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Stop Torturing Your Best Players

Many, many years ago when I was a corporate VP, I had one of the most creative, energetic and effective sales directors I’ve ever worked with. We’ll call him Tony. Tony was an emergence-sniffing, revenue generating all-star who was perfectly in tune with his clients. So in tune, he often addressed their needs before they even knew they had them.

Tony was awesome and I thought the world of him, except on the first Tuesday of every month, when I wanted to strangle him. That’s because on the morning of the first Tuesday of every month, my team was to present our monthly results to our COO. And she was a stickler. She liked the reports to follow a specific format, and on average, they took about three hours to complete (we can have a conversation about how well that time was spent in another post).

I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn that Tony wasn’t a fan of the reports. As an extrovert with a high need for variety, three hours spent doing anything was a challenge for him, much less three hours of spreadsheets and bar charts and executive analysis.

Tony was to have his portion of the report to me by end of day Monday, and of course, he never did. He’d work on it at the last possible minute and on the morning of the presentation, it was a slap-dash mess. And he looked as if he’d been drained of every ounce of lifeblood putting it together. To him, the reports were nothing short of torture.

This did not go over well. Each month, my certainty-loving COO implored me to get Tony to do his reports properly, or else his bonus would be in jeopardy, or worse she was going to insist on firing him. That’s right. She wanted to fire our best sales director because once a month, he hated creating a report.

The thing is though, I didn't hire Tony to produce reports, I hired him to sell. And he did so exceptionally well. There was no way I was going to fire him, so I took a different approach. Rather than forcing him to do something that drained him, I shored him up.

I asked a junior analyst to do Tony’s report for him. Done and done. Everyone was happy. Tony kept selling, the analyst got some valuable experience and exposure and the COO got her report.

Why do we feel this need to make everyone behave and perform exactly as we would?

Maybe you need everyone to show up before 8am. But if they get their work done, why do you care?

Or maybe you think everyone should enjoy golfing or after-work beers in the interest of “team building” (two of my least favourite words, but I’ll get into that another time). But if they’re respectful of and pleasant to their co-workers, why do you care?

Hell, maybe you prefer Helvetica over Calibri, or Word docs over PowerPoint decks or clean desks over messy ones. Why, why, oh why do you care?

Back in the seventies, all the men who worked at IBM were expected to wear navy pin-stripe suits, white button-down shirts, rep ties, wing-tipped shoes and sock garters. Why? Who the hell knows? That’s just what they all did. And those who didn’t were scolded. On their website, IBM hosts a gallery of IBM attire through the years, so I guess they’re not quite over it yet.

It’s easy to look at the quirks and demands of others and to call them silly. But we all have them.

I think they’re simply a manifestation of our needs for certainty and significance. We want things the way we want them because it makes us feel more comfortable. We want people to do as we tell them because it makes us feel more significant. It validates our world view and affirms to us that we are right.

This is not a good place to lead from.

What’s to be done? Well, fortunately, I’ve been writing about this stuff for years.

For starters, stop your navel gazing. Lift your head up to see what's important and what's not. Then, get cool with uncertainty. Learn to let go of being right. And finally, let go of inauthentic power.

Because nothing is more inauthentic than sock garters.


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