Gratitude with Attitude

During this season of Thanksgiving, we get to hear many expressions and stories of gratitude to remind us to be grateful for the things and people in our lives.  For a dose of reality, how about a story of how the right “gratitude” combined with the wrong “attitude” can derail the best intentions, make or break a career and put scores of jobs at risk?  Read on.

Samantha (Sam) Russo, a very successful leader noted for turning around struggling divisions, had drawn a new assignment to take on a mature line of business with experienced and talented employees but a record of falling short of production KPIs and a ranking as the worst performer among 12 divisions.  This was potentially a career-defining opportunity and her ticket to the C-Suite. Sam was excited.

From Day One, she engaged key leaders and influencers to gather their perspectives on what was holding up progress in the business.  As each provided their opinions on various market and operational challenges, there was little agreement on “what” was causing the underperformance, but universal agreement on “who” was the problem for implementing the changes needed.

Sam was surprised to discover that a long-time respected employee with stellar performance reviews, Gary Schmidt, was apparently stifling innovative ideas, resisting change, and creating an environment where others had given up trying anything new or different.  Despite being identified by peers as the roadblock to change and innovation, Gary’s peers held him in high esteem for his knowledge of the industry, his experience getting things done “the right way,” and as a “go-to” player for the division.

Gary was known for openly expressing his gratitude for having the opportunity to mentor and shape the next generation of leaders in the division, and he encouraged everyone to take advantage of his open-door approach.  He was generous with his time, advice, and opinions. People responded to his strength of opinion and character. Yet, they all identified Gary as the primary reason that change was not taking place. For Sam, this was a confusing contradiction that such a respected influencer would also be identified as the problem, so she decided to meet with Gary to gather her own insights. 

The meeting was scheduled for the next Monday morning, but an email came from Gary stating that the meeting would need to be scheduled for the afternoon.  No reason why just the statement. Wanting to build a relationship with Gary, Sam moved the meeting to Monday afternoon.

Monday PM came, and Sam received another email from Gary asking to move the meeting to Tuesday AM.  No explanation, just a statement. Irritating but, still wanting to get off on the right foot with this key influencer, she complied and rescheduled the meeting to Tuesday AM.

Finally, Tuesday came, there was no email asking to reschedule, and Gary attended the meeting on time.

As Sam began to explain the purpose of the meeting, Gary interrupted to express his gratitude for the opportunity to meet with her, to give his opinions on how things should be done, and to offer any assistance she needed to make things happen.  He let Sam know she could come to him any time she needed help with something. Sam thanked Gary again, but as she began to explain the purpose of the meeting, Gary stood up, thanked her for “hearing him out,” and began to leave her office.

Enraged by this obvious sign of disrespect, Sam directed Gary to “sit down,” reminded him who the boss was, and pointed out that he had now put his future employment in jeopardy based upon his poor behavior toward a female leader.  After 10 minutes of “setting Gary straight,” she took a breath and realized Gary was actually shocked and confused by her outburst. He had a total blind spot and had no idea what he had done to make her so upset. They agreed the meeting was not accomplishing anything, and Sam dismisses Gary from her office.  Gary was visibly upset when he returned to his office, and for the first time in 20 years, he closed his door. Others noticed.

How could a leader with so much gratitude for all the company allowed him to do be so difficult to work with?  So disrespectful? So unaware……AH HA!

The AH HA? A realization hit her like a bolt of lightning.  Gary was totally unaware of his behavior and its negative impact on people and division progress! He had mentored so many people for so long he personally had failed to seek out and implement feedback to remain effective and relevant.  He was so busy sharing his experiences and learnings he did not continue to develop his own new experiences and new learnings. He became the oracle of the past and gathered respect as a result. However, he was not providing good counsel on how to tackle the issues of the day or the future.  Gary was so busy sharing about the history of how things got done that he was beginning to fade into history. This revelation gave Sam an idea.

Her initial plan was to send an email on Friday to Gary to tell him they would have a meeting on Monday as a follow-up to their meeting the previous Monday.  She would not accept any changes to the scheduled time. She had something to say, and Gary was going to listen. Things were going to change.

Sam reached out to a long-time trusted advisor of hers who had always provided her with keen insight and clarity on people issues.  This trusted advisor pointed out that such communication to Gary would not accomplish the goal that things were going to change. It would leave Gary thinking all weekend that he was going to be terminated on Monday.  Since Sam had never thought about terminating Gary, this revelation came as a shock.

Instead, a communication was crafted for same-day delivery to help Gary understand that Sam wanted to start over and she had some ideas she wanted to run by Gary.  Gary came to the meeting excited to give his opinion on her ideas.

At the very beginning, thanks to the advice of her trusted advisor, she laid out the ground rules and scope for the meeting.  She expressed her appreciation for all Gary had done for the division, his willingness to help others, and the strength of his opinion.  She then immediately shared that he had an attitude problem.  Not a bad attitude problem, but an attitude of change resistance and status quo.  He was putting his career, the career of others, and the future of the division at risk.  Sam shared that she fundamentally believed this was the opposite of his intent and wanted to partner with him through this change.  Sam outlined how critical he was to division success and that many people depended upon him for sound and relevant advice. 

Gary needed to be exposed to his blind spots: communication, issues with change, listening, priority setting, and initial responses to anything new or forward-looking. Gary was again surprised by these revelations but expressed his gratitude for Sam’s desire to partner with him. All of his gratitude in the world would forfeit its value if he couldn’t change his attitude on these vital matters.

Now for the Rest of the Story…Sam arranged for a targeted coaching engagement of four months to address the issues she’d identified as well as others discovered during the targeted coaching process.  Gary and the engaged coach both provided progress reports to ensure that issues were covered and change was taking place. The reports came back with consistent positivity. Gary began to implement these new behaviors into his work, his mentoring, and his influential leadership.  The division began to turn around and exceed its goals. New and innovative approaches to solving problems were implemented.

As a result of the turnaround, Sam was promoted to Chief Innovation Officer overseeing all lines of business.  Sam recommended Gary to take over her division, and he was groomed, through the Executive Coaching arranged by Sam, to take over her position overseeing global innovation.  He started in his new role the same day Sam was appointed Chief Operating Officer (COO). Congrats to both.

Welcome to leadership! How can we help you create the rest of your story?


Gratitude with Attitude
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