Elizabeth Lyle – TRANSCRIPT
I am guilty of stacking my dishes in the sink and leaving them there for hours. I fact-checked this with my boyfriend. He says it’s less like hours and more like days, but that’s not the point.
The point is sometimes I don’t finish the job until the stack has gotten high enough that it’s peaking over the lip of the sink and my inner clean freak loses it. This charming habit developed when I was in college.
And I had tons of excuses “I’m running to class!” “What’s one more dirty dish in the sink?” Or my favorite, “I think I can save time and water if I do them all together later.” But it’s not like I needed those excuses, because nobody was calling me on it.
I wish they had.
I look back now and realize that every time I didn’t put a dish in the dishwasher and finish what I started, it became more second nature to me, and I grew less likely to question why I was doing it.
Today, I’m a 30-something, certified dirty-dish leaver, and breaking this habit is hard. So when I’m not at home avoiding the sink, I work with large, complex organizations on leadership transformation in times of change.
My job is to work with the most senior leaders to examine how they lead today and establish habits better suited for the future.
But what interests me more than senior leaders these days is what’s going on with the junior ones. We call them “middle managers,” but it’s a term I wish we could change because what they are is our pipeline of future talent for the C-suite, and they are starting to leave their dishes in the sink.
While organizations are hiring people like me to redevelop their senior leaders for the future, outdated leadership habits are forming right before our eyes among the middle managers who will one day take their place.
We need middle managers and senior leaders to work together, because this is a big problem. Organizations are evolving rapidly, and they’re counting on their future leaders to lead with more speed, flexibility, trust and cooperation than they do today.
I believe there is a window of time in the formative middle-manager years when we can lay the groundwork for that kind of leadership, but we’re missing it. Why? Because our future leaders are learning from senior role models who just aren’t ready to role model yet, much less change the systems that made them so successful.
We need middle managers and senior leaders to work together to define a new way of leading and develop each other to rise to the occasion. One of my favorite senior clients — we’ll call her Jane — is a poster child for what’s old-fashioned in leadership today. She rose to her C-level position based on exceptional individual performance.
Come hell or high water, Jane got the job done, and today, she leads like it. She is tough to please, she doesn’t have a lot of time for things that’s aren’t mission-critical, and she really doesn’t trust anyone’s judgment more than her own.
Needless to say, Jane’s in behavior boot camp. Those deeply ingrained habits are deeply inconsistent with where her organization is heading. The command-and-control behavior that she was once rewarded for just isn’t going to work in a faster-moving, flatter, more digitally interconnected organization.
What got her here won’t get her there.
But I want to talk about John, a supertalented, up-and-coming manager who works for Jane, because her habits are rubbing off on him. Recently, he and I were strategizing about a decision we needed to put in front of the CEO, Jane’s boss, and the rest of Jane’s peers.
He said to me, “Liz, you’re not going to like this, but the way decisions get made around here is with a bunch of meetings before the meeting.”
I counted. That was going to mean eight one-on-ones, exec by exec, to make sure each one of them was individually on board enough that things would go smoothly in the actual meeting. He promised, “It’s not how we’ll do things in the future, but it’s how we have to do them today.”
John wasn’t wrong on either count. Meetings before the meeting are a necessary evil in his company today, and I didn’t like it at all. Sure, it was going to be inefficient and annoying, but what bothered me most was his confidence that it’s not how they’ll do things in the future.
How could he be sure? Who was going to change it and when, if it wasn’t him and now? What would the trigger be? And when it happened, would he even know how to have effective meetings without pre-meetings? He was confidently implying that when he’s the boss, he’ll change the rules and do things differently, but all I could see were dishes stacking in the sink and a guy with a lot of good excuses.
Worse, a guy who might be out of a job one day because he learned too late how to lead in the organizations of tomorrow.
These stories really get to me when it’s the fast-track, high-potential managers like John because they’re probably the most capable of making waves and redefining how leaders lead from the inside. But what we find is that they’re often doing the best job at not rocking the boat and challenging the system because they’re trying to impress and make life easier on the senior leaders who will promote them.