Hello, my name is Pierre.
I worked alone for a long time. By alone, I mean that I only reported to my boss. I didn’t have much of a relationship with the other person in my team. Together but alone in a way. I didn’t make waves either. Not my style. I worked well. One day I got tired of the routine. It was time for me to get promoted. At my age, it was a matter of social survival. I decided to apply for a manager’s position in a neighbouring division. It was a nice promotion. After all, it didn’t seem so difficult to manage a small team. Financially I made a leap. And socially, it was not unpleasant either. A nice recognition. I had been trusted to manage this small team of three people. I knew the business and my employees seemed to know theirs. I was satisfied.
Until, six months into the job, I began to feel disillusioned. The bride was too beautiful. I had only seen the flowers and not the pot. In retrospect, it would have been surprising if such a role had not been accompanied by a few grey hairs and doses of adrenaline and cortisol. I began to hate my new job and regret my previous peace and quiet.
My team started to hate me. Or rather to hate my management style. Suddenly I found them more hostile or even aggressive towards me. Or totally absent. In the few meetings we had together, they displayed a detachment like no other. We no longer discussed anything, we no longer shared anything, we no longer decided anything together. I could see that every member of my team had put his or her job on the ‘paying the bills’ shelf. That’s what they lead me to think with their way of doing as little as possible. Even in separate meetings with each one of them, the mood had changed. A cold wall of ice was slowly building up between me and each of them. Until one day, during one of these little meetings, one of them let it all out :
“We knew you from afar before you took over the team, but in a different light: the guy who was at ease with contacts, who listened, who was an expert in his field. In short, the guy we respect. It’s not easy for me to share what I’m about to share with you. But if I don’t do it, I won’t respect myself. Your management methods are random and cold. Random because we don’t see you for three weeks and you reappear at the end of the month to find out where we stand in terms of objectives. And it’s been precisely three weeks since we’ve wanted to share things with you and find solutions collaboratively. But you are constantly in meetings with your superior or other people. People more important than us, in any case. You don’t listen to us; you don’t see us. Sometimes you are told important things from us, but your attention is only focused on the numbers to be reached. Which we won’t reach. Or hardly ever. And you just get angry. We can’t discuss anything with you anymore. And often you have decided everything on your own. We just fill chairs and desks. Maybe you don’t realise it? So today, me and the others are doing the bare minimum. And we’re taking the side of silence. We don’t make waves.”
The next day, the HR Business Partner of my division summoned me and I learned that I had been assigned a coach to develop my management techniques.
I didn’t understand it. I was doing my best with my managerial toolbox, which so far only contained a few tips from peer managers with over 30 years of experience and attempts to imitate those same managers. And on my roadmap, there was no indication of how I should manage my team. I had a free hand, didn’t I?
I learnt that I was in fact a less than decent leader. Hard, cold, pressurising, angry, not listening, silencing others. And the information had gone way up. Shame on me.
I developed quite a knot in my throat and a weight in my stomach in the days that followed.
The first three sessions with my coach were useless. I didn’t understand what I was being accused of, especially as nothing in particular had ever been asked of me. And now my management was asking me to change my behaviour. To be a real leader.
Coach: “Peter, what kind of leader do you want to be?
Me: “What do I know? A leader who does the best he can.”
Coach: “What is a leader who does the best he can?”
Me: “I don’t know. Like I do today. Maybe.”
This could have gone on for ages. Angry, annoyed, I turned to the coach:
“But how do I know what kind of leader I can or want to become if no one in this damn company is able to help me with the direction I need to take?”
After a few seconds of silence my coach handed me a card. On the card was a long quote, probably from one of those great leadership books:
“Leadership is a vital force in that it makes it possible for humans and organisations to overcome intrinsic barriers to expression and commitment in order to achieve the psychological and practical rewards of full participation in a common motivating mission. Leadership is not confined to the top of an organisation: on the contrary, it can be exercised at all levels. Leadership, at its core, is about using the efforts of others to accomplish something that no one can do alone. It is about helping people to go as far as they can with the talents and skills they possess. Substituting openness for silence and commitment for fear are essential responsibilities for today’s leaders.”
Silence from my part. A bit complicated, that definition. Two words were running through my head though : silence and fear. The inferno couple that I had managed to install in the team. My colleague had been transparent enough to warn me of their presence among us. I think I spent a good ten minutes with these two companions dancing the waltz in my head. I had forgotten that my coach was sitting next to me. My eyes were riveted on that note. Mute and absent, a question interrupted my long silence.
Coach: “Peter, what’s going on?”
Me: “I’m confused.”
Coach: “In what way?”
Me: “I’m really confused by that last sentence.”
Coach: “What does this sentence inspire you?”
Me: “Climbing the Everest with its share of cracks, frozen fingers and misdirection. I don’t know if I want to go there or not.”
Coach: “If not Everest, then where?”
Me: “That’s just it, I don’t have much choice.”
The session was coming to an end. And I was still confused. The stars were conspiring to tell me that I was on the wrong leadership track and I had no intention of changing direction at the moment. The feedback I was getting was that I had better change my ways or I was going to lose my current role. For the sanity of my team.
I didn’t see my coach again for four weeks; four long weeks of marinating in bad juice. Deciding then not deciding. Then deciding again. Looping my options over and over in my head until some options were no longer options and only one was left. And not the most pleasant or comfortable one: I was going to get help from my coach and my own boss to climb this Everest.
Pandora’s box had been opened. I was going to open it even wider.