Nothing to prove: 3 stories
Illustration by Francesco Ciccolella
My friend Don Berglund is a former CEO of a $55M health services organization. He now serves as an executive coach and an Executive Springboard mentor. When we spoke recently, Don talked about Jim Collin’s Tier 5 leadership, mixing humility and will to deliver great results. If will is hard to achieve, then Don will settle for competence. Either way, we are dealing with the magic of two sometimes contradictory forces that yield extraordinary results in combination.
Humility is not the first characteristic that comes to mind with strong leadership. But it is closely paired with confidence and being open to admit that you can still learn. The counterpoint comes when an organization recognizes signs of arrogance in a leader. Let me share some stories about arrogance and humility among new executives.
A few years ago, I had a conversation with Jose, an ex-Honeywell executive, who had recently joined a comparatively smaller firm, one with revenue of $2B. His assessment: the processes were far less rigorous than at Honeywell, and many of the managers’ skill sets were less developed.
Jose tried to raise the bar in his new organization, but he felt that going to Honeywell standards was a bridge too far. So, he attempted enhancements best described as “middle-of-the-road.” They failed, and so did Jose, leaving for another job after only a year.
Looking back, Jose identified several problems with his approach. First, some things might not have needed fixing at all. You might not buy a new Lexus if your 2012 Camry still runs well. Systems and skills had been designed for that organization, its size and complexity, its people and skills. Unless something is woefully out-of-date or unable to scale to a reasonable vision of the future, Jose had offered solutions to nonexistent problems.
The rationale behind his chosen solution caused a more fatal problem for him. Instead of adopting a system that he knew well, he determined that this organization did not have the skills to take that on. This condescension led him to compromise on an option, something not up to Honeywell standards, and something that nobody (including himself) was familiar with.
Let’s assume a new ERP was necessary to manage projected growth and complexity, or because the current system was not a 2012 Camry but a 2003 Kia. Is it possible that some version of a system Jose knew well would be a good choice for his company? That he could assume that employees had what it took to adopt to a new system? That an upgrade based on the current system wouldn't work well for the organization?
Marcus joined a $40M technology organization as COO/Integrator about a year ago. The CEO, a visionary, recognized his own blind spots in professional discipline, and he was looking for somebody to take his place within a year. Marcus, like Jose, had worked in a multi-billion-dollar global organization. His engineering credentials were strong, as was his leadership experience in a larger company.
In order to impress the CEO, Marcus spent much of his first six months on the job proving credentials that were not in doubt. He presented himself as the smartest person in the room. He dismissed current practices as outdated. He denigrated engineering managers who showed signs of uncertainty. He left relationships with rank-and-file employees to his reports.
When the project manager on a critical new innovation abruptly left the company, Marcus got hands-on. While he intended to act in a way that was direct and transparent, engineers, used to a level of air cover from their former boss, stumbled under his intimidation. Deadlines were missed. A cascade of failures followed, and Marcus left the organization in Month 9, without achieving the stated goal of having him become the next CEO.
Compare these stories to Kate, who left Nestle for a multinational environmental services company. At Nestle, she was in a groove, with over two decades of experience. It was a good assumption that Kate’s well-honed marketing skills would be superior to the prevailing standard in her new B2B environment. And, yes, she had confidence that she could adapt. But she set the tone early when she told her team, “I am coming from a stagnant industry with humility about the growth you’ve been able to achieve.”
In that simple declaration, Kate set herself up for success. Her team felt valued for their previous accomplishments. They recognized her willingness to learn from them. The fact that they could learn from her was obvious but implicit. Kate’s commitment to growing the business came through, as a reason for her significant career change.
Importantly, her actions supported her words. In one-on-one meetings, she probed how and why actions were taken, open to the possibility that her own choice of solution was not the only option. She paid attention to milestones to ensure that commitments were attained. Early on, she inserted her direction only if it seemed clear that she could offer a significant improvement. As time went on and her team gained traction under her light hand on the reins, Kate enacted a plan for top lieutenant to succeed her.
Kate’s direct reports felt respected, and they were open to her change agenda, because they believed it objectively weighed against their current best practices. Kate learned what worked and didn’t work in the organization, with minimal disruption. The only turnover on her team involved one senior manager whose resistance to any change began to be a disruption. Admittedly, she had fewer personal victories in her early months than Jose or Marcos, but the wins she shared with her team were impressive, and her track record led to a promotion to EVP within two years.
The need to prove yourself can lead to a reputation for arrogance, one of the greatest derailers of leaders. If your self-proclaimed higher standard doesn’t get successful results, you’ve demolished your credibility. Even if you succeed, you may have achieved little to gain followers.
Humble executives may not be seen as career self-promoters. And career progression can be dependent on taking credit when credit is due. But in the early months on a job, acknowledging that you do not have all the answers and demonstrating a willingness to learn are potent success strategies.
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