Her nickname was “Switzerland,” which she earned by staying calm, rational, and neutral during conflict. These traits made her the perfect fit for her role in leading the department of consumer complaints. When “Dr. Divergent,” a senior PhD statistician, started working for her, she told him, “I’d like you to bring a typed agenda to our updates.” He complied for a while, but over time shifted to hand-written notes, then post-its, and eventually just updates “on the fly.”
Four years in a row, she delivered the same message in his performance appraisal: “You need to get more organized.” So he put together development plans that included taking courses on project management, like “Getting Things Done,” “Organization for Dummies,” and “Using Your Franklin Planner.”
In the fifth year of working together, they were half-way through his performance appraisal when she said, “You will notice that I didn’t include ‘getting more organized’ as a development area this year.” Thinking that maybe the classes had worked, he started to puff up his chest when she continued, “This is not because you have made any improvement. I just realized that if I attempt to make you like me, you would not be able to contribute what you can uniquely offer to the organization.” She went on to explain that he was to hire an assistant to do the stuff that needed to get done like balance the budget and process expense reports. Within a week he became one of the more junior employees in this Fortune 500 Company to have an administrative assistant.
But her gift came with a challenge: He was to build a world-class statistics department that created value for the business. She said that she would evaluate his performance by interviewing six key stakeholders at the end of the year to determine if he was achieving this goal.
His performance jumped to a new level. Focused on a motivating goal and freed of organizational tasks that were difficult for him, he went above and beyond to advance strategic initiatives that aligned with his talents. Over time, Switzerland had him take on some of her strategic work, and they developed a harmonious and productive reporting relationship that continued for four more years.
This story has a happy ending because Switzerland was able to flex her management style to leverage an employee’s talents and mitigate his flaws. It illustrates a real-life example of Fiedler’s Contingency Leadership Model – a theory that is widely applauded, but not as frequently practiced. So what can we learn from how Ms. Switzerland managed Dr. Divergent?
- Focus on the Employee’s Gifts – Once Switzerland recognized that Divergent was not going to transform into an organized employee, she faced some choices. She could have labeled his disorganized trait as career-limiting behavior and derailed his career. She could have engaged Human Resources and escalated her feedback into a Performance Improvement Plan (a pre-cursor to termination). She might have lobbied to have him transferred to another team. Instead, Switzerland decided to focus on his strengths and match them to a bigger opportunity, then found an organizational solution to mitigate his limiting behaviors. This illustrates the principles promoted in StrengthsFinder.
- It’s Not About You (the Leader) – As a Myers-Briggs ESTJ, Switzerland processes the world through facts and concrete details. She makes quick decisions based on logic and prefers structure. With an opposite style (INFP), Divergent likes to noodle on abstract concepts for a long time and makes decisions based on hunches. Structure is confining and does not come easily to him. Switzerland moved out of her comfort zone to accommodate a polar-opposite style. She put the employee first, rather than insisting on top-down conformity, and achieved valuable business outcomes through him.
- Trust – Switzerland took a risk when she deviated from the company’s norms with her approach to Divergent’s performance challenge. She bet that investing in him would pay off for the company and – in turn – for her (and him). This took guts. She trusted her own instincts in advancing this win-win-win idea. But more fundamentally, she trusted him and their relationship. He repaid her trust with loyalty and increased effort. Without trust, this solution would have failed.
One might argue that Divergent should not have been rewarded with a “free pass” on managing details and that organizations cannot afford administrative support staff for senior scientists. But if you look past these philosophical debates, the value of this true story is that leaders can’t fix employees’ innate flaws, but they can unleash productivity and achieve results by focusing on strengths.
A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity;
an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.
– Winston Churchill
Note: Story shared by Steven Fahrenholtz
Epilogue: Dr. Divergent is eternally grateful to Ms. Switerland. Her tolerance for his weaknesses has fundamental changed the way he works with others. He strives to live up to her high standards and acknowledges that it is a constant struggle to fully appreciate the strengths of people that prefer structure and order.