Why leadership is lacking on partner level

It is obvious: the same type of people become partner in a consulting firm or enter the C-level in big companies. ‘Type’ refers mainly to behaviour and habitus, but it is very often accompanied with specific gender, age, skin colour, academic background etc.. The result of the common career paths in the western hemisphere is so homogeneous that it is obvious that there are patterns at work which are very forceful even if they are not used with intent.

Most people of that specific leadership group don’t like that thought. They are convinced that they only made the way ‘to the top’ because they have been hard working and invested a lot in their career. Some may admit that there was some luck involved at certain stages. But definitely no one feels responsible that the outcome of the career process is a homogenous group. In addition, there is not even a reason from their perspective why this should be changed, since the selection process worked in their favour. And after all, each one of that group really worked hard to achieve the current status.

Let’s pause this thought for a moment and think of a garden. If your goal is to have a lot of green in your backyard, you could plant quick-growing plants that overgrow everything. They are efficient in making your garden ‘green’ within months. But if you compare the result to a well-designed and maintained English garden, you realize that you have the same colour but the joy, relaxation and admiration that the English garden evokes, will never happen in the homogeneous ‘green hell’ that grew in your backyard.

The English garden needed intent, a plan and a lot of work. There is a gardener who decides where to put what plant, who cuts branches and loose ends and who has a long term vision for the areal. The result is a place where people gain energy, love to spend time and find joy.

If you want to turn your backyard from just being homogeneous green into a place where people enjoy being, you need a vision where to go and a plan how to get there. It will require you to cut off leaves of the current plants no matter how big they have become and how much green they bring into your garden. You need to make space for other plants and keep the space for them even if they are not growing at the same speed. You need intent in developing your garden.

I believe, career in business is very similar. Unsteered, it will result in a homogeneous mass of people who will focus on their own best interest – bottomline, it is measured in money. Once your company only has people in leadership positions who are focussing on the money, it is like your backyard that is only ‘green’ – but no one likes to be there.

Therefore, although earning money is a central part in a career for each person, it needs to be put into perspective towards a greater picture. Companies need to think about their future state and what kind of behaviour they want to grow so that people are attracted to that place. ‘You can earn a lot of money here’ won’t do the trick if bad behaviour and attitudes are killing new ways of thinking.

Each company needs a gardener (team). They need to define how the company should grow. At the same time, they are plants themselves. They are part of the game and they contribute to the beauty or ugliness of the garden. And as they are plants in the very same garden, they need to have the courage to cut their own leaves at times when it starts killing other plants. This will mean to put the ego aside, question self-beliefs and personal opinions, decide for the greater good and against the personal benefit at times and walk in a humble mindset. It requires a lot of each person in a leading position and it has an effect on personal beliefs and behaviour.

This is where leadership starts!

Small stuff matters

“Unconditional kindness is the glue that sticks your team together.” If you react with cynicism towards this statement, you might be in the middle of a toxic environment.

Do you know the good feeling when someone does something nice to you that you didn’t expect? The free coffee sponsored by a colleague or that heartwarming compliment given by the cashier!?

As human beings we are wired to feel loved and valued when we receive unconditional and unexpected help. We are more open to bond with someone that has seen a need or wish of us and responded unasked. And that human glue strengthens our teams at work and intensifies the joy of working together.

Knowing this principle we are capable of forming our own comforting environment by investing into our fellow human beings. Their emotional-well-being will increase. And with them feeling better the overall atmosphere will turn positive.

Let me give you some examples of what you can do:

Offer a hand or a ride

Recently, I met some clients in a remote area in the suburbs of my hometown. By the end of the meeting some participants needed to go to the headquarter that is 20 min away by bus. Since I had my car with me I offered them a ride – although I just had met them for the first time. We had a really good talk, I got to know whom they meet next and it was a valuable exchange for both sides.

Sponsor that coffee

I love coffee. And having a deep conversation with a tasty cup of coffee makes my day. I assume that others around me are quite similar. Therefore I never hesitate to invite people for coffee. Usually that behavior is mirrored back at me quite often – so I also get invited for a coffee a lot. Just last week one of my team members smiled at me and said: today’s coffee is on me. What happened with me? A huge smiling “free coffees are the best”. That relationship grew that day. It was a great investment into the team glue.

Thank everyone

Make it a habit to thank people – even for little things like holding the door for you or taking your cup to the cleaning counter. Even if that means a short interruption in the conversation. Your spoken “thank you” signals the other person that you noticed and that you care for what they just did. It is a very small thing – but each time you add some glue to your relationship. Same is true for emails – you are probably never too busy to respond with a short “thx”.

Appreciate people

Especially when you are a team lead make sure to appreciate your people on a regular basis. Despite the cleverness of your team mates, it never gets old to hear a “well done”, “I appreciate your time invest” or “thanks for giving your creativity to the company”. For sure you must ensure to be precise in your appreciation and specify what you mean. Just handing out “appreciated” as a standard answer won’t do the trick.

Personally, I like to write an email or handwritten note to my team members in order to appreciate their investment into the company and our team. It takes some time to think of specific situations and the strengths of each one displayed but the result that I am seeing in my team is worth the invest.

Is there a downside?

Yes. Sadly there is. Since these actions work more or less independent from the intention behind it, a lot of managers have used them as “leadership tools” to grow their own career instead of relationships around them. For a while that works well. Until people realize that they are being manipulated. And then they close down emotionally. Instead of feeling joy when getting a compliment, they react with disbelief and cynicism.

In turn, when these people become leaders themselves they are not capable to do “the small stuff” because they believe that everything in this area is manipulation. Consequently a culture evolves in which people don’t lend a hand, you won’t hear a “Thank you” or get true appreciation.

So, what do you believe: Does small stuff matter?

Toxic! I hate working for you!

Toxic working environment evolve slowly. Weak, self-centered leaders lay the foundation and from there it only takes a few years until people are running away and the P&L is impacted. Check on yourself if you are in the middle of it.

Do you know that boss who never wants to hear your ideas? Do you remember that colleague that doesn’t share all information but rather wants to get ahead alone? What about that team lead that mainly leads by cynicism?

How do you feel when you are around those people?

People do not quit on jobs, they quit on toxic work cultures.

When you don’t like to work for your leaders anymore chances are high that there is an aspect of a toxic work environment involved. Meaning: over time an atmosphere evolved in which people don’t feel valued, welcomed or important. In a more extreme way people would also feel bullied and mistreated. In consequence, they will lose engagement and eventually leave the company. Unluckily, the toxic air creates such a distrust that leavers will not tell you the truth for their exit.

Let’s examine this topic a bit further. How does “toxic” look like? How has it been created?

Your feedback is not welcome

Honestly, no one would really give that statement in a company’s brochure. Not even in the worst of all companies. Yet, people might fear to express what they really think. They might have expressed their ideas in the past but learned by the reaction of their superiors that their ideas are not welcome.

How would you know whether that might be true in your working environment? Check on your own vocabulary whether you have ever used the following sentences: “We already considered that aspect. It never worked in the past.” “Why are you even bothering!? ” “It’s none of your business.” “Don’t you have more important stuff to do?” “Get into my age … then you will see the matter differently.” “Why are you asking this question?”

Even if you think, you have every right to react that way, you must be aware that the underlying message is: your feedback/question is not welcome. And your staff will learn. Quickly.

In addition, if you never hear feedback or troubling questions from your staff, you might be in the middle of a toxic environment. Your staff already is silent. Ouch! Too honest? Too bold?

I am convinced, if your staff consists of young professionals with an academic degree, you should hear questions, opinions and feedback all the time. This is the environment where they are coming from. It’s their natural behavior within university. And if they turn silent in your team and projects, you are in trouble!

Be honest to yourself: Do you still discuss with your young teammates or are they already silent?

To backbite somebody is the primary conflict solution

How are conflicts addressed in your team/company? How often do you go to someone and give direct feedback? It is so much easier to talk about people instead of addressing them directly, right?

And yet, if we as team heads model such behaviour, the team will automatically copy it. In the beginning it might be unimportant topics like someone’s vacation destination or project situation. But quite quickly information regarding failure, bad behaviour or even sicknesses join the conversation. And soon it isn’t only about the share of information but also the expression of opinions. Judgement joins the talk – and soon everyone in the room knows that no one is safe of bad talk behind their backs.

And at that point the atmosphere is toxic. If your teammates don’t feel safe, they will start to protect themselves – by sharing less of themselves. And of what they know. Which leads to the next major aspect of a toxic working environment.

Don’t share your information

Information is like love and laughter – if you share it, everyone has more. Imagine, you share an idea and someone in the group adds a certain aspect and all of a sudden your team develops a new product or service. Only because you add all the puzzle pieces in your heads. Amazing!

At the same time sharing information makes you vulnerable. People might oppose your shared knowledge – or even judge you for sharing that piece of information. Others might use the information to get ahead of you – or even against you.

Depending on the environment you are in, you will feel free and happy to share your information or you will hide and hold onto your piece of knowledge as long as possible.

Unluckily, if you are already in a toxic environment, ‘information hiding’ will be totally natural for you. You will read books and articles of company’s success factors and the key role of sharing information – but you cannot even think of how this could be done in your working environment. You might even think that you are sharing information – considering the 5% given in the last team meeting. But you think everyone who is promoting total transparency must be a total fool.

Considering the environment you are in: you are right. You are doing everything to survive. And you do it well. Congrats. But look around you: your team isn’t growing. In your team meetings is no laughter.

So What!?

You might think “So what!?” – even if I am working in the a similar culture as described… I work in it every day. It pays my bills. I get along. Why even bother!?

The downside of a toxic working environment is that the poison never stops spreading. You probably start with a slightly bad atmosphere but without an antidote it will progress and influence your team and company. Over time you will see the effects in your attrition rate, then in your online reviews as an employer and at it worst it will be played back by your customers. And then it has true impact on your P&L.

If your teammates don’t trust each other, don’t even like each other, you will have weak customer interaction. The client will realize quickly whether your staff values one another. And why should the customer buy from you, if you wouldn’t even buy from yourself!?

What is the antidote?

Truth is: You cannot change people around you, you can only change yourselves.

So let me ask you this: Would you like to work for yourself?

Take your time. And think.

Reflect.

[these questions might support the reflection: Do you think that you promote an atmosphere of trust and respect? What behaviour of teammates let you believe that your answer is correct? What evidence do you have that you create a working environment in which your team thrives?]

I am convinced: You are the antidote. You can be the leader that creates that working environment people want to work in. But it needs your boldness to check on the status quo and the willingness to change if you see behaviour in yourself that is creating a toxic environment. As much as you are the solution – if your team/company is struggling, you also might be the problem.