“Lean Into It!” Thoughts on Facing Top Team Challenges

I had a conversation last week with a very driven and successful CMO (who we’ll call John) who has been asked to make major changes in his company’s approach to new and existing markets.  To be sure, these changes represent major disruptions to his leadership team, their current and evolving roles, and their critical intersections within the corporate and field organizations.  John is a high-powered guy, new to the company, and new to the leadership team he inherited.  And they are trying to figure out how he operates, and what is required for them to have a place at the table as the functional team evolves.

In talking to several of his direct reports, they indicated that they are a little afraid of John’s intensity, impatience, and demands.  They are, in a sports analogy, “on their heels,” reacting to what he says.  And as you would imagine, John, in turn, wonders if they are up to the job.  In working with members of his team, I suggested that reactivity will equate to failure in John’s eyes and that their best approach is to “lean into the challenge.”  What does that mean?

As a former white water kayaker and rock climber, I learned (the hard way) that the only way to succeed when fearful or uncertain is to “lean into the fear” (in our world it may mean leaning into the feedback, or the challenge).  Two examples come to mind:  In white water kayaking, you are in the current and hopefully in control.  Before you looms a fearsome rapid, with waves over your head and drops that you cannot see.  The natural reaction is to lean back upstream as you approach the drop which, and you see where the story is going, will almost guarantee that you capsize.  The right move – the only move – is to lean downstream into the rapid which maximizes your control and balance.  It is counterintuitive, but correct.  And if you turn over, knowing how to roll is a good thing.

In rock climbing, the steeper the ascent, the more you try to “hug the rock,” the more likely you are to fall.  The correct move is to push away from the wall and trust that your fingers and toes, good balance, and the team you have holding your ropes, will support you.  Again – counterintuitive, but the right move.

Those of us who are skiers know that the steeper the run, the more you have to lean downhill.  It is a learned response, one that distinguishes good and balanced skiers from fearful novices.

So let’s talk about how one deals with a “scary boss.”  Leaning away will not work – ever.  The right move is to move toward him, engage him, get clarity on his intent, learn his desired results, and build the kind of working relationship where he trusts that you are fully in the game and (a fourth metaphor of the day) “skating to the puck.”  Avoidance does not get you want you want.  Engagement is the only way.

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