Yesterday, the New York Times interviewed Bob Brennan, president and C.E.O. of Iron Mountain, an information management company. Its reporter asked him what makes for great corporate leadership. Link here.
The Times often interviews business executives. Many of them offer worthwhile instructions about leadership skills.
Brennan’s advice strikes me as especially cogent. His is probably not new to you; you might have heard it in many places, this blog included.
Yet, there is nothing wrong with repeating them, from a different angle.
First, Brennan explains that it is fine for people to report on the problems that they see, thus, to offer a critical analysis of everything that is going wrong in the company.
But, a good executive listens carefully and then asks a question: What do you think we should do?
In his words: “I ask this question a lot in different situations: What do you recommend we do? You can get a real sense for who’s invested in moving the company forward, and who’s watching the company go by, with that very simple question.”
Not only does this question confer authority and responsibility on a staff member, but once everyone knows that they are going to face this question, their mindset will shift. They will broaden their focus and think in terms of solving, not just identifying, problems.
This question also allows the executive to separate those who can assume more responsibility from those who never will.
As Brennan puts it: “People lay out problems all the time. If they’ve thought through what should be done from here, then you’ve got somebody who’s in the game, who wants to move, and you can unlock that potential. Bystander apathy or the power of observation, in and of itself, is not very valuable. There are amazingly eloquent diagnosticians throughout the business world. They can break down a problem and say, ‘Here’s your problem.’ But it’s prescriptions that matter. So how do we move from here, and what specifically do you recommend?”
Doesn’t the same principle apply to therapy and coaching? How often do either of these professionals direct a discussion toward solving problems? And how often do they pretend that the important thing is to listen attentively, to nod knowingly, refuse to look for solutions, but to tell you that they feel your pain?
A coach might offer recommendations, which is good as long as they are not orders. Even if he does not know how to solve the problem, he still needs to help his client to understand that problems are there to be solved.
Once the client has learned this, he will often be able to offer several possible solutions to a problem.
Brennan’s next point concerns the ability to distinguish between intent and impact. It is a primary social skill; one that is required in the workplace and that ought to be a staple in your everyday life.
Do we know that when our good intentions produces actions that yield a bad outcome, we need to review our conduct, not to defend our actions on the basis of our good intentions?
We are, after all, responsible for the impact we produce, and we should never try to mitigate our responsibility by saying that the impact was not what we intended.
In Brennan’s words: “ We’re in a competitive environment. But I’m also looking for leaders who can step back and help guide those who are in the competitive moment. A lot of times there’s a breakdown between the intent somebody has and the impact they have. Their intent is to really help you succeed. Their impact is to make you very defensive. They don’t understand how they’re coming across, which might be attacking and interrogating, and pushing as opposed to pulling.”
Finally, Brennan emphasizes a point that I have occasionally raised. A couple of times I discussed a tirade that Congressman Mad Anthony Weiner threw on the floor of the House of Representatives a few months back.
Where Weiner tried to rationalize his intemperance by saying that he felt very strongly about whatever it was that was being debated, in my view such outbursts are a sign of a lack of discipline, thus, of bad character.
Brennan criticizes those who would rationalize bad behavior by saying that they are just passionate. Thus, he would disagree with those CEOs who keep telling people to follow their passion.
As Brennan correctly puts it: “Some people might euphemistically refer to that as passion, and I say malarkey. It’s not passion. I don’t believe that there’s any room in business at all for yelling. And some people hide that behind this veil of passion. It’s bad behavior, and has the wrong impact. You cannot lose it, ever.”
In his last sentence he is saying that a successful executive cannot lose control, ever. He cannot give his passions free reign, ever.
The same rule applies to other human relationships. Constructive relationships exist somewhere between the intemperate passionate outburst and the complete repression of emotion. If you already know that the latter is unacceptable, please add the former to the list.