Samantha exuded leadership. Hell, since the age of twelve, she’d held leadership roles. Captain of the soccer team. President of her neighborhood “Kids’ Committee.” Student Council Vice President, and later President. By the time she graduated college, she was the co-founder and CEO of a non-profit funding source for low-income housing. Talk about the fast track! She was on it!
Fast forward a decade, and Samantha was still leading. Her focus had changed, though, from the philanthropic to corporate. At 32, she was the youngest executive vice president in the company’s history. She was overseeing the marketing operations for a $10 billion corporate giant, leading a 100-person creative team and all the affiliated support roles. On any traditional measure, she’d made it. She was a success. Yet, she found herself increasingly disjointed and unsatisfied professionally.
When Samantha and I first met, she admitted quietly struggling with an interesting leadership distinction, as she put it. Was her leadership style decisive, or merely derisive? That’s the question she posed.
So, we set about determining which it was. Oh sure, she was certainly doing a lot of things right. Her team’s productivity had never been higher. The companies sales strategies were paying off far beyond the annual goals set for them. She was the talk of the town, and being frequently wooed by competitors. So, where was the rub?
An initial culture audit of her marketing team revealed a couple interesting (and not so positive) trends. First, the turnover of marketing staff was increasing with each passing month, forcing managers to devote more and more time and resources to finding suitable replacements. And second, very few employees in the Marketing Division were openly talking…to each other or to much of anyone. Walking through the offices, one could notice a palpable lack of energy and enthusiasm.
Kudos to Samantha for being at least aware of this tendency in her team. She knew things were a bit off. She simply didn’t know why, or what to do about it. So, we sat down to talk this through, a conversation that would last the better part of five months.
Leadership and marketing. That pretty much summed up our coaching conversations. Yep, leadership and marketing. You see, that described Samantha’s rise to prominence to a “T”. She’d always loved leading others, always viewed herself as good at it. Heck, she’d revealed, she’d been so good at it that she had gotten promoted (or taken on a promotional transition to other organization) nearly every 12-18 months since she’d graduated high school.
“It always felt great to have my leadership acknowledged by new offers,” she stated.
But here was the rub, which slowly revealed itself over those five months. She wasn’t being given new opportunities because of her leadership, but rather because of her productivity. Everywhere she went, she made things happen. And when they happened, off she leapt for a new (and bigger) opportunity. And in her wake, dozens of hard working individuals breathed a sigh of relief at each step…
You see, too often we mistake our strength at productivity for positive leadership. If we’re accomplishing our goals, particularly if it’s overseeing the efforts of others, we assume we must be a good leader. That’s a dangerous assumption to make.
Before I left the corporate world, I had a “leader” like that. Despite her caustic, disrespectful, and (quite honestly) abusive leadership style, she was viewed as a “high performer.” She produced. No matter what the cost in human souls, she produced and made her bosses look good. And as a reward, she was given progressively more responsibility in the organization. But in doing so, she burned so many bridges and harmed so many careers.
Productivity does not equal good leadership. Leadership is about connecting with and influencing (long-term) the behaviors of others. It’s about understanding, respecting, and leveraging the strengths of others, while also developing their areas of comparative weakness. It’s about understanding the human toll of one’s actions and building legions of followers who conversely respect you and your ethical way of doing business, whatever that business is. And it’s about accomplishing the organizational goals not for the purpose of furthering your own financial and career agenda alone, but in pursuing that by lifting others to theirs.
Samantha knew this, but for more than a decade, she’s lost sight of it. She’d allowed the praises of her productivity overshadow the impacts of her leadership. And unfortunately, that’s all too common.