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Leadership Resilience: On Starting Over

Remember, you don’t have to be perfect. It’s never too late to start over with your team if you remember these Starting over with your teamfour things:

  • It’s more important to listen first and speak second.
  • Use everyone’s expertise to plan and get results.
  • When you are wrong, apologize.
  • Honor your team. and they will honor you.

When I was promoted to my first leadership job at Honeywell’s Systems and Research Center, I was committed to being the best leader I could be. One of the first things I learned from my team was that they felt like second-class citizens. I had lots of ideas about how we could become strategic partners to support our business, and I shared them all. I was passionate. I was animated. I talked a lot. I listened a little.

Then, shortly after I started, my mother died, my father-in-law died, my own father had a stroke, and my grandmother died—all within a sixteen-week period. The pain was devastating, but I ignored it, and charged on. I was the leader after all, right?  My job was to set an example, not be an example.

I was exhausted, not particularly coherent, and I was abrupt as I tried to hide my feelings. Finally, Mike, the senior member of our team asked if I would meet with everyone the next morning. When I walked into the conference room, all ten of my direct reports sat waiting for me around a long table. Mike sat at the foot, and the chair at the head of the table was empty, waiting for me.

Before I could say a word, Mike broke in. “First of all, we want you to know that we really care about you. But lately, Sher, you seem really curt, and we feel that you don’t have any faith in us.”

“Are you speaking for everyone when you say “we feel”?  My voice was clipped and short, and then my face started to burn. I’d just proven his point.

Rita spoke up. “You seem to want to know every detail about all of our projects. It feels like you don’t trust us. And, you have all these ideas about how to change things.”

Linda added in her soft voice, “You just seem so defensive, lately. What’s wrong?” Linda was one of the kindest, most honest women, I’d ever met, and if she said I was being defensive, then I had to believe her.

Something shifted inside of me. I could feel it as I slumped in my chair and forgot about being the perfect leader for the first time since I’d joined the team.

“You’re right. I’m sorry. I’d like to listen, really. I do want to understand what you’re thinking and feeling.”

Around the table, people visibly relaxed, and I realized for the first time they’d been as nervous as I was. For the next hour, I listened for a change, and they spoke. Looking back, I realize that they had no big complaints. They were sincere when they said they wanted to work with me. They just needed me to listen.

“Thank you for having the guts to speak up,” I said after everyone had gone around the table. “I have been curt and preoccupied, but it had nothing to do with you.” And, I finally shared why I’d been out of the office. They’d had no idea about all the deaths in my family. “I’m really sorry it seemed as though I was finding fault. I didn’t mean to come off that way. I’ve been talking a lot about my vision. Can we start over and instead talk about our vision?”

I got an enthusiastic “yes” from everyone around that table.

Over a three-year period, we worked hard, becoming serious business partners with all the science areas at the Systems and Research Center, and we moved well beyond our previous role of support staff. We doubled our productivity, we maintained a flat-line budget, and we had fun.

It’s been more than 20 years, and I still remember that team with love and honor them for the lessons they were so willing to help me learn. I went on and studied everything I could learn about leadership communication. Since then, I’ve led global and strategic change management communication teams at GE, American Express, Honeywell, and Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. I’ve worked with hundreds of leaders all over the world from the front line to the C-Suite, from high tech to financial services to manufacturing. And to this day, the four most important leadership lessons I’ve learned are:

  • It’s more important to listen first, speak second.
  • Use everyone’s expertise to plan and get results.
  • When you’re wrong, apologize.
  • Honor your team. and they will honor you.

It’s never too late to start over as a leader when things go awry. Have you ever started over? How did it go?

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