As a senior executive leader, you have a big vision. And you intend to have a big impact. What will your first move be? Supersize goals? Delegate more? Expand your influence? How about starting with yourself.
One of my mentors told me that there are three steps for dealing with any major challenge in your life. Calm down. Get big. And move forward. I never quite understood what he meant by “getting big” until now.
If your goal is to play a bigger game, then you’ll soon need to become a bigger player. And if you are like most high achievers, you have probably avoided the whole domain of “feelings and emotions” at work. Avoid no longer. Emotions are key to preparing yourself for the challenges and stresses of prime time.
STEP 1: CALM DOWN
As a senior executive, you already have extensive expertise and experience, as well as some degree of emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills. But we each have our own unique list of uncomfortable emotions that we would rather not have to feel or acknowledge, let alone express, at work. Yet it is the feelings we struggle with that make certain interactions with our colleagues “difficult”.
In a corporate environment, leaders often judge certain feelings—anything from anxiety, fear, and anger to rejection, frustration, and sadness—as being “negative”. So we try not to feel them or show them. However, being bigger as leaders don’t imply that we are machines. Being bigger implies that we grow to include all that it is to be human. We do have the capacity to deal with emotions. And when we have access to all emotions, we can more easily initiate those “difficult” conversations and effectively work with whatever shows up in ourselves and others.
In my work as an executive coach, I see many leaders designate certain feelings as “unacceptable” and then end up trying to control people and situations. Sometimes that controlling behavior is there so that a leader doesn’t have to feel what they don’t want to feel. They clamp down on anyone or anything that triggers them. The problem is, as soon as we begin operating in this way, we’re playing defensively. We’re playing small. Not exactly a recipe for success when you’re trying to execute a big new vision.
Calming down starts with remembering that it’s normal for human beings to trigger each other. Relationships are messy. We don’t intend to disappoint, hurt, or frustrate others. But we do, and we will. Leaders committed to expanding their impact accept this and learn to acknowledge and “work with”-not just control-their emotions.
Trying to control what we or anyone else is feeling is, after all, unrealistic. Feelings come and go like the weather: they are part of being human. Suppressing or denying feelings is not the answer: accepting them is. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to learn how to be aware of our feelings, own them, and then discern what needs to be expressed in any given moment. The key is that we still may decide not to express certain emotions at work. But that is different than not even feeling one’s emotions. The distinction here is that we consciously choose to “refrain”, but not “repress”.
I observed a breakdown between two executives recently that reminded me how important this is. The senior executive received complaints that one of her direct reports was behaving in a way that proved without a doubt that he cared more about the company’s performance than about the people. His default way of operating was to micro-manage his team to the point of rebellion. When she talked with him about his controlling behavior, they discovered that he wanted to avoid feeling how frustrated and angry he was with the slow progress the team was making on a project critical to the company’s success. This avoidance strategy left him struggling to cope with what he feared most: having to handle his team’s unpredictable and sometimes irrational responses to his requests. With some coaching, he was soon able to calm himself when he started to feel frustrated, to express his concerns to those involved, and to keep everyone’s attention—including his own—on the bigger issues at stake.
STEP 2: GET BIG
Over the last year, I have learned personally what it means to get big. Last summer, even to my own surprise, I started taking acting classes in New York City! I’ve discovered that leadership and acting have much in common. Leaders also have to master their feelings and then “own the stage” on which they’re playing.
In my acting classes, I’ve been learning two things: (1) how to feel more deeply and work with ALL my emotions, and (2) how to expand to fill the space in which I’m performing. At first, I resisted any scenes that had me outside of my comfort zone. I wanted to play it safe. But the very tough feedback I received from my acting teacher—that I was “not believable” in anything but the most basic type of self-expression—convinced me to expand my emotional range. I gradually learned how to let go of the narrow image I had of myself as a “corporate leader”. The more I expanded my emotional range, the bigger I got and the better I played in any scene.
The bigger we get, the better we perform.
In business, “getting big” is also about expanding your attention and influence so that you are present everywhere you need to be present in the organization, not just where you need to function or interact with others to solve your problems. One of the CEOs I work with understands this perfectly. He invited all his senior VPs to go beyond their silos and demonstrate what he calls “business curiosity”. He required them to get interested in all parts of the business and to contribute to the company’s overall success by challenging each other on their assumptions and assessments. He even started evaluating their business curiosity as part of their performance.
After a while, a few members of his leadership team came back to me for coaching around increasing their impact beyond their own department walls. They were hesitant to contribute to senior leadership meetings where the topic was specifically owned by other departments. They felt they had limited knowledge or experience of other functions. I reminded them that, as smart and accomplished leaders, they all have valuable contributions to make to any organizational issue. Specifically, they could contribute by stepping in and sharing their perspectives and opinions as businesspeople about the impact of any issue on revenues, expenses, organizational culture, talent retention, and morale. By challenging each other’s thinking in this way, the whole leadership team is becoming stronger. They are now getting bigger.
STEP 3: MOVE FORWARD
Anytime we take actions like these that give us more visibility and more powerful connections, we need to also stay alert to opportunities to move forward in making bigger contributions.
Getting big applies at both the company and individual level. A young vice president I was working with told me that he’d received amazingly positive feedback on a company-wide strategy presentation he had made. People had come up to him at breaks during the event to tell him how impactful he had been. We celebrated this evidence of his growth, and then I invited him to think about how he could leverage this great feedback. We looked at the individuals who had spoken with him and thought about what requests and offers he could make of them. We also considered whether there was sufficient positive feedback and whether the time was ripe for him to make a general offer to the company that would be bigger than any one person could approve. Moving forward in this way opened the door for him to make bigger offers, increase his impact in the company, and grow even more.
I believe “getting big” is something all leaders are called to do repeatedly at different points in their careers. Yet it’s not something often talked about. I’m curious to hear what your experiences have been around increasing your own impact, including your successes and/or breakdowns.
Let’s talk. Email or call me.