Leadership Shock: Using Authenticity to Navigate the Hidden Dangers of Career Success – an Excerpt

(Editor’s Note: What follows is an excerpt from Leadership Shock: Using Authenticity to Navigate the Hidden Dangers of Career Successwritten by Pete Steinberg,a leadership and innovation expert with extensive experience consulting with top Fortune 500 professionals. In Leadership Shock, Steinberg tells the story of Michael, the CEO of a medium-size, global pharmaceutical company. Michael is a longtime employee of the company and was promoted from COO to the CEO position about a year prior. Steinberg has just finished a workshop at Michael’s organization when he is approached by Alicia, Michael’s Chief of Staff. Alicia asks Steinberg if he has ever worked with a leader with a jam-packed calendar. She explains that she is concerned about Michael’s well-being as well as how overworking himself could affect the company, and she does not believe Michael can continue his current path for much longer. Steinberg tells Alicia that he believes that he can help and makes a joke to her about the greatest challenge being getting on Michael’s calendar. After an initial introduction, it takes Michael another 2 weeks to find enough time to sit down with Steinberg. In this excerpt, Steinberg writes about his first session with Michael on his journey to overcome his own ‘leadership shock.’)Steinberg headshot

There are a few “tricks” that I use with clients to help them get on top of their workload in the short term.

I call them tricks because they are not part of the leadership model. Once we have created an Authentic Leadership Model and we have a leader’s purpose, vision, values, and all of the other elements firmly in place, then their real priorities will be clear to them and none of these tricks will be necessary. But we couldn’t even begin to talk about Michael’s leadership model until we had cleared a bit of space in his calendar. So, we applied a few of my tricks.

One of my favorite tricks is “the shotgun approach.”

“What we’re going to do today,” I said to Michael and Alicia (this first meeting, at my suggestion, was with the two of them together), “is to take a shotgun to your calendar.”

Michael looked skeptical; Alicia looked excited. Her eyes glinted and she smiled a tight-lipped, slightly manic smile. If I had been Michael’s calendar, I would have been scared.

“We’re going to block out some things in your calendar that you decide are absolutely essential—we’re going to ‘bulletproof’ those, if you like—and then we’re going to blast holes in your calendar through the bits that aren’t bulletproofed.”

Alicia’s tight smile became even more bloodcurdling. I suspected she was mentally slotting cartridges into a virtual pump-action shotgun and putting on a pair of dark shades.

Most of us have an attitude to time that is a bit warped. Our near schedule (this week) is always crazy busy and there is very little flexibility. A leader would only add an absolutely critical meeting to this coming week. A month from now the schedule looks more open, so we often add noncritical meetings. That’ll be fine, we tell ourselves. We’ll have time on our hands by then. But that noncritical stuff that was booked weeks ago has now clogged up our calendar. It can actually be blasted without much damage being done.

“OK,” I said, “let’s start with emergencies. I assume some things in the calendar are literally firefighting … things that absolutely have to be fixed right now?”

Michael nodded.

“Let’s imagine a two-by-two grid with the axes being urgent and important,” I said. “In the top right-hand corner there’s a large wildfire. It’s ablaze—it’s urgent and important. So you have to go there, right now. In the top left-hand corner, there’s a small bit of grassland with flames. This is urgent but not important. So maybe you could send someone else there to check it out. Bottom right-hand corner, it’s smoldering; it’s smoking, but there are no flames—important but not urgent. You need to keep an eye on that. Bottom left-hand corner is a patch of land you’re worried about in the longer term. You need to do a safety check on that sometime to be on the safe side. Not important and not urgent.”

I could sense Michael running through a mental checklist of his own priorities.

“Let’s start with your wildfires,” I concluded. “‘Important and urgent’ first. Let’s bulletproof those.”

Michael immediately pointed to two major sets of meetings in the calendar. “Anything related to those has to stay in,” he said, glancing at Alicia, who clearly knew exactly what Michael meant. She marked a series of meetings with a red highlighter.

Michael thought a bit longer.

“Top left-hand corner,” he said. “What was that? Some flames but maybe someone else could take a look? That’s harder.”

He pointed Alicia to another series of meetings. “I need to stay on top of those, but I don’t think they’re going to have a big impact,” said Michael. Alicia started to highlight another tranche of meetings in a different color.

“Bottom right,” he continued. “Smoke but no fire. I don’t like those. But maybe I don’t absolutely have to go myself.”

He mentioned a few issues to Alicia, who nodded and got to work highlighting.

“Bottom left?” I prompted. “No smoke, no fire, but safety checks?”

Michael stared off into the distance for a while. “Well, that’s kind of ‘everything else,’” he said finally. “It’s hard to pick anything out. But I can’t just leave everything and hope nothing bad happens.”

“Try another trick,” I suggested. “It’s just another way of seeing the same thing. If you don’t go to those meetings, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Could it be immediately catastrophic?”

“Well, not catastrophic, no,” agreed Michael. “And certainly not immediately.”

“So no major potential issues in this quarter?” I suggested. “Or maybe longer? Could you bounce those meetings back by a quarter and check up on them then?”

Michael nodded at Alicia, who got to work.

“One last thing,” I said. “Let’s forget about firefighting or catas¬trophes for a moment. There are a lot of meetings that just help keep things running smoothly, or keep everyone up to speed, or which are corporate obligations: charities, industry bodies, stakeholder relation¬ships. That kind of thing.”

Michael nodded.

“Here’s an idea. Think about meetings from the perspective of your role rather than you personally. You feel obliged to attend some meetings, internal and external, because of the relationship you have with people. You know … ‘Jeff will want to see me; Mary will expect me to be there.’ But the question is not really, ‘Does Michael need to be there?’ but, ‘Does the CEO need to be there? Does the CEO absolutely have to do this?’ And if the CEO doesn’t have to be there, which senior figure could go instead? Or maybe nobody senior needs to be there at all and a designated champion of that relationship could attend and send you a quick note with the minutes and a brief summary?”

Michael and Alicia glanced at each other. I could see Alicia’s mind whirring.

“For example,” I continued, sensing I was on a roll, “you could delegate some things upward as well as downward. I know you have a big commitment to the company’s charitable involvements and various industry bodies …”

Michael nodded again.

“They expect to see the company represented at key events. Del¬egating upward, could it maybe be a board member? Or even the chairman? It’s important the company has a presence at these meetings and events, but it doesn’t always have to be the CEO, right?”

Michael looked thoughtful.

“Can I ask …?” I ventured.

Michael looked receptive. I plowed on.

“I see you have a lot of regular ‘routine’ meetings with your key colleagues. For example, Alicia and Janet ‘stole’ one of your routines with Jeff, your head of sales, to create space for this meeting.”

Alicia looked quietly triumphant.

“Are those routines always essential?” I asked.

“Well, I need to be plugged into what’s going on,” Michael shot back, a bit tersely. “And for them to feel that they know they have my time; that they are guaranteed regular access to me.”

I nodded. I felt that Alicia glanced at me in a slightly conspirato¬rial way.

“It’s just a thought,” I said.

Over the coming weeks, Alicia and Janet began to “take a shotgun” to Michael’s calendar, with some immediate benefits. They also began to deflect other meeting requests either up or down, delegating some to senior members of the team and asking the chairman, Alvin, if he could stand in for some of the more ceremonial duties.

If nothing else, the shot-up calendar helped her to schedule the ongoing weekly meetings for Michael and me to begin work on his leadership model.