Anatomy of a Close Call

by Patricia Wheeler, Ph.D.
February, 2008

They said her career as a leader of people was over, as soon as they could remove her from the position. A talented, ambitious Vice President, hers should have been an absolute success story.  What went wrong?

Her 360 told the tale.  The strengths column listed her clear strategic perspective, drive for results and industry knowledge.  But her peers and direct reports experienced her as dismissive, impatient, and always needing to be right.  To a person, they felt disrespected by her. 

I interviewed her previous boss for the 360 process.  He began apologetically.  “I shouldn’t have tolerated her behavior,” he confessed, “but her execution was so good that I thought the end result was worth what she did to the people around her.  I was wrong.  I see now that allowing the ‘collateral damage’ was not helpful to her or to our company.”   

She wasn’t exactly surprised by the results of her evaluation, but was stung by the intensity of the comments, especially those describing her as a steamroller and bully.  When she saw how much time was wasted by the continual turnover of her staff, their increasing reluctance to take worthy risks with her, and the “drag” that came from her staff feeling demoralized and disrespected, she was committed to change.  But how could she change her “default settings” so that she recognized when and how to behave differently?

I asked, “In what settings are you most successful leading others?”

“When I’m facilitating strategic meetings,” she quickly answered. 

What made these situations more successful for her?  We explored the difference. 

“When I’m the facilitator, I am acutely aware that we are all responsible for generating the result, not just me.  My job is to energize and catalyze others in the room.” In this role, she shared responsibility and accountability for results.  She anticipated dealing with a variety of participants, with different levels of experience and savvy, and this did not upset or derail her mission. She “pulled” from them, added her experience, and she received kudos from participants. 

As she reflected on the difference between situations where she expertly energized and engaged others and those in which she was seen as “steamrolling,” it became clear to her that there were times when she regularly crowded out others’ ideas and contributions, and behaved as though she was always “right.” 

It turned out that when she was operating in the role of “manager,” she adopted a model of being the sole individual responsible for the results of her team.  So much so, that any deviation from her agenda was met with impatience, shown either through her words or body language. 

I challenged her to consider how she could use her strength as a facilitator in her day-to-day interactions with her team.  How could she practice using this skill with her direct reports? 

“Let’s define a few actions you can take that you will consistently practice to build this skill and see what happens,” I suggested.  “You don’t have to change your whole personality, but you do have to use some different leadership ‘muscles.’  And you need to practice developing these ‘muscles’ regularly, so that they become a part of your everyday routine.”

Some of the actions she took included:

  • She carried a 3x5 card with the word “facilitate” on it to every meeting, to remind her of the new role she was playing.  We find that these simple reminders are very helpful in keeping leaders on track.
  • Three times daily she reminded herself that an important part of her job was to listen to the ideas and perspective of others.
  • To this end, she would perform “listening checks” after every conversation with peers and direct reports, summarizing what they had said and asking for confirmation.  This served two purposes: it kept her from steamrolling others with her own ideas before she had completely heard theirs, and let others know that she was interested in their opinions.

And, she was “transparent” to others about what she was working on and why it was important to her.  She asked for their help, their feedforward, and their patience.

Sounds easy?  It wasn’t and it still isn’t for her.  It requires her to stay aware of the results she wants and to deliberately practice the behaviors that will get her there

One year later, where is this leader?  She’s more on track than she was before.  Her organization has virtually no turnover.  Her manager, who’s a very tough grader, has given her one of his rare “exceeds expectations” reviews. 

And her future?  She’s taking on an even more strategic role for her company, and leading a high performing, and by the way, happy and aligned, team.


Patricia Wheeler is the Managing Partner of The Levin Group LLC, a consulting and advisory firm with over 20 years of experience in improving senior team effectiveness, organizational performance, and leadership solutions for CEOs, top executives, and Senior Teams. She spends most of her time working with senior leaders. You can contact Patricia by telephone at 404.377-9408 or by e-mail here.

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