Thirty-five years ago this week, when I was a young middle manager at a nascent FedEx, my boss flew to New York for exactly two reasons: 1) To go Christmas shopping with his wife, and 2) To do a little coaching with me. Though the time-split between those two objectives was about 90/10 in favor of shopping, both purposes were well served. On the premise that you’re more interested in your holiday shopping than his, let’s talk about the second item.
One afternoon as we were riding across town in a limo, he initiated his coaching by saying something to the effect of, “You seem to be a pretty driven, bright, young guy who, when he weighs in on a topic is right more often than not. The question is, why do you have to be so damn right?”
When pressed for explanation, he opined that, though he didn’t think I was mean spirited about it, I had a habit of using my intellect (what there is of it), verbal skills, and propensity for doing my homework to make points forcefully, and win every argument I engaged in, preferably by a first round knockout.
He then did what every good executive coach does, and showed me the “wake behind my boat” by asking me to look at that scenario through the lens of teammates who were junior to me. “How do you think they feel when someone they’re supposed to look up to, someone who has the power to shut their water off, goes half way down their throat with an argument or point of view? Does it make them more or less inclined to engage with you, or to offer their ideas?” Gulp. He added that the impact was enhanced considerably by position power, thereby stoking unhelpful fears that already exist in the relationship. So, “do you think your teammates work more or less hard for you because of that?”
Continuing, he suggested that I also look at the situation through the windshield of someone senior to me in the organization. “How do you think they take it when some smart, young, still wet behind the ears punk, five pay grades and two levels below them knocks them back with a high, inside pitch?” And, he added, “Don’t you think that, by virtue of their station in life, they have plenty of ability to repay that discourtesy if they want to?” Hmm.
Saving his best stuff for last, he left me with these thoughts just before exiting the car, right in front of Saks: Play hard and play to win, but be careful how you define “winning”, and never use more of your powder than you need to. Keep it in a safe, dry place for when you really need it. You don’t have to win every game 9-0 and when you listen, really listen to what others have to say, you’ll frequently learn something. Take a lesson from smart old dogs who realize that they don’t have to chew hard on every bone, and especially when they find themselves in the company of bigger dogs, they should dine respectfully, and know when to let go of the bone.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!