Did he hang up on me?

 
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Early in my career, I was asked to lead an international team of seven men, most of whom were twice my age. This team of technical consultants were going to train 1000s of global consultants on a game-changing technology that was a strategic play for the company. My team was responsible for helping the technical consultants create meaningful instruction, teach with stories, and make the content actionable.

We were fortunate to start the project together in-person. There was one person that I immediately noticed stood out: Mark. He was intelligent, had strong technical knowledge, and different interpersonal skills. He didn’t seem at ease in front of people.  He had a questionable, provocative humor and a bit of a temper. He didn’t blend with the team and wanted to do things alone. I watched him and began to wonder how he would act in front of a room of 100 people. His mannerisms made you uncomfortable and didn’t set you at ease.

My concern grew when I got the first draft of his content. It was full of questionable examples and humor. It was difficult to follow the content and didn’t blend with the curriculum. This was a week-long training. His content came on the last day and should have built upon the prior days, bringing it all together. Instead, it felt like it belonged in a separate training class. 

I knew it was time to talk with Mark, and I was dreading it. While I had established myself as a leader with the six other men, I hadn’t achieved the same with Mark. I was pretty sure his reaction to my feedback would not be positive, and I wanted to get through the conversation in the least painful way possible. I had a lot of difficult messages to give and feared he wouldn’t listen. I decided to write up comments and suggestions to Mark’s draft and email it in advance of our discussion. I wrote in the email that there were several changes I was recommending. I thought it would be easiest to share the feedback and direction of the changes in advance of the call so we could spend the call discussing specifics.

Two minutes after I pressed send on the email, my phone rang. Before I even answered, I knew it would be Mark. He had received the email but hadn’t read it. He wanted to talk. I told him I couldn’t talk just then but could at our scheduled time. I recommended that he read through my comments before the discussion. While I was mid-sentence, I heard him sigh and hang up on me.  I sat there with the phone in my hand for a minute completely surprised. Did he just hang up on me? How rude! It just confirmed every odd feeling I had about him.

For a long while, I was really annoyed by Mark. It took me time to realize I was the one in the wrong. I later realized one major mistake I made. I approached Mark through the wrong lens. Instead of trying to get to know him as a person and how he needed to be coached and developed, I focused on me. What did I need to do to get through the interactions in the least painful way possible? How could I try to control the way we interacted with each other, so I was in my comfort zone? How could I deliver the difficult feedback in the best way for ME, so I didn’t feel uncomfortable? Instead of thinking “how can I deliver this in a way that will have a positive impact for him?” Mark should have never hung up on me. Had I approached him through the lens of what he needed, perhaps that wouldn’t have happened.

I find this a common theme with many leaders I have worked with. Leadership isn’t only about inspiring others to choose to follow you. It is hard and uncomfortable, particularly when delivering difficult messages. Many try to control interactions to make themselves feel comfortable. In doing so, they miss out on coaching and helping the other person. This article from Forbes describes some of the differences of what great leaders do to create the right environment, not try to control things and bring the best out of each team member:

  • Mission: great leaders help people define how they will apply their strengths to achieve outcomes.

  • Self-awareness: personal reflection, knows s/he isn’t always right and doesn’t allow him/herself to be controlled by emotions and fear.

  • Risk and trust: Put trust in someone’s instincts who isn’t you….and relies on someone else without making threats or offering rewards. 

  • Two-way learning: creates an environment where teams trust one another, share and build on ideas and expand their knowledge … and the manager isn’t always the subject matter expert.

  • Find your voice and speak your truth: being willing to say something others may not want to hear, but do it any way to grow credibility and find your voice

I should have approached Mark at the start of the project and got to know him as a person. I should have learned more about his strengths and initiated a discussion on how to work together. Asked how he liked to receive feedback and how direct he wanted me to be when delivering difficult messages. Discussed how regularly we would touch base and how he should escalate when he needed support. I should have asked Mark to regularly share feedback with me – what worked for him and what did he need different.  I missed the opportunity with Mark, but I did learn from that experience that leadership isn’t about me. It’s about each individual on my team.