A few years ago, I volunteered as the Strength and Conditioning coach for a nationally ranked youth hockey team. I was, at the time, already well-versed in functional, injury prevention oriented approaches to strength and conditioning, but I spent a lot of time researching what would work well with a large group of young athletes new to strength training.
During my research, one quote I came across from the famous strength coach Charles Polequin really stuck with me: “You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe.” The meaning of this in a strength training context is that stability must precede force production. In other words, if you cannot properly stabilize your core musculature, the arms and legs will not have a stable base from which to produce or transfer power.
What on earth does this have to do with management development?
I was hired by a company to work with a promising young leader. When I met with my client, she indicated that she wanted to learn “advanced management techniques” to help her and her team be more productive and strategic. I told her I would be happy to help, but that we should start with 360 interviews to get outside perspective on how she was currently leading.
As it turned out, many of the relationships with her peers and even some of her direct reports were toxic. She was looking to learn advanced management techniques but there was no way she could be successful with them. Until she had a solid foundation of working relationships around her, management planning and analysis tools would never be successful. Jack Welch could have taken her under his wing, and it wouldn’t have done any good. Apparently, you can’t fire a cannon from a canoe in a battle, in the gym, or in an organization.
The picture wasn’t pretty, but the way out was clear. She had to move her relationships from toxic to functional and to do so she had to make the first move. She had to share her feedback…good, bad, and ugly…with those who provided the input, share a game plan to address the issues, and ask for their support.
The picture wasn’t pretty, but the way out was clear. She had to move her relationships from toxic to functional and to do so she had to make the first move.
Make no mistake, this is not easy to do. But she was committed to getting better and so she met with each person, shared the feedback, and asked them to help her stay on track.
This had the effect it always has: people were understanding, forgiving, and willing to help, but also understandably leery and braced for recidivism. My work with her over the next few months was to make sure she was mindful of her behavior on a daily basis and to make sure that backsliding wasn’t occurring.
There were many issues we concentrated on, but one small adjustment seemed to make a big difference. Everyone had given her high marks for her breadth of knowledge and insight and her passion for doing what was best for customers. But she was too often a dog on a pant leg, refusing to settle for close-enough-for-now decisions that would allow forward movement until they could be addressed later. She would stake out a position on an issue or decision and keep pounding away, derailing meetings, creating hostile Win-Lose environments, and building up huge resentments in her colleagues.
Everyone has to make peace with the fact that every organizational decision is made by the person with the power to make that decision.
I asked her to make a simple assessment in every organizational discussion she found herself in: whose decision is it? who gets to make the call?
This is of course the late management guru Peter Drucker’s notion that everyone has to make peace with the fact that every organizational decision is made by the person with the power to make that decision. Decisions get made not by the best person. Not by the person with the best data. Not by the person who is best at balancing short-term and long-term. They get made by the person with the power to make them.
If it was her decision, then she had more latitude to stick to her guns. But if it was a peer’s decision, I suggested she offer her perspective, backed by logic, and then let it go and let the decision maker make the call. We worked through what to do if she really felt a decision was heading in a direction that was fundamentally wrong, but she realized these would have to be exceptions and not the rule.
The follow-up 360 was a striking contrast. All the positives remained positives and the ways in which she had made work insufferable for others were largely gone. Many relationships went beyond functional and resulted in real, mutually supportive teamwork.
With a solid core of supportive relationships to execute from, in the second phase of our work together, we could now focus on the cannon. As such, we have adverted to how to “think like the CEO” (instead of being functionally parochial) and how to be more strategic in framing her recommendations and taking action.