The Leadership Learning Moment That Wasn’t – HBR Blog

(Linda was the instructor for the WIA Leadership Symposium Series Seminar: Networking 101 – What They Didn’t Teach in School But You Need to Succeed)
 

More often than we might like, but less often than we probably need, an event at work throws up a mirror in which we catch a glimpse of ourselves.

One of those moments occurred for me (Kent) in a meeting years ago. It was a gathering of senior managers to hear a presentation from an outside strategy consultant. When he finished, he opened a discussion about our firm’s particular needs.

Our needs, though not yet urgent, were strategic and considerable. The firm was about 30 years old and had enjoyed significant success throughout its life, based on great planning and management. For the first 20 or more of those years, before my arrival, it had produced consistent, extraordinary earnings and had been able to grow its top and bottom lines — in real terms — around 12-15 percent a year, year after year. Best of all, though far from glamorous, this company really did make a difference in the lives of its customers.

But something began to change in the company’s third decade, when I joined. The U.S. had passed through a sharp recession and the company seemed to lose steam. At first, we all blamed the economy; after all, we were still growing at a decent clip. It just wasn’t as fast as before.

I spent my first few years there building a successful internal startup. Growth wasn’t my problem. But two or three years before this meeting, I had been put in charge of both my new division and the larger, core business, which together provided about 75 percent of total sales and much more than that of total profits. I took possession of the problem, and, with the people who worked for me, had developed a clear sense (we thought) of where the company needed to go and the significant changes required to get us there.

But convincing my boss, the CEO/Chairman, and my senior colleagues turned out to be difficult. Things had worked so well for so long that no one wanted to contemplate making fundamental changes in what we did.

It frustrated me no end that others couldn’t see what we faced. In almost every weekly meeting of senior managers, I raised these issues in one way or another. On occasion, a colleague or two seemed to support me, but nothing I said elicited more than some nodding heads.

Such was the context in which the consultant came and made his pitch. As we discussed our needs with him, I took the opportunity (once again) to point out how our world was changing and how we needed to take decisive action. As always, the group’s response was to bob their heads and, I suspect, roll their eyes to each other.

Okay, I thought, I’m going to learn something here. So afterwards I took the consultant aside and said, “What do you think is going on? I made an important point and everybody yawned and moved on.”

“It was an important point,” he said, “but you didn’t build any bridges.”

Didn’t build bridges?

I went home thinking about that. I knew in the center of my being that he was right. I didn’t build bridges. I didn’t reach out and connect with others on their terms. I talked at them. I had a solution, a beautiful vision. I knew the answer, and I spent my time telling everyone what it was and what the company had to do. If the path forward was painful and difficult, if it would change totally what some of them did, well, so be it.

I wish I could say that I thought hard about what I’d been told, that I began reaching out and building bridges, and that all of us went on to take the company to a better future. But I didn’t.

By some distorted internal logic, I decided I couldn’t debase my perfect vision by turning it into a free-for-all idea jam. Better to stay pure and fall on my sword, a martyr. Which is what I did.

Slowly, over subsequent years, I came to realize my stupidity. I had failed everyone — the company, my colleagues, and the people who worked for and counted on me. I failed myself, too. I had truly wanted to create change.

Why don’t we learn, even when someone looks us in the eye and gives us the answer? “You don’t build bridges.” I knew he was right. I knew I should do what he said. But I couldn’t. Somehow it cut too much against the grain for me.

Ever since, I’ve wondered what it would have taken to get me to share my vision and let others shape it with me — and what might have happened if I’d been able to do that.

Has anyone else faced a moment like this and been able to move forward? What did it take to go against your own nature? That must be the hardest lesson of all to learn
Do you build bridges? No? Why not? What’s holding you back?

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See original article here.

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