Are you perhaps a CTO pushing for technology-driven change without having buy-in? Or a high-potential pushing for a new direction, and not sure if others are on board? Are you running hard, yet doing so pretty much on your own?
Research by the Corporate Executive Board confirms that half of the executives promoted to the highest ranks fail within 2 years.
Two years is what it took me too to become a member and chairperson of a Rotary club. Yet a mere 8 weeks into my term I had to leave. That was a spectacular failure, one that would definitely qualify for Fuckup Nights.
This article is my very own self-hosted Fuckup Night. I failed, I learned a fantastic lesson about leadership, and I moved on. This is also a post about one of the most common traps of power: using it before earning it, thinking your positional power alone gives you authority.
Hitting the ground running
Let’s back up 4 years when I was living in the Netherlands. I was under 40, a woman, and a foreigner. Very cool, I thought, when Rotary asked me to join, and shortly after, to become chairperson.
I wasn’t exactly sure how a bold thinker like myself would fit into a conservative organization, but I felt acknowledged for my previous successes, and my sense of adventure was definitely pushing me to go for it. This club was in the land where, for years, I had had the privilege of designing a truly quirky professional path. The Netherlands had been that kind of amazing place for me.
My plan was to make the club more agile while setting up new projects in the same manner I had seen succeed during my performing and producing career. On the way leading up to my term I organized several presentations in which I shared what I was going to do, and from there, I hit the ground running. Running hard, fast…… and completely alone.
In hindsight, I realized that the club preferred meals, presentations, and talks over actual action. They chose me as their chairperson because of my ideas, but when it became apparent that I was actually going to do what I had said I would do, all hell broke loose. I am not a talker, I am a doer, and apparently, that caught everyone by surprise.
After an unprecedented barrage of personal attacks on my person, I realized I could not continue in this environment and made the decision to leave.
Where had I gone wrong?
Using power before earning it
I had perceived myself to have a mandate to repeat past success, without being fully aware of the context I was now in. I had embarked on a new initiative without having gained the trust of the club members. I needed buy-in, something that takes time and relationships to build. Instead, thinking that my role alone made me the leader, led me to actually losing my legitimacy.
I learned that authority is granted, not automatic. When it comes to leading, it is not a matter of ‘or-or’, but of ‘and-and’. Leadership is leading the way and doing so with buy-in.
The moment I realized I was not going to be able to do what I was there to do, it was time to go. That was it, a mere 8 weeks into my term I was chairperson no more.
Self-reflection and moving on
If you are a leader, you are probably a high performer. I myself was groomed to be that way ever since I gave my first performance at an age when my peers were still playing with dolls. Besides learning about leadership and power dynamics, the experience with Rotary taught me one more thing. I also had to learn how to create relationships with different people all operating at different speeds. Before, I had thrived in an ecosystem in which everyone else had an operating system pretty similar to my own.
As a leader, you have a choice to make when deciding if a certain organization is the place for you to be. I encourage you to make that choice consciously. But once you become part of that organization, it will be your job to design and uphold a working space that makes everyone feel part of it. A space that integrates and interconnects all of the different operating systems, while helping you further your vision.
I got to work, and found the answer in Processwork, a powerful and creative framework for individual and group development that increases overal team performance while tracking how rank dynamics play out in group conflict and organizational life. Training for 2 years to become a processwork-based Organization and Relationship Systems Coach helped me in two ways: by making me a better leader, and by providing me with the competences and skills to help you become one too.
Just recently I also became certified in Coaching for Power Intelligence. I now use a 360° developmental tool specifically designed to help you lead effectively in all directions. In fact, I am using it right now with a high-potential at Bosch.
Power doesn’t have to be a taboo anymore
Power is hard to get right. Yet, the good news is, talking about it makes it possible to gain the awareness and the skill to use it well. When issues of power are left unattended, two things will most likely happen: conflict will increase and productivity will diminish. If swept under a rug, power issues will most probably find their way out in the form of political games, political alliances, endless arguing, gossiping and personal attacks. Just like I had to endure during my Rotary days.
If you are in a position of power or about to be in one, be mindful that stepping into a position of high rank affects how we think, feel and do. As a leader, it is your job to design and uphold a working space that creates and leverages quality interactions among all.
Or you could drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. I can help you talk about power and see your productivity increase while handling conflict in a constructive way. Been there, done that.
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Sonsoles Alonso Designing Productive Teams and Powerful Executive Relationships
Team & Executive Training, Facilitation and Coaching. Speaking.
Are you in tech? I recently teamed up with top-rated instructor Mark Farragher for our online course ‘6 Tools To Improve Your Tech and Leadership Communication’.