in Pennsylvania (not me).
I was conducting an interview about how we could improve performance at the plant – me being the expert in such things at the ripe age of 25 with a couple years of experience under my belt, none of which involved coal, energy or power plants.
I went through my well-scripted introductions and as we were about to get to my first question – BAM! My counterpart quickly interrupted me. I believe his exact words were, “Son, you’ve never worked a day in your life. Who are you to sit here and ask me these questions. What are you going to do to change anything that’s going to make a difference around here for me?”
I hadn’t prepared for this, but it was the sort of exchange that I had feared.
Intuitively, I knew there was a difference between me and the people I was here to interview. There was suspicion, fear, skepticism, even anger that we were here.
I was on the other team.
But I hadn’t anticipated a personal attack, so I did what any inexperienced, full of youth young professional would do – I defended myself – as politely as I could. “I respect your opinion but the fact of the matter is that you don’t know me or where I’ve come from – I’ve worked plenty in my life – I had jobs all through high-school and college. I even worked in corn fields as a kid pulling tassels out of the plants and hanging drywall! Your input will help us make recommendations and those recommendations have the potential to make your work easier, better.”
Of course, I had completely missed his point.
As I reflect on this early memory in my career, as I often do, it continues to teach me lessons about life, business, and leadership.
I think one of the most important lessons I learned was that as a person in a position of authority – as a leader, it was my duty to consider the experience of the person sitting across from me.
In business, we tend to make a lot of assumptions – either because we think we don’t have the time or we think we already know everything – or some combination of the two. When you are a leader and dealing with people, this is stagelish, even dangerous.
I can imagine how my conversation would have gone differently had I acknowledged the absurdity of the situation.
That I knew very little – that he knew much, that over the years he’s seen many like me and answered the same questions, that little has changed – except fewer of his colleagues are on the payroll, that he can hardly operate the plant safely for all the cuts, that his way of life is slowly dying like the industry segment he represents.
Sure, maybe this perspective comes with experience so I should cut myself some slack.
However, what I have experienced myself in 15 years of working with leaders and continue to observe ‘out there’ is a mystifying inability of many leaders to consider and appreciate the experience of the people whom they’re leading.
What I understand many years after sitting across from that operator was in that moment or quickly thereafter, I realized that if I wanted to be effective I had to learn a few things.
I had to learn to be observant – to listen and appreciate that everyone has their own story and I don’t know any of it.
I had to learn to be empathetic and constantly aware of the broader context that surrounds every interaction I have.
I had to learn to recognize that everyone has their own goals – my job isn’t to convert people to my goals – it’s to understand the goals of others, where we occupy shared ground and where I can help.
I had to learn to acknowledge the differences between people and understand that I’ve gotten most of the breaks and there are others that probably haven’t.
I had to learn that it’s impossible to know everything and I was better off being humble than trying to show how smart I am.
These may seem like simple observations or skills that are intuitive and soft. Maybe that’s what makes them so tricky and elusive, we underestimate their importance.
As a leader, it can be easy to get caught up in playing the role and be consumed by self-importance.
However, if we reconnect with some basic human principles we have the ability to set ourselves apart and create real, meaningful impact for those we serve.