Would you rather be right or effective

Nancy (not her real name) was bright, inquisitive, and a little reticent when we first met. We met as part of my coaching assignment for her company. They were investing in emotional intelligence development for their senior staff. Nancy was the CFO.

Nancy had accomplished a number of impressive educational and professional goals by the time she was 30. As we talked, it didn’t take long to see her drive for excellence. She was a person who is very focused on getting results. Her skills were a good fit for her job. As we will find out, there is more to the story and to her being successful.

My initial assignment with Nancy was to conduct a debrief of her EQ-i assessment and then spend a couple of sessions helping her form a plan to address areas of EQ development that she believed were most important. I could tell there was some resistance, as if to say, “I’m not really sure how all of this is going to benefit me.”

I inquired about what I sensed. She confirmed that she was a little resistant. I encouraged her to invest in her development plan just as she had invested in her other education, and we would see how she felt in 11 months.

Two weeks ago, the 11 months were up and I went back to Nancy’s company to compare the senior staff’s original scores on their EQ-i with the ones that they had just completed. Everyone, including Nancy, had improved their development scores, a few significantly. While that’s nice, I was more interested in the stories that went with that development – what things worked, what didn’t, where they wanted to continue to learn and improve their EQ.

Nancy confirmed that her increased interaction with her staff was paying dividends. When I asked about her relationships with her peers, and how those relationships might have improved, she shared that a couple were better; I sensed a hesitation in her statements about her peers. We talked about it.

She shared an example concerning a recent corporate-wide proposal that she had done the cost analysis on. When she presented her findings to the team, three of the senior team pushed back sharing that they thought the benefits of undertaking the new initiative were worth the risk. She argued that it didn’t seem to make sense from a potential loss perspective. She appeared dumbfounded as to why, in the face of the financial risk, anyone would think undertaking the initiative was a good idea.

I could see the passion and frustration in Nancy as she recounted the story. Near the end of her recounting the situation she said, “I was ri..I am right!” I smiled, and said, “You likely are right, by your definition of right.”

We spent several minutes talking about how she felt in the group, whether she had a “seat at the table,” or often felt some alienation; did she ever feel like she was on one side of the room and everyone else was on the other side of the room. She said, “Yes.”

I paused, then said, “Let me ask you a question, and then I will tell you a story. Would you rather be right or effective?” She smiled because she knew how she should answer the question, but Nancy was honest and said, “I’d rather be right.”

Here is the story I told her. Many years ago, I had a very talented and passionate person working for me in a senior position. When she felt strongly about a position, she argued it beyond getting her point across. In those moments she was alienating her teammates but didn’t realize it. When I brought that to her attention, she was stunned. “But I’m right.” So I asked her, “Would you rather be right or effective?” In her case there was a long pause. She looked at me with a knowing glance and said, “Oh my gosh, I never thought of it in those terms.” She knew in that moment that alienating her team was not helpful.  She knew what she wanted to do about it. She spent the next several months changing her response in those moments of contention. She would still discuss her beliefs passionately, but she spent more time trying to understand how her other teammates came to the point of view they did. It made all the difference. Many months later she told me that my question was the best ‘development’ question she had ever been asked.

Leadership is a by-product of relationship. Whether we are more task oriented or not, if we are going to lead we need to find our way of relating, our way of letting our team know we care about them and their success.

Nancy and I talked about several more things that day. I could tell she was ‘chewing’ on what we had been discussing. Part of what I suggested is that all the intelligence and skills that she has demonstrated that got her to this  point, will not get her to where she wants to go, if where she wants to go is to have a larger leadership role with more responsibility.

As we ascend the leadership ladder, our technical expertise becomes less important, and our ability to direct and influence people toward executing organizational goals becomes the key ability; the ability to create relationships with people and through those relationships to influence those people to greater success for themselves and the organization.

Nancy is fortunate to work with senior people that see her potential and will be patient as she works with new ideas that challenge her natural tendencies. I am fortunate to have a role with Nancy awhile longer to assist her in moving from ‘being right’ to ‘being effective.’ We’ll see what she chooses.

I was encouraged by a friend to tell Nancy’s story. His experience was similar to mine. We see a number of people who are very invested in being right. Those leaders who have walked that path to a different understanding know that being right is important, but isn’t the most important thing when you lead others.

To a better you…