Self Awareness

April 7, 2012

In my coaching business, I often have discussions regarding the personal leadership skills and styles of the executives with whom I work.  There is a plethora of low cost tools and services available such as Myers-Briggs, Kolbe, DISC, and 360o Benchmarks to help executives or a management team understand their leadership style; both strengths and weaknesses.

As someone trained in the sciences and graduating as an engineer, I began my career believing most of these tools were a waste of time. After all, didn't facts and logic underlie all business decision-making? Why did it matter how I behaved or how many people I pissed off, as long as I had the right answer?

Over the years, I have mellowed, learned and embraced these social sciences. Today, I consider them equally as important, if not more important, than high intelligence, ambition and drive to succeed for a leader and their company. This belief is backed by the research of Daniel Goleman in emotional intelligence and Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. 

In my coaching, many leaders ask me how to best use the self awareness about their strengths and weaknesses that they gain. Your strengths will naturally play out so it is the weaknesses that you need to focus on and manage. A leader needs to be open and truthful about the weaknesses that they perceive they have. This is very difficult for some, but here is what has worked for me.

If you are familiar with Kolbe, I have a dominant instinct of a Quickstart. I am biased towards action and decision-making, often without complete data. Others with a dissimilar style might describe me as prone to going off half cocked.  As well, I am generally very passionate about the ideas I support and get focused on getting them done. With my background in sales and being a good logical thinker and quick debater, I am good at convincing people to follow my lead. Others may say that I am good at "spinning" things. Sometimes I wonder if I missed my calling as a politician.

The above combination of skills and personality can be deadly if my idea is wrong. I can adopt an idea, get focussed on it, and be running a thousand miles per hour to get it done, dragging my whole team behind me in my slipstream. Unfortunately, I may be running straight towards the edge of a cliff and running too fast to see the danger or hear any words of caution being thrown at me by my team.

To compound this, in 1991, my boss at the time, said to me that I have more ideas in a day than anyone he has ever met. He commented that one out of three of my ideas were brilliant, two out of three were dog shit, and I could not tell them apart.  Over the years, I think I have got better where more are brilliant, less are dog shit, but unfortunately I often still can't tell them apart.

So this was my challenge when I took over a new team in 2004. I had been charged with creating the strategy which led to creation of a new business unit of 1400 consultants across North America and then had been promoted to launch and lead it. My management team were all new to me and me to them.  We had a very short timeline to form, get to know each other and start working smoothly together. We could ill afford to waste any time on mis-starts.

My approach was to tell my new team about my "2x4 rule". I often use self-deprecating humour to take the edge off these discussions.   I told them what I knew about myself, including the information above. I also told them that when I am "running a 1000mph straight toward the cliff, that they needed to get right out in front of me with a two-by-four and hit me right between the eyes to stun me and slow me down long enough to listen to their concern". In other words, I was not only giving them permission to challenge me hard, but I was letting them know that I expected them to speak up loudly and express their opinion. A year later after the Oracle acquisition and at my farewell party, my management team presented me with a length of two-by-four signed by all of them as a memento of what we had created during that time of reorganization and rebuilding. 

But just knowing yourself is not enough. You need to continually remind yourself of your behaviours and how they may be affecting those around you. I have another behaviour that I have learned is often misinterpreted and disconcerting for others. As a guy whose career has been defined by change, I am generally initially uncomfortable dealing with change. Being a very practical, logical, rationale thinker (Myers-Briggs INTJ; Social Styles Driver-Analytic), I am a "fish out of water" when I don't have a strong working knowledge of the facts of the environment of which I am in. When I was on PeopleSoft's Global Services leadership team, my boss used to say that I would go into "Data Acquisition mode" and piss everyone off. When I am in data acquisition mode, I ask many questions; exploring and challenging every assumption. I also likely re-open decisions (already made before I was involved) and re-explore territory already covered. For me, I need this exercise to come up to speed to then be able to productively participate moving forward. For others involved, my questions may appear to challenge their decisions, be critical of their work to date and unproductive.

As I came to understand how my data acquisition behaviour could be negatively perceived, I compensated by explaining to people how I work and telling them up front that I am not challenging them or denigrating their work to date, but rather just learning in order to move forward. This generally worked to avoid misunderstandings and mollified feelings in advance.

Recently, I sensed some tension on a management team of a client. They had been working on a major new initiative about which I had lots of questions.  As soon as one of the managers mentioned this tension, I knew I had gone into Data Acquisition Mode and created this tension. I had become a victim of not doing what I preach.

If you are a leader, or more important, a wannabe leader, invest in figuring out who you are. Be prepared to open up your vulnerabilities and share with those with whom you work. And, remember to continually work on the self-awareness that allows you to recognize what you are doing and how it is impacting those around you.


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