Maybe You Are a Bad (Internal) Boss

Last year, I had the privilege to meet the author of Predictable Success, Les McKeown, who spoke at a work leadership summit (remember work events…those were the days). He was a lovely dinner guest, and we had an interesting discussion about the conflict in Northern Ireland. However, I didn’t have the heart to inform him that, in reading his book, I came to a completely different point than he intended.

My interest instead exploded on one analogy he used to describe success:

“Predictable Success is where you, as the leader, can put your foot on the gas pedal, and the whole organization moves forward.”

In terms of leadership analogies, it shouldn’t have been paradigm shifting but as he described an unsuccessful organization, he went on to write:

“When I put my foot on the gas pedal in this organization, the car goes forward…it’s that sense of there not being a connection between the gas pedal and where the car is going. You are pumping away on the gas pedal, and nothing is happening.

The car is not going forward…No matter what I do, I can’t make a substantive change here.”

Now, Les was illustrating executive failure due to a lack of change in the actions of their workforce.

However, in my development, I had been exploring the concept of executive function prior and during my review of his work. If you don’t know what executive function is — its kinda important. Executive function skills enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and manage multiple tasks.

While obviously the difference between an executive leading a company, and the executive functioning skills governing ones self are massive. But, McKweon’s work sparked an interesting mental picture of my “internal leader” constantly barking out orders to my “internal workforce” , stubbornly refusing to concede. I push the gas pedal, and nothing happens. And I scream, and yell, and push, and threaten and reward — with no success (predictable or otherwise).

So, why is my “internal workforce” so resistant to change?

Or perhaps the better question is, why is my “internal leader” failing to create change?

A huge part of my actual job is to figure out the why and how of employee motivation — and a much of this work is centered on helping a manager grow as a leader.

So I reframed my approach. Instead of automatically taking the “side” of my executive function, my “internal leader”, I stepped back to try to view the situation more empirically.

How would I as a professional development manager, solve these problems?

Well, I’d start by giving my “employees” far more respect and credit than I was giving myself. Then, I’d start to understand how my employees worked; their strengths, and their gaps. I’d empathize…and study them (creeeppppyyy).

I’d work to understand what WORKS and what doesn’t. And I’d do the same for my “leader”.

So I watched and evaluated my situation with more clarity.

I learned that my internal leader was not nearly as competent and I had been assuming. I learned that despite my “bad performance reviews” (self-criticism) my employees actually performed well. They did their work at the last possible minute, and with a much undue stress. Despite my leader freaking out, the actual quality typically exceeded the demands my “client” (my actual job) needed and was in on time.

I learned my leader expected work at a 150%, and my employees would deliver a product at 90%. The client requested an 80%.

Evaluation: my leaders expectations were absurd and my employees were delivering a high-quality product that met the clients needs.

I learned that my employees didn’t have the needed clarity to get started. The leader would demand a vague and ambitious goal “prepare a Powerpoint presentation that will create lasting change for the entire company” causing my employees to get overwhelmed, freeze, and then procrastinate by finding other, less important work. Then, when the timeline became urgent, the presentation would get rushed together, but far lower quality than either party wanted.

Evaluation: increase the clarity around expectations and lower the bar to an achievable level.

I learned that if my employees didn’t have a deadline or other accountability, the work simply wouldn’t get done — pushed off in lieu of other, less important work that had a deadline or someone waiting for it.

Evaluation: Increase accountability — duh

I learned that my leader would promise a reward, such as a new pair of boots for running every day for a month. Once the goal was achieved however, the leader would move the goalpost or take the reward away over some other mistake (snacked too much), so the reward was not rewarding.

Evaluation: Honor the commitments made to increase the impact of the incentive.

I am still watching and evaluating my own processes, but approaching my own work (personal or professional) through the professional development lens has allowed me to have far more compassion and empathy for my actions. It has also let me approach my executive function using the growth mindset, instead of assuming that my “internal leadership” is infallible.

Many thanks to Les McKweon for his definition of success. My behavior doesn’t yet change when my executive pushes the gas pedal, but the goal is now in sight.

A socially awkward jumble of contradictions, questions, and tangents.