Yesterday, I spent two and a half hours on the train from Washington to Charlottesville, Virginia so I can speak to a class at the Darden School of Business this morning. Normally, I find train rides quite restful–I prefer the “quiet car,” but there was none on this trip. I spent the entire trip listening to an elderly man and his wife argue about absolutely everything you can imagine. They argued about when the dining car would open, which stop we were at, at what point to take the luggage down from storage, how long it would take to arrive–you get the idea. For a while, I tried to block them out and concentrate on what I was working on, but I gradually realized that they were becoming today’s blog post. They reminded me of too many clients who have a running battle with other folks in the organization, instead of rationally deciding what to do together.
How often have you heard that the CMO and the CIO fight like cats and dogs? Or that you should never give the CMO the job of persuading the CFO of anything because they don’t listen to each other? How may times have you heard that one exec just “doesn’t respect” another one?
Unfortunately, many of our organizations have pairings like that elderly couple sitting behind me for two and a half hours. (It seemed longer.) Just as opposites attract in marriage, it’s normal to see a CFO that is very careful and a CMO that likes to take some chances. Or a CMO that runs by the seat of his pants vs. a CIO who has a process for everything. It makes sense that different kinds of people are attracted to different jobs. It also makes sense that sometimes, they will wear each other out because of those same differences.
They don’t share the same world view, which can make it difficult to communicate. They don’t think the same way, so it makes sense that one finds it immensely difficult to persuade the other. But does it have to be that way? I say no.
That old married couple has stayed together, but they probably aren’t as happy as they could be, because they are spending all their time trying to make themselves right and their spouse wrong. They’ve exalted being right above being relational. What it means is that they don’t work as a team except for their shared purpose of exasperating each other.
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But as weird as this seems, it is common in the executive suite. I often see talented executives jockeying for position and talking past each other rather than really listening and trying to reach consensus decisions. But that is really our choice to make.
We can decide that we will listen—really listen—to each other, even though we have different world views, we speak different languages, we have different goals, and we don’t understand why the other one is talking this way. We can decide to respect each other. We can choose to pay attention. If you really want to be radical, try to learn something from the other person.
Now, sometimes the other exec is incompetent, and you can’t really learn much, but I find that perfectly capable execs are dissed as incompetent all the time by others that just don’t want to be jangled from their comfort zone. They’d rather stick with their own parochial view than risk the discomfort of being less informed on a subject. If they don’t understand something, they marginalize it rather than learn from it.
I’ve spent my career in technology and in business and I’ve often had to broker spitball fights between different factions. My take is that we’d make much better decisions if we all forced ourselves to think like the CEO rather than what our job really is. It forces you to understand the other points of view, if for no other reason than you can’t afford to annoy the other execs if you want the company to function.
But too often, we are like that old man on the train, who whispered to me as we all got off at our stop, “She never listens to me.” I didn’t have the heart to point out that he wasn’t exactly world class at it either. But it made me realize that that old couple might stay together, but at what cost? If you’ve got warring execs at your firm, how can you stop the civil war and start making it hot for your competitors? How can you truly listen to those things that you don’t understand and try to see at least a part of it? If you can act like the CEO in your current job, you have a better chance of actually being the CEO in a future job.
And at least you won’t annoy the poor schlemiel in the seat in front of you…
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