Monthly Archives: February 2014

When Work Becomes Your Mistress

I have been writing lately about leaders and empathy deficit.  Such a deficit is seldom more evident than when it shows up in the leader’s own family, and when it is clouded by the illusion they have of themselves.  This illusion is usually the result of true or false adoration from their employees or constituents.  Sometimes it is just plain egotism or narcissism.

I will never forget the senior executive who contacted me as an employee assistance counselor, and after a brief hello, immediately said, “I need you to tell me how to tell my wife that she’s too fat.”    What surprised me was not so much his concern about his wife being perceived to be overweight, but the manner in which he approached the issue.  When I asked him to tell me a little more about his concern, he stated matter-of-factly that his wife was too fat, and he need to find a way to make her change, or else . . ..  He could probably sense my surprise when he heard me respond with, “You may have come to the wrong person for a solution to that one!  You sound like you are planning to give her a ‘decision day’. or something.”  A decision day is a suspension given to an employee to help them decide whether they really wanted to get with the program and align their behaviors to their manager’s expectations.  I was even more flabbergasted when he said, “Yes” that was exactly what he wanted to do.

My next question floored him.   I asked him, “So, how long has ‘your company’ been your mistress?”  You could tell from his reaction that he got the point, but he asked me to elaborate anyway.  I explained to him that when he was at work that required him to travel several days a week, he was the person in charge of his region or territory.  I also told him even if the people didn’t like him, they acted like they did because of his position and authority over their livelihoods.  They sort of bowed to him, met his every need, complimented him, admired him, needed him to solve problems, and responded to him in generally positive  and deferential ways.  He nodded in agreement.

On the other hand, when he went home to his wife and children, they were not nearly as admiring, deferential or complimentary.  There were expectations and responsibilities at home that they needed him to step up to.   And instead of being the adoring family, they would complain about some perceived mistreatment or about the amount of time he spent at work.  The financial resources and good intentions aside, they were screaming for their emotional and relational needs to be met.  This left him feeling unappreciated for all his hard  work on the road and in the office.  And so the the cycle begins.  His feeling unappreciated compelled him to more frequently choose work over his family.  The more he chose work, the more discouraged and disgruntled his wife and children would become.  Unfortunately, this wife’s choice for comfort happened to be food, which gave him an additional excuse to consider getting his needs met elsewhere.  This viscous cycle often leads many to the brink of divorce and too many on over the edge.

All this because of his failure to step up and respond appropriately to the people he had claimed were the most important to him.  By the way, there is no value in the blame game in this scenario.  It’s pretty easy to see that fault may lie somewhere in the middle.  But we are talking about leadership here and leaders step up.  Mature leaders would see through all the workplace adoration for what it is, and would step up to their primary responsibilities at home.

What often surprises leaders who go through this is how disappointed his adorers become when he finally reneges on the commitments and promises he has made to his wife and family, and leaves them for some other person.  They are unaware that part of the reason they admired him in the first place was because of the value he said he placed in the things that his employees found to be important to them as well, things like home, family and relationships.   These same leaders have been the counselors to their employees, helping many of them find their way through difficult personal challenges that impacted their work.  Their words, as well as the life they modeled, gave these employees hope that things could be better for them.   But, when their leader’s personal life falls apart, their hope is often shattered with it.  Though these leaders continue to have positional authority, their capacity for maximum leadership effectiveness is eroded.

Let me  switch gears and put on my Marriage and Family Therapist hat for a moment and say that marriage is one of the few places where we are going to see the most accurate reflection of ourselves.  If you don’t like what you see there, don’t blame the mirror who happens to be your spouse and children.  My experience says that your reflection will show up similarly in most any another mirror you chose.  It only feels different in the admiration stage of a new relationship (i.e. mistress).  But, when the new wears off; when the routine sets in; when the demands of work begin to stretch you; when the needs of this new person fail to be met consistently, when your needs fail to be met, the reflection in the mirror looks painfully familiar.

If you find yourself in this situation it is important to do five things:  First, recognize the reflections as a cue to you that something is wrong and needs your attention.  Second, use these reflections first to learn how you may be coming across to those you love.  Thirdly, practice empathy by listening with an intent to learn.  Fourthly, communicate respectfully, and fifthly, respond differently.  These five things can end the vicious cycle.  Doing the same thing over and over is not the answer.  If you have difficulty doing these five things, or you try them and they do not get you where you want to be, call a coach to help you through the tough spots.

What would Mr. Sam Do?

I had the privilege of being acquainted with Sam Walton before his death in 1992, and of building relationships with many of the people he impacted during the years immediately following his death. Because of the significance of the loss, I, like many others associated with Wal-Mart can tell you exactly where I was when he died.  I was at one of the 16 regional Year Beginning Meetings that were scattered throughout the first quarter of that year.  The announcement changed the meeting as people began to tell stories of the impact Sam had on their lives, both personally and professionally.  

I have been writing a lot lately about leadership derailment.  Sam knew how susceptible leaders are to the mistakes and miscues that can lead to derailment.  That is why he led and coached the way he did.  One of the things that you would often hear around Wal-Mart after his death, was the question, “What would Mr. Sam do?”  The question was intended to honor Sam, and to help people do what they could to sustain the incredible culture of Servant Leadership that he instilled during his life.  

Since my last few posts have been focused on “empathy deficit” as a potential derailer, I have asked myself how does one restore empathy to leadership?  Sam Walton said you do it by MBWA, or Management by Walking Around, and teaching other leaders to do the same.  

For several years I had the privilege of working Andy Wilson, who was an SVP at Wal-Mart.  He humbly tells the story of his rise within the company, being the youngest Regional VP in the company at the time, with a great deal of responsibility for a guy his age.  He tells the story of how “Mr. Sam”, as he had come to be affectionately known, came to his office shortly after his arrival in his new role at the Home Office.  Andy stood up to greet Mr. Sam, and after a series of exchanges, Sam ended up behind his chair, while Andy ended up on the opposite side of his desk.  He then tells how Mr. Sam said he had one very important thing to tell him.  With that Andy got out his pen and yellow pad prepared to capture this moment.  Then Mr. Sam said, “Andy, don’t every make an important decision while sitting behind this chair”, and he slapped his hand to the back of the chair to reinforce his point.  Andy says he wasn’t certain at the time what that meant, but he wrote it at the top of the page, and was waiting for more wisdom from the man himself, but, with that, Sam graciously left his office. 

Andy said that after pondering this for several days, he received a call from one of his district managers who wanted to inform him that he was going to terminate one of his store managers whose store was under-performing.  This district manager was much older than Andy and had a great deal more experience than he.  Because of this, Andy was about to simply accept this recommendation and move on, when he remembered Sam’s words.  He told the District Manager to hold off on that decision until he came out to visit.  The District Manager said he didn’t see the necessity for such a trip, and told Andy that he had called simply to inform him of his course of action.  Andy told him that he had to travel out to some of his stores each week, and he would use the upcoming week to travel to this district.  Andy “persuaded” him to delay the action until after the trip and on the following Monday morning Andy was in this manager’s store.   The District Manager was eager to call the manager into his back office and get the deed over with.  But, as had been a practice he had learned from Sam, Andy wanted to tour the store first. He asked the District Manager to go do whatever he needed to do while he made his MBWA rounds.  So Andy went around the store asking associates about their departments and asking about their manager.  In the course of about an hour he learned that the manager was well liked, and that he had been taking time away from the store lately because he had been caring for his wife who was very ill with cancer.

After the store tour, Andy said he rounded up the District Manager and they went for a ride.  He asked the District Manager to tell him a little about this manager he was preparing to fire.  The fellow made a valiant attempt to do so.  Andy asked him to tell him about the manager’s family, and again the district manager made a valiant attempt to do so, but failed miserably.  Andy informed him what he had learned in just under an hour, while he, the district Manager, who lived in the area and visited the store frequently, never thought to inquire about.  In the Wal-Mart culture, such an offense in those days, would have been worthy of some type of discipline, up to and including termination.  But that is not the course Andy took.   He asked the District Manager to put together a plan to bring help from nearby stores in his district to get this store back up on track.  Together, they assured the manager that he could take the time necessary to care for his wife, and that his job would be here when she was well and he returned.  They announced the plan to the store associates at one of their infamous stand-up meetings and the employees erupted in applause.

Empathy is not hard.  However it does require taking your eyes off the scoreboard and paying attention to your players in the field.  No wonder so many Wal-Mart Associates still use the “What would Mr. Sam do?” as a measurement of their leadership.

The Disciplines of a Corporate Athlete

I continue to be amazed at the performances of the Olympic Athletes.  As a runner, who has run a few marathons and a cyclist who has ridden a few miles, I understand just a little about the effort it takes to prepare for a race. When I watch these athletes give their best effort all the way to the end, I find myself agonizing with them all the way across the finish line.  The years of hard work and focused discipline have finally paid off.   When I see them falter, I can only imagine the heartbreak that one small mistake in their performance must feel like as they experience the agony of defeat.

Much like these athletes, I have found that highly effective leaders tend to approach their entire life with a similar set of disciplines, ones that are most likely to result in their success, both personally and professionally.

When I created my Leadership Coat of Arms a few years ago, I incorporated the fitness symbol as seen above, accompanied by the following statement:  This symbol is my reminder to make sure that I am able, as far as it is within my control, to see my vision through to its end.  To see that vision through requires physical fitness, spiritual fitness, relational fitness, mental fitness, financial fitness and social fitness. The disciplines required for fitness in each of these areas consists of hard work and focused effort that will pay off in a life well lived with the few regrets.

What are you doing to build fitness in all dimensions of life?  As an Executive Coach, I often find myself working with leaders to help them clarify their personal purpose and vision, and with developing the disciplines that it will take to ensure they see their vision become a reality.  This is when I know that I have fulfilled part of my Personal Purpose: Helping People Achieve or Realize their God-given Potential.