Does Leadership Always Mean Having a Thick Skin? (If it Does, I’m in Big Trouble.)

LexBlog President, Kevin McKeown, shared this Forbes piece Thick Skin Thinking: How To Use Negative Feedback To Your Advantage At Work with everyone in our company on Friday. It’s a great article about the value of critical self-awareness and the author is spot-on in saying:

Research shows people that are better at handling negative feedback tend to be more successful.

I would agree completely that being honest about our capabilities is going to be far more effective for our professional development than either pretending we’re perfect or believing we’re completely useless. No one is without flaws, or without hope.

However, I feel this article is missing a critical component of the critical feedback equation. Author, Denis Wilson, gives an example of a boss over-reacting to a couple of typos in a letter an employee writes.  Wilson says,

The lesson to learn: Your boss may be frustrated and angry, but that’s not what you should address. Rather, it’s the errors you made and how you will avoid doing the same in the future.

He’s right, but where is the accountability for the boss to deliver feedback in a way that the receiver can actually receive it? When I read this article, the first thought that went through my mind was, wow, if you have an ounce of emotion about your professional performance, you’re screwed in the leadership department. But I have worked with employees of all kinds of emotional sensibilities and seen professional success in all shapes and sizes. Some employees I coached needed their feedback direct and to the point, brutally honest, mincing no words. In fact, if you tried to deliver it any other way, it sailed right past without their even noticing. On the other hand, I had other employees that would fall apart with that type of honesty, wielded as a weapon, and they would be so upset they couldn’t hear you either. In those cases, a lighter, gentler touch was in order. I suppose I could presume that those employees who could “take it” had the right stuff, leadership-wise, and therefore anyone who needed the softer touch wasn’t worth my time. Of course, I sure would have missed out on helping any number of employees grow and improve if I had taken that one-size-fits-all approach.

As Kevin and I discussed the post, he countered that a leader is, at best, only 50% of any conversation and it is therefore incumbent upon the employee to choose to take the feedback as constructive. He also noted that any leader worth their salt does not try to mold themselves after others, but rather stays true to themselves. And, finally, he offered that the best leaders gave feedback, both positive and constructive, constantly – every single day. I would agree that I can’t do the listening/receiving for the other person, and that I can only truly be effective when I am my authentic self, and that feedback should be ongoing, not once a year come performance review time. Where we differ is that I see it as my role as a manager to be willing to adapt more of myself in order to effectively deliver my message to my employee. I can still be myself and either be blunt or be gentle. It is possible be authentic and still make a choice about how to approach any given conversation.  {And, kudos to my professional relationship with him that we can have a lively debate about our differences without anyone taking it personally.}

Perhaps this particular article struck a chord for me because I, myself, am in more of the sensitive camp. I absolutely want honest feedback about my performance and I am eager to learn how to improve. Nonetheless, it’s not always easy for me to hear that I am coming up short and that I have disappointed those who are counting on me. I have come home from work more than once bearing a performance evaluation that I considered damning that my husband looked over and then scratched his head and said, “uh, you do know this is actually good, right?” However, these things have not sent me into a spiral of self-loathing, and I really do take the time to glean the lessons I need to learn and let the rest go, but at the moment of “impact” I must confess I do sometimes take them a little more to heart than I should. I suppose I might be farther along the leadership track if I learned to let these things roll off my back more easily, but then again, part of what I think makes me an effective manager, a good trainer and coach, and good at delivering service to my clients, is my strong sense of empathy and sensitivity. I think I will stick to Kevin’s earlier point that the most effective leaders are first and foremost true to themselves.


You can’t have good customer service with miserable employees

CORRECTION: I listed the wrong store (Staples) in my original publishing of this post. When I discovered the error, I immediately un-published the post and edited it to note the correct store (OfficeMax). My apologies to Staples for calling them out in error and for not fact-checking myself against my receipt (which is how I discovered the mistake). We’re all human and this post is not about never making mistakes, it’s about creating a culture of internal customer service.

My Labor Day weekend has been filled with much errand-running, including a stop at OffixeMax yesterday. (*BTW, why is it that articles like this often don’t want to name the establishment where the crappy service went down? OfficeMax, I hope you are “listening” and are embarrassed enough to want to change something…) *Probably has something to do with not wanting to call out the wrong store by mistake…

First, the good service part of my experience. I was warmly greeted by a friendly young woman at a register when I walked in the store. I asked for her help in finding my item and she helped me figure out where in the store it was, and although she could not leave the register, gave me easy directions to find it. When I was checking out later, she commented that she was glad I was able to find what I had asked about. She is a keeper and I can only hope some of her attitude can rub off on the other employees, and not the other way around.

She happened to be the only employee at a register and had someone in her line in front of me purchasing literally hundreds of file folders, of different types and styles. I’m guessing it may have been a teacher getting ready for back to school. Each different type of folder had to be rung up separately and it was taking quite a while to process everything. I was next in line and not in any rush, so I settled in to wait. However, quite a line formed behind me and folks were getting rather impatient. There was another employee at the copy center desk and someone behind me asked if he could get rung up there. This is where things turned ugly. The employee looked at him like he was some kind of alien and said (very snarkily), “can’t you see I’m helping this person??” The lady next up in line said to the rest of us, “I guess that was a no, a definite snarky no.”

But, wait, it gets worse. As the line is getting longer, another employee comes up to the empty register next to our line and starts refilling the soda fridge. I’m thinking to myself, I bet these fine folks in line would rather you rang them up than stock some soda to start chilling. Plus, even if they wanted to buy one of those warm sodas, who would ring them up? She looked at the one cashier and muttered something like, “Fine, I can start checking, but I’m supposed to be leaving.” Made us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

The snarky employee then opened his line at the copy center as well and proceeded to waive his arms and yell at folks something along the lines of, “Helloooo, I am open over here. Come this way. Come on!” Sorry, we didn’t catch the clue fella. We got kind of confused when you told us just a few mere seconds ago that you were all busy and everything.

I paid for my item and as I made my way out to the car all I could think was that OfficeMax must be a terrible place to work, or at least it was at that particular store (Ballard location if anyone at Corporate wants to know). Aside from the one wonder-employee who helped me initially, no one seemed to want to help any of the customers. They ultimately opened more registers, but it felt a little more like it was to usher us out the door rather than because it was the right thing to do.

One might say, hey, this is retail and on a holiday weekend, and who wants to work at a OffixeMax. Today, I had to run to my local Bartell’s Drugstore, still on a holiday weekend (and the store is right near a huge music festival currently taking place – not the case for OfficeMax), and still in retail. A line formed at the one open register, but the cashier called for back-up and someone appeared immediately. She was friendly and even took time to comment on my jewelry. This prompted the original cashier to smile and comment as well. The store was crazy busy, but the employees were smiling and genuinely helpful. Does this Bartell’s values customer service over that OfficeMax? I’m sure OfficeMax would say they care a great deal about service, but I can’t help but believe the general mood and attitude of the employees played as big a role in my experience as any mission statement about customers written on a wall somewhere.

One of the most important aspects of service, in my opinion, is internal customer service. How “Management” treats employees, how employees treat each other, how people in different departments interact, all trickle down to how the outside client experiences our businesses. If everyone in a company can agree that focusing on serving all clients, inside and outside the company, everyone wins. And that starts at the top. So OffixeMax HQ, I see far more lacking in your service to your employees at the store in Ballard than I did in their service to us.

A customer is the most important visitor on our premises, he is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.
Mahatma Gandhi

There’s No Crying in Baseball, or the Boardroom…

I just watched Ann Curry’s tearful farewell segment on the Today Show and it got me to thinking about the impact crying in public has on women professionally. Given the circumstances surrounding Ann’s unexpected departure, her tears seem to be a poignant moment in a difficult situation and therefore understandable, if not actually an appropriate show of emotion. However, I think the general consensus is that crying in the workplace for women, or certainly crying in front of male colleagues, is still considered a big no-no.

In this regard, I was fortunate to have spent much of my professional life working for women. My very first job out of college was working in a small team that was headed by a female director and two female assistant directors; after moving to Seattle I worked for a company that was founded by a woman and the entire leadership team was comprised of women. In those instances where I cried, my tears were not regarded as anything more than a momentary display of emotion. And I’m not really making any particular comment about the pros and cons of working for women leaders – I have had both amazing and horrible bosses of both genders. But when it comes to the water works, I’d rather, well, do just about anything else humanly possible, than have a break down in front of a male boss (or even a male colleague). Women simply seem to have the ability to put the tears in context and not give them any more or less credit than they are due.

I do recall one instance very early in my career where I broke down in front of a male boss and the entire nature of our relationship changed. I seemed to have lost some fundamental level of respect in his eyes and much of his interactions with me ever after seemed to be calculated to avoid me ever showing any emotion. He tip-toed around any and every topic he thought might be considered “sensitive.” Fortunately, I did not have to work for him for very long (he left the company, I stayed for almost 14 years…).

Conventional wisdom these days seems to be mixed on the significance and impact of crying in the workplace. Emma Gray covers both sides of the story in Sheryl Sandberg Tells Women It’s OK To Cry At Work:

  • She quotes the latest poster child for successful women professionals, Sheryl Sandberg, “I don’t believe we have a professional self from Mondays through Fridays and a real self for the rest of the time. I’ve cried at work. I’ve told people I’ve cried at work.”
  • She also shares UC-Davis professor of management Kim Elsbach’s findings that many women have reported feeling ashamed of showing emotion in the workplace and that it has cost them professional advancement opportunities.
  • And she cites a study by Anne Kreamer that women at all professional levels have reported crying in the workplace, therefore it’s not an instant career killer.

Anne-Marie Slaughter tells us in Why Women Still Can’t Have it All about the challenge of trying to balance family and career; not crying at work, but fundamentally she is pointing to the sacrifices many women have to make in order to achieve success.

They take two years off when their kids are young but then work like crazy to get back on track professionally, which means that they see their kids when they are toddlers but not teenagers, or really barely at all.” Her friend nodded, mentioning the top professional women she knew, all of whom essentially relied on round-the-clock nannies. Both were very clear that they did not want that life, but could not figure out how to combine professional success and satisfaction with a real commitment to family.

I don’t think it’s such a far stretch to put outward display of emotion in this same category. Left to my own devices in my personal life, I cry in all kinds of situations. I love to cry during a good sad movie (Joy Luck Club is one of my all time biggest weep-fests). I cry during sappy commercials. I cry all the time singing church hymns, for reasons unknown even to myself. I cried when I finished my marathon and I still cry a little when I think about what it meant to me to complete it. Sometimes I cry for no real reason other than I am thinking about people who are important to my life. Crying is a great release and I often feel a thousand times better once I’ve had a good cry (which must be why they even have that expression, “a good cry.”)

But show that same emotion in the workplace and instead of a release, it’s much more often viewed as a loss of control. I guess the truth is that, factually, it is a loss of control. So, maybe the lesson to be learned is that not maintaining control 100% of the time is not necessarily a bad thing, nor does it equate to any less leadership skill. In any case, I go out of my way to avoid workplace tears. Not that I am always successful. There has not been a job yet where I haven’t succumbed to my emotions at least once (or at least once a year may be more accurate…).  Using that as a measuring stick, a few tears now and then do not seem to have impacted my professional success in any discernible way, other than my own sense of being self-conscious. But I do look forward to the day when crying is treated the same as profanity in the workplace – to be avoided, occasionally necessary, but otherwise largely ignored.

Managers are people too

Today, I encountered a list of the differences between managers and leaders in Leaders vs Managers on Leadership Freak, guest written by Lolly Daskal (both of which I regularly follow in Twitter). I won’t recount the entire list, but here are a few of the differences Lolly shares:

  • Leaders lead people. Managers manage people.
  • Leaders inspire. Managers comfort.
  • Leaders have followers. Managers have subordinates.
  • Leaders break rules. Managers make rules.

Lolly asserts that both are valuable,

As you can see managers and leaders are two different people. Do organizations need both? YES.

But I have to ask myself, given these options, why would anyone ever want to be a manager?  Would you rather have followers or subordinates? Anyone out there rather make rules than break them? (And I have to question that one anyway- leaders are very often called to the difficult and less fun task of making the rules.)

It seems that anytime we talk about management and leadership in the same breath, management gets the short end of the stick. Take this point, for example:

Leaders have vision. Managers are about reaching goals.

Let’s re-frame it and see if it doesn’t change the playing field a little.

  • Leaders have vision. Managers help people make their dreams come true.

I like to think I have helped people make their dreams come true or at least pointed them in the right direction. Some days I have more or less vision than others and it is immensely rewarding to know that on any given day I can help people grow and evolve.

I started my first manager’s job on September 10, 2001, managing a team of trainers who traveled across the country. One of those trainers was in New York City on 9/11. She was fine, but never the same. It was quickly apparent that a career of getting on airplanes was no longer a viable option for her. Over the next 6 months, we worked on ways to ‘manage’ this new challenge she faced, and ultimately I helped her realize she needed to find another calling. I recall her clearly telling me the day I let her go that sometimes what she needed was a good ‘kick in the butt’ and if I hadn’t forced the issue, she probably never would have made a decision.

I suppose you could draw leadership parallels from this story, but for me this was fundamentally about managing a delicate situation and helping the person under my guidance maintain their dignity.  It is both an awesome responsibility and an amazing opportunity to be a manager, and in that role, employees have shared their most personal and poignant moments in their lives with me and asked for my help. I can’t think of anything I have done professionally that is more rewarding.

Besides, in my experience as a manager over the past 10 years, what most companies want is someone who has both leadership and management skills. They want a manager who helps their team follow the rules, but also has the good sense to challenge (or break) rules when they no longer make sense. They want a leader who can both set direction and lay out the steps to achieve that direction. Isn’t it about time we stopped contrasting the two roles and instead talk about how they complement each other?