It’s easy to forget how you felt or thought early in your career. For many, time tends to change their perspective, and the things we felt that might have been important in the past can fade over time. In fact, you’ve likely changed your perspective on many things since then based on experiences, new information and even just age. Things that were important to you years ago just aren’t that critical any more.
This is a form of ‘organizational dementia.’ Don’t worry, it’s normal! But, it can be a double-edged sword.
In fact, I would expect that every leader will change their perspective as they move forward in their career. It’s imperative to the growth of the organization that you learn from the past, and make different decisions based on these experiences. It’s also important because as you rise in responsibility, you should be delegating more of the details to those newer leaders in the organization. You can’t do it all, and shouldn’t be trying to. What was important to you, in some cases, should change.
However, sometimes as leaders we can get blinded to the larger matters and focus on the smaller details and forget to let go of the past. We move back to our “comfortable” place in the organization, and start worrying about small details as a way to avoid some of the larger, harder decisions. When things aren’t going like we want, or the work at hand seems difficult, it feels good to go back to a place where we were experienced and in control.
I have seen leaders who spend more time debating the color scheme of an office, or the merits of painting new parking space lines than they do focusing on compensation fairness, insurance coverage or new business directions. It is this unfortunate side of ‘organizational dementia’ that has fogged the lens of the past, and leaders lose their focus.
[bctt tweet=”You can’t do it all, and shouldn’t be trying to.”]
In losing this focus, the message that it sends the rest of the organization is a bad one. Whether we like it or not, our teams notice what we prioritize, and quickly make judgments on where they would put that same topic in the list of importance, especially if “they were in charge.” They see the topics of conversation being paint colors and brands of business cards, and infer that this is all that is important.
I once observed a leader of an organization years ago get focused on the color of ink that the employees should use when signing documents.* It was so important to this leader that they sent out a memo outlining the importance of using this color going forward. Coupled with that, they also decided that the brand and style of pen should be mandated as well, and instructed the assistants to stop ordering all other types of pens, but their preferred brand and model.
Imagine the conversations that ensued within the organization over this. While I’m sure there was some logical reasons for setting the ink color (ability to see it when making photocopies for example), that reason is lost on most, especially without a clear explanation. Regardless of the rationale, it comes across as petty and unnecessary. Compound that with the mandated type of pen, and you have a recipe for the rumor mill! Imagine what the team thought of this leader.
In hindsight, a better approach might have been to talk with their direct reports and discuss the importance of being able to tell the difference in a document between a copy and an original. Then, ask them to help figure out the best approach to solving the problem. But, in this case, it wasn’t really about that as an issue. It was more about the type pen they liked and the fact that they felt the need to control the details.
So, what’s the lesson for leaders? Does this mean that we should never concern ourselves with details and daily operations? No. But there are some lessons that will help you make good decisions and decide if it’s something you should concern yourself with. More importantly, these ideas will ensure that people are following you, and not talking about you behind your back!
- Remember where you came from – When you find yourself being concerned with things that might be perceived as “small potatoes”, ask yourself if this was something you would have been worried about early on in your career. If it is, that might be an indication that it’s something better left to a delegate, and not you. In this particular case, I’m not sure who would have worried about the brand of pens that were used, but it certainly isn’t worth the mental effort at this point in their career.
- Get feedback – Find a more junior team member and establish a strong mentoring relationship. As part of that relationship, develop enough trust and rapport that they will tell you when you might be going off the rails. Also, use them as a sounding board at times when you think you might be dabbling in controversial or “rumor worthy” decisions in the organization. In a good relationship, this person might be just the one who will make sure you know how others would perceive what you’re doing or saying.
- Ask yourself “why?” – One of the worst things a leader can do is to focus on their personal preferences and desires when it comes to the organization. While everyone has some personal preferences, and things that make them more productive, when those preferences get pushed across the organization, it’s no longer “personal.” If you find yourself wanting to mandate something, always start with “why?” In fact, ask yourself that question at least five times (once for each answer) and you are likely to get to the real root of the issue (another post on the ‘Five Whys‘ technique in another post). If it’s personal, don’t do it.
- Think about the worst-case discussion that might take place – Whether you like it or not, there will always be someone who will take whatever decision or discussion you are involved with and drive it to it’s most negative direction. Never, ever, open yourself up to the scrutiny of the organization by giving that person a reason to question your motives, or your competence. The decisions you make, and the discussions you have, will always be seen by some as negative. If you don’t think the discussion is worth it, just stop right there.
It’s easy to forget that we are being watched as leaders. It’s also easy to assume that everyone will understand your motives, and see them for the good of the organization that you intended them for. But, when you cross the line and find yourself focusing on your own preferences, instead of the good of the organization, you will come under scrutiny.
Don’t be pulled into decisions that are better left to others. Forget the pen color, and think before you act!
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