5 Essential Lessons My Clients Taught Me in 2016
In addition to providing a welcome opportunity to eat and drink with wild abandon, the holidays are a great time to reflect on our year. Personally, 2016 required me to get out of my comfort zone. I temporarily scaled back my consulting practice so I could focus on my new book on self-awareness.
And even though I worked with just a handful of clients this year, I’ve learned many invaluable lessons from them. So for the third year running, and in the spirit of our collective success, I wanted to codify this wisdom.
1. In the raging winds of change, we must build windmills.
For better or for worse, nothing lasts forever. But not that long ago, I often heard business people say things like “once we get through X change, we can regroup and make a plan.” Whether it was a new job, a merger or acquisition, or even an industry disruption, there used to be a sense that the business world was punctuated by change rather than pervaded by it. But that’s becoming less true with each passing year.
And as the winds of change continue to blow, to paraphrase a Chinese proverb, I see some leaders building walls while others are building windmills. The latter have accepted this reality and recognized the different behavior it requires. They manage through uncertainty instead of trying to eliminate it. They help employees replenish their energy instead of burning them out. They support their team’s change agility instead of surrendering to the status quo. It is my belief that this set of skills will be a key ingredient for success in the future.
2. Leaders receive the behavior they reward.
Of all the business scandals of 2016, Wells Fargo’s took the cake. In September, the Federal Consumer Protection Bureau discovered that the bank’s employees had opened millions of fraudulent customer accounts. When these 5,300 people were fired, now-former CEO John Stumpf laid the blame squarely on their shoulders. But this wasn’t a case of 5,300 bad apples. The real culprits were more likely unrealistic sales goals and a winner-takes-all culture. And this underscores one simple fact -- leaders receive the behavior they reward. Always.
Yet as harmful as this principle proved to be for Wells Fargo, it can also be a force for good. For the past two years, I’ve been running a large-scale leadership development program for a client. Naturally, our expectation is that participants will change their behavior and actually become better leaders -- which in turn will drive business results. So my client smartly started rewarding those actions, in large and small ways.
My favorite was an award they created for those who most embodied the new behaviors we were targeting. In February, the 20 worldwide winners were flown to Las Vegas and lavished with recognition. Not surprisingly, the strategy is working. My client is seeing behavior change, and their metrics are moving in the right direction.
3. Leadership is a humbling quest for unknown unknowns.
Socrates once said that “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” But especially for smart, successful people, such wisdom is in increasingly short supply. Not knowing what we don’t know usually works fine -- until it doesn't. And as Harvard psychologist Chris Argyris explains, when something doesn’t go the way we want or expect, it’s rare to question the faulty assumptions that got us there -- and to invite others to do the same. Why? It’s humbling, even frightening, to discover our unknown unknowns.
Still, my smartest clients understand that their view of reality is not the view of reality. They understand they there are multiple ways of seeing problems; that admitting their limitations and tapping into others’ knowledge is essential; that the way their teams see them is valid and important. This requires a humble mindset coupled with a commitment to seek new perspectives. But it’s worth it. I’ve noticed that the most successful leaders are those who don’t pretend to know everything -- which is actually pretty freeing when you really think about it!
4. The most important time to listen is when we disagree.
In researching my new book, I uncovered a few sobering truths -- like the study that showed "sharply declining" empathy levels over recent decades. Researchers compared students’ responses to those from the 1980s on things like “I have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” and “I try to understand my friends by imagining how things look from their perspective.” Spoiler alert -- young people are becoming much more willing to consider others' perspectives.
This year’s presidential election also made it clear that grown adults can be quick to demean and demonize those who don’t share their views. (I know someone whose childhood friend dumped her because of her husband’s political views. Don’t try to make sense of that or your head will explode, trust me). Though I won’t get back on my soapbox, I will say that our problem is not without its consequences. In one investigation, companies highest in collective empathy generated 50 percent more earnings than those lowest in it.
Accordingly, my best clients go out of their way to appreciate and understand others’ perspectives, especially when they disagree. Sometimes just giving people a forum to voice their opinions works wonders. Other times, when we listen with a truly open mind, we make much better decisions. At work at least, our empathy problem isn’t especially difficult to solve, and perhaps the biggest step is to remember just how important it is to do so.
5. When we commit to being "Braver but Better," the sky’s the limit.
A few weeks back, I attended the graduation ceremony for a high-potential program I’ve been running for a longtime client. The nine graduates spent the entire year working diligently to become better leaders. They received intensive feedback from their employees, peers, bosses and each other. They learned and applied new skills. They led enterprise-wide projects that solved real problems. The graduation ceremony was enthusiastically attended by the company’s chairman, CEO and his entire executive team. And when each graduate spoke about their journey, I didn’t see many dry eyes. What they achieved was truly inspiring.
These leaders illustrate probably the most important lesson I’ve ever learned from my clients -- a concept I call "Braver but Better." Very few people make the commitment to unflinchingly examine themselves as they are and as they should be -- their values, passions, aspirations, behaviors, capabilities and impact on others. This journey isn't just time-intensive; it can be a bumpy, even scary, ride that’s often full of surprises. But great things await us on the other side -- smarter choices, better relationships, more professional success and a more fulfilling life. I feel so strongly about this, in fact, that I’ll be spending most of next year eagerly spreading this message. Here’s to a prosperous 2017 for one and all!