Many senior executives struggle with the notions of vulnerability and transparency with their teams. How much should they share about themselves? Tom Chen, a veteran executive and my colleague at Merryck & Co., a senior leadership development and executive mentoring firm, shared some smart insights on how to build high-performing teams.
Q. What are the most common themes that come up when you’re working with senior executives?
A. They are extremely successful, very results-oriented, very bright and they always accomplish their goals. What they’re missing is the people side. They tend not to be as sensitive and empathetic toward people. They’re so focused on getting results but they leave people behind. Many of them think of people as disposable – if their people are not happy, they can leave, and they’ll get better people.
Q. How do you coach them to be better at that?
A. I put them in the shoes of the people they lead and think about how they’re making them feel. I also ask them to think about the cost of turnover. If you bring in a new person and have to spend time to get them to be productive, what does that cost you compared to motivating the person you have who’s pretty good? Would that give you better results?
When I tie the conversation back to results, they get a sense of what their behavior means, because getting good people is very difficult. It takes a long time, and quite often they forget about the cost of transition and turnover.
Q. Other common themes?
A. Time management and prioritization. It’s not just about what’s important; it’s also the ability to say no. Many executives have difficulty saying no because the perception is that if you say no, you’re not a good executive. So they keep saying yes and they get bogged down. You have to prioritize what’s important. The other stuff may sound good, but you’ve just got to say no because you don’t have the time.
Q. What are the patterns you’ve seen in the culture of companies? What are the momentum killers?
A. Lip service. Companies may say that they want to have a much better culture, and they make a big deal to everyone about emphasizing certain behaviors. For example, the company may say that it wants an inclusive culture, so they set up programs and build awareness, and yet the leadership teams don’t behave that way themselves.
Some executives may also try to model those behaviors and yet they get pushback from their boss because the boss doesn’t really care. Pretty soon, it’s understood throughout the organization that all the talk is just lip service. The most important thing is that it needs to be modeled from the very top.
Q. You’ve done mentoring work in a lot of different capacities. What do see as a key skill?
A. Listening is the most difficult part, and there is power in silence. You have to learn to hold the silent space, and you have to watch people’s body language. You have to see what they’re feeling and you have to look at the whole being. I’m an ontological coach. That means I coach in terms of both logic and emotion. That can open up a whole new area of exploration.
Q. What is your best advice to leaders on how to get their teams to act like real teams?
A. There has to be a foundation of trust. If people don’t trust each other, then it’s not a team, because why should they say anything constructive to each other? They’re not going to say what they think, whether it’s right or wrong. They’re not going to confront each other, because in those situations of conflict, they’re going to avoid addressing it because they’ll wonder, why should I risk that?
Q. And how do you establish trust?
A. They need to understand themselves and their vulnerability. In order to build trust, I need to start disclosing things about myself in a small way. It’s like when you meet a stranger. How do you build the friendship? You build the friendship by slowly disclosing things about yourself, and then the other person reciprocates.
But in revealing vulnerability, you don’t know how people are going to react. So the core question when I work with executives is, “Is vulnerability a strength or a weakness?” A lot of executives think that vulnerability is a weakness, and they behave accordingly.
With one executive who told me that he thinks vulnerability is a weakness, I said to him, can you accept that you’re human? He said yes, of course. So as a human, are you perfect? No, he said.
So you need to accept that about yourself, and you need to accept that about others in an appropriate way. That, along with empathy, is really about getting them to become more self-aware and see the benefits of that approach. But it’s a very slow process.
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