By Dave Crisp
One of the best CEOs I worked for was considered a tyrant by many — this isn't unusual among reasonably effective CEOs.
The biggest factor in his favour was his genuine interest in continuing to learn and grow himself, as well as coaching others he felt showed promise. The two together seem relatively rare. Most either think they don’t need to learn or they tend to be so wound up in their own efforts they don’t think others need coaching.
Where this boss could have been better was in his internal view of how he needed to go about the improvement process. First, he always had to make it a challenge, a sort of win-lose approach. One day he described his philosophy as “push-control." He went on to explain: “First you push them, then you control,” as he wrenched his hands in small forward screw motion and then pulled them back into fists. The message was clear. It might be designed to be helpful, but it was certainly going to be tough love — driving people and then dragging them back from going too far. No doubt who retained total control there, hence the tyrant reputation.
This guy even "got it" that one has to make mistakes while learning. He used to tell me repeatedly that if an executive was right 60 per cent of the time, that was a great track record. (I agree — if you’re right all the time, it means you aren’t taking creative chances. You’re playing it awfully safe. Trial and error is one of the core keys to learning.)
Unfortunately this same executive tended to fire a great many people for their first or second mistake. We’ll never know how many great people he turfed before they could show their 60 per cent record, but lots of us believed there were quite a few — a little too contradictory for sure. The cost of terminations, replacements and retraining were extremely high.
For my part, I didn’t use the push/control model, preferring what I would call the encourage/support version. Many people do need something we might be tempted to call a push. But if you literally force them into it, the results are likely to be erratic at best. Some simply won’t be pushed. Others will accept, but will be miserable and unproductive. At one point this guy was well on the way to pushing me into a job under an executive I very much disliked and distrusted, whose feelings about me were very obviously mutual — a guaranteed disaster for sure.
I learned the hard way not to push too hard. Two excellent executives basically quit on the direction I tried to navigate them to. One was planning a baby, but apparently didn’t want me to know, so kept refusing promotions until the reason finally became obvious (presuming that wasn’t chosen as a way of shutting me up) and the other simply didn’t want the next step up I thought would be a perfect fit.
The latter left fairly soon, the other stayed until maternity leave intervened and waited several years after before accepting a bigger role with no pressure from me. Both proved me right by going on to bigger and better roles, but strictly, and probably wisely, on their own timetables. Even with these rebuffs I never wrote either off, something many bosses are prone to do. Encouraging is important, but pushing is dangerous. People sometimes just aren’t feeling it’s time and we need to honour that.
On the other end of push/control, controlling isn’t of much use at all, especially if you’ve egged the person on to try something. Controlling quickly becomes micromanaging that destroys any initiative pushing might have created. Rather than just worrying or letting things get out of hand, you need to keep coaching as plans evolve and help the newly energized individual guide themselves in useful directions. This happens easily and naturally through their need for support in the new projects or directions you’ve encouraged. You retain the ability to choose what you’ll support or won’t.
People will almost always take the support available and so head more in the direction you believe in rather than beat their heads against a brick wall. People want to succeed, so a hand that helps is a very powerful draw in the direction of that help. You can easily guide without being completely obvious (and without orders, forcible control or appearing to take charge). By supporting you make it clear these are still their ideas. The success or failure remains their learning achievement. Whichever the outcome, they are stronger for the next challenge.
The key is you and your ego stay in the background. More people develop their own confidence this way and you can be sure the glow and benefits of their successes rub off on you. Nothing screams leader like being able to show a list of people who’ve developed into highly effective managers under you.
Push/control just doesn’t achieve that. It’s a delicate balance at times, with no clear guides other than experience in attempting it, but the seemingly subtle difference hides a vast gap in cost and pay back.
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network
with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com