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As an executive leader, having fierce conversations can set you free

A bad situation can drag on forever if we are so dense we don’t know how to put a stop to it.

Donovan, Norm and Mary were the top three leadership executives of a large accounting firm, and they weren’t working well together. After many years, they had failed to come up with an adequate succession plan.  They were stuck, and as dense as rocks.

The Back Story

Donovan, the CEO and executive leader, expected to see his team bring creativity to solving the problem.  He was perpetually disappointed.  While he was playing a big game, he thought everyone else was playing a small game and just wanted to make money or have job security.  He felt especially frustrated when Norm and Mary, the #2 and #3 executives in the firm, wouldn’t accept where he wanted them to go. It seems he had trouble leading high-performance teams.

Norm, the President, planned to retire and had signaled Mary to be his replacement.  But because of Mary’s ability to make him look good, he put off his retirement and hung on to enjoy the social status and fringe benefits of the job. As long as she was in the shadows, he could delay the inevitable.

Mary, the VP, had been third in command for 18 years now. She was stuck. She wanted to utilize her creativity, but was afraid to outshine Norm.  She was doing such a good job making him look good that he had become dependent on her.

The Current Situation

About this time, I was called in to help with the transition and team development. As a leadership development and executive coaching expert, I was not surprised to find a lot of dense behavior. Dense leaders often struggle with this type of transition. Again, by saying someone is a dense leader, I mean no disrespect. It is simply simply describing a state of being, like saying a rock is dense because not much light penetrates it. Donovan was having a tough time communicating. Nicknamed “the Artist CEO,” he had always dreamed of pursuing his talent for painting, but was afraid he couldn’t make money at it.  Instead he became an art collector, and cultivated an artist’s worldview.  He often confused people by speaking in metaphors.

For example, he said to Norm, “We need to get Mary across the Rubicon.”  He meant that they needed to get her to the point of no return so that she could successfully take on the responsibilities of president.  When Norm didn’t respond, Donovan got frustrated.  “So why haven’t you done it yet?”

Confused, Norm replied, “Get Mary a Jeep Rubicon?”

Donovan slammed his fist on the desk and said the meeting was over.

I asked Donovan why he was so frustrated.

“They don’t get what I’m trying to give them!” he said. “They won’t accept my guidance!”

The Solution

I asked him if he was familiar with the story of the young teacher from the Middle East who lived in a time when almost everyone was dense. The teacher showed up healing people, helping them be less dense and showing them how to love one another. His message was so profound that they killed him. As he hung there, dying, he worried that his father would be angry and seek revenge.  He said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”

“Donovan,” I said, “as an artist, you have a tremendous job to open people’s eyes.  You’re asking them to see what you see.  There’s no need to be angry at them.  They need understanding.”

Donovan nodded.  Then he took a step in the direction of becoming less dense. “I forgive them for not getting it yet,” he said.  “I won’t give up on them.”

Then I went to see Mary.  She said she’d been stuck in Norm’s shadow for so long, she had lost all of her natural confidence.   She knew she was a high performer, and would make an excellent president.  But she did not know how to seize the opportunity.

To complicate matters, Mary’s husband wasn’t supportive. He kept insisting that she had a good, high paying job, and shouldn’t say anything to make Norm mad and get herself fired. As a result, Mary never had the difficult conversation with Norm.  She never threatened to leave if things didn’t change.  She never asked for what she wanted.  She just waited.

I told Mary the story of Iron John. Mary recognized that she hadn’t let Iron John out of his cage.  She had to move to a space she didn’t know and be fiercer in the world. So she went home and had fierce conversations with her husband.  Her marriage been eroding for some time, and she knew that speaking fiercely might bring it to an end, but she took a risk. “I’m not going to live like this,” she said.  “Something’s got to change.”  Her husband listened. They talked it out, and got their marriage back on track.

This gave Mary confidence to have a fierce conversation with Norm. She told him, “I’m not going to play second fiddle to you for the rest of my life.  I want the date you’re going to retire.”

Relieved, Norm gave her a date.

Then she went to Donovan.  They had a fierce conversation.  “There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” she said.  She shared several creative ideas for Norm’s transition, and they formed an alliance.

In the end, everyone got what they wanted. Donovan got his succession plan, Norm got his retirement and Mary got the leadership opportunity she’d been waiting her whole life for.

Are you stuck?  Maybe you need to have some fierce conversations.  You stand on the shores of your own personal Rubicon, and the choice is yours.  You can cross to the other side, draw a line in the sand and defend it – or you can withdraw, wallow in misery and wait for someone else to make your dreams come true.

It’s time to be fierce.


About Jack Skeen

Jack Skeen
Jack Skeen, founder of Skeen Leadership, has been coaching bright and successful leaders for close to two decades, spending thousands of hours addressing every imaginable leadership, business and life issue with wisdom and professionalism.

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