I work with a CEO that I think is a great guy. I have him in my contact directory, so whenever he calls me, I see his name. I immediately know that I am going to enjoy the conversation no matter what the topic. He may be calling to tell me that he wants me to do something differently, to ask me for some advice, or to offer some advice, but whatever the topic I know that I am going to enjoy the call. I trust him and the fact that he is always warm and supportive no matter the topic makes every call a positive experience. I also want to do everything that I can to help him and I am always available to talk with him. I have also noticed that he has a set of senior managers surrounding him that are some of the best and brightest, and I imagine that they also really enjoy working with him. The interesting thing is that he can his staff focused in the right direction by just talking things through and ultimately just asking.
I have also worked with a couple of CEOs who are pains in the ass, no matter the topic. It is in their blood to be pushy and to ask for much more than they really want and to ask for it sooner than they want. Actually, they didn’t really ask, they pushed for it. I always found those conversations to be discouraging as I like to exceed expectations and their approach never left any room to exceed expectations. I never really enjoyed the conversations and probably avoided the CEOs more than I should have and clearly didn’t do my best work with them. I also noticed that they seemed to be surrounded by more junior people (that they could push around) and imagine that they weren’t able to attract the best people into their business. The interesting thing is that they push their teams extremely hard, but they still don’t get done what they want to get done. Their teams lack the skills and probably also lack the motivation to really figure it out.
A Timely Question
It took me a while to figure this out in my professional career. I was probably more like the pushy CEOs when I was starting my career. Tell people that you need more than you need. Give them a shorter time frame than you really need things. Push, Push, Push.
At one point, one of my mentors came to me with some advice: “You need to understand what their needs are before you can figure out how to work with them best. What do you think people experience when you talk to them?” I had never thought of the question before that point. All I knew was that I wanted to get something done and I was going to get it done no matter what (one of my partners calls it “sharp elbows”).
The question opened me up to a new set of ideas and opportunities. If people felt discouraged when I contacted them, would that really help me get done what I needed to get done? Would they cringe when I came in the room? Would they avoid me? What about what they needed to get done? What about room that allowed a broader conversation to take place? How could I get done what I needed to get done in their context?
Over time I started working on trying to understand the people that I interact with better. It was still clear to me what I wanted to get done, but it was clearer to me that I needed to better understand the individual needs of the people that I was asking things of. What is their context? What are their goals? What are their concerns? How could we work together to get things done?
I still have high expectations of everyone that I work with (as well as myself), and I am still overly pushy at times, but the approach of trying to better understand the people I interact with has allowed me to interact with each person in a unique way, develop better working relationships with them, and ultimately have more impact while leaving behind better experiences and happier people. The basic idea that I work with is how can I meet my goals while helping them meet theirs and while building, rather than destroying, a relationship.
I offered this idea up to someone that I worked with a few years ago that was super-smart but had sharp elbows, particularly with our team and portfolio companies. He got better at interacting with people within a couple of months. A year later he told me that it was some of the best advice that he had ever received. I am passing it on in the hopes of enlightening others that might have sharp elbows or who might need to build a broader perspective on interacting with others.
Have you ever thought about what people experience when you interact with them? Other managers or team members? Customers? Partners? Vendors?
Think about it!