The steak was on the grill and the veggies were resting. We were celebrating the successful launch of my good friend’s new amazing business. We already had a glass of champagne and were on our way to another. But the jovial feeling at the gathering was put at risk when my good friend pulled me aside and asked, “Can I ask your professional opinion about something?”
It’s always risky when a friend invites you into the consultant role. Whereas I am instinctually happy to help and advise, I also like to keep things clean (read my post: Relationship Clarity, One Role at a Time).
“Sure,” I said, mildly tipsy, clumsily taking the bait. I flipped the steak.
“I want to know about how to create the best culture for this team.”
The team was comprised of different leaders across the nation that telecommuted for meetings. I went over my checklist. Are you making an effort to get to know them and their work style? He was. Are you allowing them time to know each other? Yes. Are you creating an environment for open communication? He gave me a few examples of conversations that sounded right on target. I already knew he was being jovial and friendly, because that’s just who he was. I offered my diagnosis:
“Sounds like you are well on your way. You are setting the tone for a good culture. It will develop naturally over time.”
This was not to his liking. “I thought you’d have more tips. I want to create a culture of fun, of enthusiasm, of creativity.”
“Well, at this stage, it seems you’re doing everything right, especially by being enthusiastic yourself. It’s a small, evolving company. People need some time to know each other and the ropes of their jobs. And you need some time to see how the company develops and who they really are before you can impose a culture. Otherwise it will feel rigid.”
“Really?” He said, quite disappointed. “I thought you’d have more to offer than that.”
I took the steak (and my slightly bruised ego) off the grill, and as I arranged the meat and veggies neatly on the platter, I thought about how you can’t really organize people in the same way. My friend, with the best of intentions, was trying to create an environment free of command and control leadership by following rigid steps and formulas to create a relaxed, creative environment.
I see so many well-intentioned leaders making this mistake.
Incidentally, people starting new relationships make this mistake as well. Think about the woman who, after two dates, brings up the topic of moving towards marriage, or the widower who tries to recreate the routines and interactions that worked with his wife with his new girlfriend. If you impose too many conditions on a relationship too early, it will likely blow up. It takes time to let true connections evolve, in which private jokes, communication styles, routines and true compatibility emerge and are established.
If you really want to invoke a new style of leadership, you must be comfortable with process — staying open to what is unknown and yet undefined, to what feels a little unstable, to what is becoming.
You must keep asking the right questions, without rushing the answers.
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