I received a text and from the message I knew she was fed up.

My VP must dislike me because no matter what I and my team accomplish it’s never good enough. At each update she just blasts us and says it’s not enough. I thought my job was to make operations happy and all I’ve heard from them is “wonderful job! What do I need to do to please her!!!!

I picked up the phone and called her immediately.

My client was hired by a 100-year-old mid-western retail company in the midst of a turnaround to work in the supplier procurement office for She was over one of 4 teams reporting to the Chief Procurement Officer and now 7 months later her team was getting high praise from vendors, the Operations management team and across the company a reputation for delivering results.

As she worked to get a sense of the past, she discovered the project she was charged with supporting the Operations Department’s vision to create a delightful on-line customer experience. What they didn’t tell her at the time of hire was she was leading the third attempt to get it right.

Over 40 years of statistics point to “nearly 50% of new hires fail within the first 6 months”. As we reviewed her first 7 months, 7 people left the Procurement department. A number that HR was now focused on. The question at hand was “Why were so many leaving and why were the other 3 teams were underperforming?”

The interesting thing about this assignment is my client wasn’t the expert over the technical side of the strategy which tells you a lot about her ability to get things done. She correctly surmised for her to be successful we should focus on learning how to turn around an underperforming team whose members didn’t report to her and integrate newly hired top talent on a project that had fail 3 times before.

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When I explained that too many executives stopped learning how to lead once they took the class on leadership she was horrified. Most employees assume one of the qualifications for an executive position is a demonstrated ability to manage people well. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily true.

Good, let along great, leadership has a long gestation cycle. Great leadership skills are developed through a process much like apprenticeship programs. You can learn the basics from a book, attending a class, and/or handing the tools but mastery comes when you do real, valuable and relevant work and have access to the knowledge of someone who can help you refine your approach. At every level there’s a new devil… each level requires you to adjust your leadership style to fit the challenges at hand. Do it right and the effectiveness of talent is increased and improves the bottom line. Do it wrong and turnover increases the cost of doing business and hurts the bottom line.

Unfortunately, very few executives can openly admit that they don’t know how to handle people issues and their frustration can turn into non-productive behaviors. There’s been a quiet movement by executives who are beginning to understand that their technical knowledge alone doesn’t cut it during times of high stress and rapid changes in their business model.

If you’ve ever worked in a matrix organization then you’ve probably found yourself trying to serve multiple masters. Successfully navigating the interest of multiple executives means learning how to manage up, down and sideways.

  • Nurture a shared vision of success: Constantly confirming and reconfirming both the strategy and performance objectives.
  • Results Matter: Keep your team focused on delivering results.
  • Maintain a strong network:  Learn to sense and read the politics at the next level. This may mean your network has to include executives outside your direct or daily engagement.
  • Foster deeper discussion on the impact of key decisions: Include in your communication plan regular check reviews of roles and the support needed to maintain open communication. Nothing is worst then for a leader to be surprised but in a fast paced organization its easy to think that because you gave the report… people understood the implications of the report on the business or their performance.
  • Understand how your preferences and bias’ impact your decision making. We all bias’ and preferences that either propel us towards action or stop us from being decisive. If you have a bias for for action then notice how you shut down when working with those who talk too much about the “big picture.” If you are sitting in a meeting and everyone is talking about the facts without regard to the impact on people/customers notice how hard it is for you to agree with the solutions or actions to be taken.
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In this case, the VP’s behavior may have been driving cost of hiring up and that cost is passed along to customers. In a business with thin margins this was just another missed opportunity to reduce the cost of doing business.