Heavenly & Horror Leadership (Actual) Stories
- 1. Business Killer Text
- 2. Traffic Lights
- 3. I'm a Starr!!
- 4. Forging a Management Team
When you deliver leadership and management skills training courses throughout the UK and Europe to almost every industry and public sector for over 30 years, you learn a huge amount about leadership from various heavenly and horror stories you see within the clients you work with and hear from managers attending the courses.
And there are so many learning points I have picked up about 'what not to do' in leadership - and what I have been inspired by - when I reflect on some of the many leadership episodes I have seen and heard about.
All of these are true - I have either seen these personally or they have been related to me by first-hand experiences...
1. Business Killer Text
While delivering a 3-day ILM Leadership and Management (Level 3) in-house course for a client in the financial sector in the South-West of England a few years ago - there was a bright young manager in attendance who was very engaged in all aspects of the course. She even laughed at some of my corny jokes! Her real name is not disclosed here, but let's call her Amanda.
On the second day after lunch when Amanda came back to the training suite, I thought I detected that she was trying to hold back her emotions. She then suddenly burst out crying and let out a wail of deep distress when we started to review the various leadership styles within the course curriculum and... she then dashed out of the room.
I asked the group to be patient for a while and I paused the course to go outside to see if I could do anything for her. I initially thought she must have had terrible news from home or her family.
I saw Amanda in the hallway sobbing inconsolably and staring at her mobile phone. I gingerly approached her and asked if I could do anything for her - or if she would like to head off home, given she was clearly deeply upset.
She thanked me for my concern and apologised for her reaction to a text message she had received from her director.
She then started to explain, in-between shudders of anger and tears, that she was currently standing in for her manager who had just left the business (a call centre department) and had been successfully running the team of 15 for almost three months.
As acting manager she found that she was skilled and capable as well as very successful, given that the results had shown a clear trajectory of increases in sales and profits with a distinct reduction in churn of customers. Her team were very motivated because she had been able to engage with them authentically and was very assertive when it came to tough, sometimes unpopular decisions regarding rotas and disciplines.
Because Amanda had never received any formal management training, she had applied to attend the ILM Leadership and Management Award Level 3 course to gain the qualifications and boost her confidence towards applying for the role her previous manager had vacated.
It transpired that the day before the course, she had applied for the managers' role, for which she had been successfully performing in for almost 12 weeks, and had only now received a text from the divisional director responsible for the recruitment of the position.
Even though he was in the same building and available that day, he elected to simply text her rather than arrange to meet with her or catch up over a coffee.
His text read - "You will not be assessed or interviewed for this position."
When she called him, he actually asked her - "What made you think you were suitable for a manager's position?"
I told her that as an independent trainer, I had already seen she had so much talent and leadership skills that it would be such a shame to allow this deeply disappointing news and appalling treatment to squander her opportunity to gain the ILM Level 3 Award in Leadership and Management qualification.
She was persuaded to complete the course and she achieved her ILM Level 3 Award Certificate very quickly afterwards.
I found out sometime later that, before the new manager was appointed for the team, she had left the company and brought with her three of the top performing sales people to join a direct rival. They had been able to bring with them millions of pounds worth of revenue at the expense of the previous company.
All because of a killer text - from a director who must have had a very low EQ and zero leadership skills.
2. Traffic Lights
We regularly design and deliver bespoke leadership and team development programmes for groups who have been composed of different departments but have a shared objective, such as servicing the same clients.
On one such programme - having conducted an independent research stage to understand the business, its culture and working practices - we designed the 2-day programme to be completely in alignment with the objectives for the company and the group.
Our research findings revealed that the operations director to this manufacturing company in Yorkshire was very poorly regarded by all the team leaders and managers.
They considered him to be very aggressive with a very domineering and prescriptive 'command and control' style of leadership.
Indeed, we had a privileged perspective of this insofar as we happened to work with a couple of their clients and a supplier to this company - all of whom told us that this director was horrible to deal with and that they'd often try to work with their competitors solely because of his sarcastic and dismissive behaviour.
Following the research interviews and having collated our findings, I was ready to share with this Director - let's call him Keith (not his real name) - the proposed programme for the team building programme for his managers and some of the team leaders.
When I was ushered to his door I was asked to wait 'until the green light' came on.
Next to the door, at eye-level, was a traffic light fitting, about 8 inches long, with the red light glowing - advising me that I was to wait. Then a few minutes later it moved to amber, my signal for 'get ready to go in'. Then - over a minute later - it turned green. I was allowed in to his office.
Inside the spacious wood panelled office in front of a large window was Keith behind a huge old-fashioned Dickensian style desk. In front of that was another table with stacks of files and models, and in front of that were two very low positioned seats.
He gestured for me to take a seat without looking up from a sheet of paper he was reading.
So I sat, with my knees close to my ears the seat was so low - and I was compelled to look up across two large desks with the light streaming on from the window directly into my line of sight - to a scowling and disdainful expression on Keith's oval and ruddy face.
He didn't attempt to shake hands with me or welcome me to the room - he finished reading his note and then barked at me - "I'm only agreeing to this bloody, pointless training thing because we were given a grant and if we don't spend some of it they'll withdraw the money!"
I asked him in a clear and direct tone - "So what do you want from this programme?"
"What do you mean, what do I want? I don't want to have to spare my managers for two days just so that they can all sit around and do boy-scout games!", he sneered.
I smiled, "Well, the good news is that they will not be sitting around doing boy-scout games - but, as you say, you are compelled to invest in their training and the minimum commitment is two days and it was much more efficient to get them all together and deliver a bespoke leadership and team development course - which we are scheduling over a weekend - so you will only actually be without them for 1 working day - at your quietest time of the year."
I could tell he realised I was not remotely intimidated by his bluster.
"So, given that the programme is going to happen..." I asked, "...what would you like to see as an outcome from it?"
He obviously hadn't spent a moment considering what the training was to cover, or how his managers were to get the most from the investment. He folded his arms, frowned even more deeply, and looked into the middle distance for a moment. Then his face morphed into a pained expression as if he was enduring a stomach ulcer. He wasn't. He just hadn't thought beyond his work tasks and the notion of considering his managers' perspective seemed to be like looking at a dead animal; deeply unpleasant and yet he was compelled to do it.
Eventually he grimaced as he said, "These managers are just not very motivated, you know. They're always winging about things that are wrong or about the machines."
"I understand exactly what you mean", I nodded my head, "Having conducted the research and learned from this meeting - I think, as an objective observer, I know exactly why they're not appearing very motivated."
"Really?" He tilted his head as if I had spoken in a faintly foreign language that he could only understand a portion of. "Why are they so negative?"
"Keith, I am pretty sure the reason will be because of..." I paused to ensure I kept his focussed attention, "...you."
"Me?" He looked more puzzled than irritated.
"Yep" I confirmed, "You. Perhaps more accurately - your leadership style and approach and all the accoutrements that you have in your management style."
"What's wrong with my leadership style?" he demanded. "I make the decisions. I deal with the problems. I get things done! Despite all their whinging!" Then his eyes narrowed, "Have they been complaining about me?"
"They don't need to. Every leader has an influence on their managers and their teams, and I can see at a glance the effect that your particular type of leadership has on this company" I explained.
Then I shifted gear, "Keith, can I ask you a straight question?"
"Has anyone within your team ever questioned or challenged you? Have they ever been honest with you - especially on decisions that you may have made that turned out to be wrong?" I asked.
He thought about this for a few moments. "I don't know. I cannot remember."
"Have you ever made a decision that affected your mangers that turned out to be wrong?"
"I suppose so - getting the new supplier for the catering was a disaster, I remember that." He volunteered.
"So had they told you how that affected them?"
"No" he declared. "I know they whinge about it, though - and lots of other things as well."
"So, they have not felt able to talk to you about things that affect them, which indicates your style of leadership is not very open. This starts to explain why your managers are not very motivated." I continued, "If I can say - even from my very short exposure here today - I had to wait for a traffic light to go green before I can come into the office and there are two huge desks between us in this very austere office."
"Don't you like my office?" I hit a nerve. I think it hurt his feelings.
"In a country house, it would make quite a nice library, but as a room where leaders discuss and debate and visitors should feel they can invest in this company - I am afraid I think it's not very conducive for open and honest discussions."
He looked puzzled again, and then he almost whispered, "You really don't like my office?"
When reflecting on this meeting, I remember it occurred to me that no one, perhaps since a school teacher or a parent, had probably ever questioned or challenged him - until now.
"May I make a suggestion, Keith?" I stood up. "Can I suggest you come on the leadership and team course with the managers and they can get to understand your leadership style in a much more positive light - and I am very confident to predict that you will see skills in them and give them more confidence, which will improve their motivation - and reduce the whinging!"
"Let me think about it... I am not sure about that." he said leaning back in his chair.
The next time I met with Keith at his office - the following week - the traffic lights had been removed and his room had been completely refurbished. It had a much smaller desk positioned at the corner of the office, a round table surrounded by five chairs, and a two-seater sofa situated opposite two single lounge chairs with an elegant coffee table in-between them.
"What do you think of my office?" He actually smiled.
"I really like it!" I couldn't hide my amazement, "It's so much better. So, Keith, does this mean that you will come on the leadership and team development course next month?"
"Yes," he said, "but you'll have a job getting my managers to ask me questions or treat me like a fellow leader."
"Leave that to me. I will have you doing so many boy scout activities where no one has the advantage, they will soon forget you are the director because you won't have any more knowledge or skills sets than they all do - so it will be a level playing field" I smiled.
He smiled and then let out a roar of a belly laugh.
The course was hugely successful and led to a series of leadership development and coaching support provisions - which Keith attended and engaged fully with.
This all happened back in the late 90s and it was my first lesson on how to assert myself with domineering directors who have rarely received any feedback on their own leadership.
His team of managers blossomed and many of them progressed on to becoming directors themselves as a result of that first encounter.
3. I'm a Starr!!
One of the most inspirational leadership experiences happened when I was around 23 years old and had just been promoted from within the production division of a publishing company into the sales team. I was excited and a little nervous (I had only just passed my driving test three days before they delivered my company car!!).
There was a new sales director - we'll call him Tommy (not his real name) - for that team and he had arranged a huge conference in London at one of the top hotels.
I was based in the north of England and was among all the other 40 or so sales personnel, managers, editors, authors and support staff who travelled down the night before the two day event to be ready for the opening the following morning.
This was my first big conference experience and I was delighted to get to meet my new director and the many new colleagues I was due to be working with.
I happened to arrive earlier than everyone else and, after checking in and waiting for half an hour or so at the bar, no one had approached me to introduce themselves to me from the sales division, when I saw a beautiful black boudoir grand piano situated at the corner of this elegant art deco restaurant area.
As it was quiet in the restaurant, I decided to go over and start playing the piano. I have always had a philosophy - if there is a piano in the room, it should be played.
Perhaps an hour went by when I realised that the bar was starting to fill up with my new colleagues and so I stopped playing and went over to introduce myself to some of them.
One of the people who had arrived was Tommy, my sales director, who introduced himself to me and asked if he and I could meet for a proper introductory chat before breakfast the following morning - say 7.00am?
He said, "Us new guys should meet for a chat."
As a leader, Tommy was very charismatic, yet somewhat enigmatic and exuded a quiet confidence. He had been head-hunted from a rival company to upgrade our position in the market place.
But he also had the gift of inspiration...
So at 7.00am prompt we met at the restaurant and he led me to a quieter corner booth and, after he welcomed me to the sales team he said, "Phil, do you know what? You are like Ringo from the Beatles!"
I was perplexed. "Really? How come?"
He leaned over to me as if I was to be given a highly confidential piece of information. "When Ringo joined the Beatles, replacing their first drummer (Pete Best), they were quite successful around Liverpool but only a few months later they got their first Number 1, and then they got another and suddenly they had more records in the charts than any other pop group. Then they made it huge in America and all around the world, and they became global mega stars in only a couple of years. Now they are timeless, historical, almost mystical figures - recognised as the most successful and universally popular band of all time." He paused, drank some tea, nibbled on his toast, before continuing as he pointed in my direction, "You are our Ringo! You have just joined this amazing band - and I aim to make us as successful in our business as the Beatles were successful in the music business!"
I will never forget the wave of sheer excitement that surged through me at that moment. What an honour to be considered as eligible to be part of this elite group that was destined to be going to the greatest heights of success!
"Ringo was a much better drummer - and almost as important - he was a brilliant fit with the rest of the band as his predecessor. So I am confident that so will you be - for our team." Tommy was beaming a glowing white smile of delight in my direction. He sat back nodding.
"Wow! That's brilliant! Tommy, I will be one of the best sales people you have ever worked with - I guarantee you I will get great results!" I declared emphatically.
The conference was a magical event, where so many of the team I would be working with were smart, funny, dynamic, confident and hugely inspired - in no short measure due to Tommy's understated, yet steely focussed way he facilitated the two days. I felt so positive and determined to earn this special place in this elite team.
I was delighted to receive all the training on professional customer care, account management as well as the team building sessions that Tommy had installed as part of his strategy to ensure we were authentically customer-centric. This training and development was a fantastically intelligent investment in all of us. It was apparent that the managers had received leadership and management skills training, which enhanced the culture and sustained the motivation of the full team.
I was unstoppable in the way I pursued every sales opportunity, and I introduced many innovations to my territory such as lining up authors on local TV, radio and newspaper interviews ahead of their book publications, and running quizzes within those media outlets where the prizes were the new titles we were due to publish to heighten the profiles.
All of this was shared with other territory managers, who also enjoyed increased sales and market positions.
Our company really did surge through the market place, attracting better authors and quality talent in marketing and sales, as well as management and editorial specialists.
My own sales results delivered literally 100% more revenue than the previous sales representative in the territory. I had not only doubled the figures, but I had been able to sustain a healthy growth of sales for the following four years; all at our competitors' expense.
It was some time later when I realised that when I was playing the piano in the hotel restaurant the night before the conference, I had been playing a lot of Beatles songs, which I have always loved and knew would be popular when performing in a public place. Tommy had listened to me quietly while waiting at the bar and had obviously found the perfect metaphor that would 'strike a chord' (sorry about the pun) for me when he spoke to me privately the next morning.
It really had a tremendous inspirational effect on me.
My confidence was solid, which has served me well both as a very successful business person, entrepreneur and as a leader, which was originally raised up from that breakfast meeting with Tommy when I was a young man.
Some cynics might say what Tommy did was 'manipulative'.
I strongly disagree with the notion that he 'used' me in an unethical and divisive way. He demonstrated a very high degree of EQ and superlative leadership skills.
He gave me many benefits - such as high self-esteem, a sense of commitment to a successful team, a very positive attitude and an ongoing feeling of being highly respected. This all translated into increased sales for the business and would, no doubt, have served Tommy's objectives well.
Since then, as a leader and as a training provider, I always look to see what will be the motivational rriver that will lift the person to a greater height than they think they themselves can achieve.
That is a key leadership skill.
4. Forging a Management Team
One of the most successful and effective coaching and training projects I have ever been involved in was commissioned by a young manager who had been appointed to head a 33 strong finance department of a blue chip company based in the North of England.
He was very bright, with a ferocious work ethic and boundless energy. He was also ambitious; both for himself and his team.
We had been delivering some very well-received team building programmes for other parts of the business, when this young manager - for the sake of this retelling of the story I will call Andrew - asked to see me.
He explained that he had recently been appointed to lead a department that was very well established but had entrenched factions. The accounts payable clerks did not get on with the purchase ledger team who were often unhelpful to the management accounts team, which were diffident about the rest of the department.
Andrew had inherited a department with team leaders who had never had formal leadership training before, and had been acclimatised to working in silos that generated a fair degree of internal prejudice about other colleagues within the department, but worked for other disciplines.
He commissioned me to offer a solution because this - almost toxic - culture was definitely adversely affecting the performance of the department to such an extent that the age-debt book showed an eye-watering high level of unpaid bills and out of date protocols. Ultimately the department could very easily be closed down and for the operation to be out-sourced.
Andrew had the vision - "A well-oiled machine."
He knew what success should look like. All the teams should be supporting each other, commit to giving their customers - internal and external - outstanding service and have a very healthy relationship with their many key suppliers to get the best service from them. He also recognised the importance of attracting and retaining highly talented personnel, and transforming the profile of the department within the business from one of a virtually dysfunctional group to a dynamic, highly motivated team of professionals.
He also knew that politically and practically, just replacing a large number of the 33 personnel would not be realistic or feasible.
So the question was: What should Andrew do to realise his vision?
The first stage was conducting independent research; confidential interviews with all the team leaders, a cross-section of the team members across the three disciplines of the department, and some of their internal and external key contacts.
This provided evidence-based details about the causes of the lack of team support, and the erosion of the goodwill between so many people involved.
There were some complex issues, but the core reason for the problems this department was having was that they did not regard themselves as a team with shared priorities, resources and values. They felt detached from all other groups because they did not have the same tasks or specialist skills. They also had micro-cultures where they had become acclimatised to their own, usually disengaged, way of trudging through the job.
Leadership was in short supply. Management was functional and kept the wheels turning, but there was a lot of friction.
So, armed with the research findings, I presented the plan to Andrew.
The next step we conducted was a full team development programme for all 33 team members (quite a challenge to take them all out of the business for a day, but Andrew saw the prize and made the controversial decision) where they were performing fun but very engaging command tasks that required all of them to support each other. There was a notional financial theme, where each activity had a value that was to be earned to achieve the overall target. It was designed in such a way that if any one person or part of the team did not engage fully, they could not achieve the target or deliver on the tasks. Debriefings were conducted following each exercise where we explored how much easier and more motivational it was to collaborate and support, which was reflected in the financial gains they made. The programme also included a review of each team member's profile preferences - highlighting the diverse range of motivational factors and the composition of the team. The outcome of this was quite profound; each team member, each sub-team developed more empathy and respect for the other team members. This session concluded with a simple and short, but achievable team charter, designed to work towards "a well-oiled machine."
Bespoke training sessions were then delivered for the team leaders (and Andrew also attended and participated himself) to illustrate their responsibility for the behaviours and attitudes of the full team. The training showed how the performance of the overall department was directly aligned to the way they treated each other as a leadership team, and their unconscious bias towards the other sub-teams showing a direct bearing on the outcomes with customers and suppliers was examined.
Their own leadership skills development was started with this first course, which was followed by ongoing modular training in areas such as communication skills, dealing with difficult issues and performance management disciplines.
Andrew also commissioned coaching for himself and each of his five team leaders.
This embedded the learning from the training and propelled the shift in culture and full team support to ensure the department's performance improved significantly.
Andrew and each of his team leaders received four or five 1-2-1 coaching sessions each, all focussed on their leadership style and the influence they have on the full team as well as perceptions of external partners.
This meant that the culture shift of the whole department shifted very quickly in a much more positive direction because we were able, with the use of a profiler instrument (Paradigm), to accurately target their own specific development needs and address issues, some of them around difficult conversations and behaviours.
The fact that they were all receiving the support and investment created a strong bond between the management team, which cascaded across the full team, creating a 'glue' that had not been there before.
Andrew's leadership style was especially impressive, particularly in the way - despite being younger than most of his well-established team leaders - he would not slip into the trap of taking any sides or reacting to the most vocal personality. He had a clear policy of not accepting any negative remarks about any other team member and would only accept failings or mistakes if he had seen evidence for himself. In such cases he would offer coaching and training support as a solution. Setting this example soon eradicated any potential toxic behaviours and uncharitable comments about other colleagues or teams, which used to be a feature of the culture.
The team leaders all progressed in their careers; two of them reaching director level in other industry sectors some years later.
Andrew enjoyed seeing the leadership training and coaching investment reach fruition within two years, from not only seeing the whole team culture change into a 'well-oiled engine' - which meant they retained and attracted talent - but he had very tangible benefits emerge such as their aged debts go down from £50m to only £5m.
Andrew's leadership experience with this team and the development of the team leaders was the first of a range of chapters in his career as a director in four other major companies in a variety of industry sectors.
His leadership skills and effectiveness have been applied successfully with many other leadership teams, and we have enjoyed a very productive partnership throughout his career when he has called on us to support him and accelerate the development of his teams in four additional organisations.
Training, leadership development, coaching support, Paradigm Profilers and team building based on independent research is the most successful formula to ensure business results are achieved, provided that the stakeholder(s) are authentic and consistent in the enterprise.