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Leading People Through the Looking Glass

I worked for many years at American Express, a company known for having a passionate commitment to the development of their people. Half of an employee’s year-end rating is based on their achievement of business goals while the remaining 50% is tied to performance against defined leadership competencies. Senior executives regularly host round tables and town halls to share their wisdom and best practices on leading. 

Yet the best lesson I learned about how to lead others came before I was hired by American Express when I was 25 years old. And it didn’t come from a senior executive but instead from my first direct report, a 22-year old recent college graduate. 

I was working for a company called IRI which develops big data and predictive analytics solutions. I had been promoted to account executive in the client services division where I was responsible for managing relationships with large customers. In my new role, I had my first opportunity to be a people leader. I hired a bright-eyed Princeton graduate who was poised and ambitious.

She had been reporting to me for a few months, and I was very impressed by her maturity, intelligence, and commitment to customer service. I had nailed the first test of management: I had hired well.  

One morning, as I was arriving at work and hanging my coat on the back of the door, my phone rang. It was a client who I had worked with for years. He explained that he needed some data by the afternoon for an important meeting. He had already left a message for his primary contact, my new hire. When she didn’t pick up the phone, he called me. I assured him that we would provide his data well in advance of his deadline, and we hung up. 

I knew that my direct report would be in the office soon. My first instinct was a selfish one. Why not reap the benefits of having the help, and let her complete the task? Then I thought about how much I enjoyed those first sacred, uninterrupted moments of my morning routine. It was a simple enough request, and if I fulfilled it myself, she could ease into her day. 

With the desire to be a “good” boss, I handled the client’s request and sent him the data. When she arrived, I informed my employee of what had occurred. 

That afternoon, she asked me if she could have a word with me. She pulled the door closed behind her. She told me that my interception of the client’s request made her feel that I didn’t trust her to get the job done. She also explained that if I continued to intercede, it would prevent her from building trust and forming an alliance with the client, setting her up to fail. 

Her feedback highlighted that even though my intentions were good, my instincts were completely off baseI was not able to see the situation through her lens: as a new hire trying to prove herself and develop a relationship with the client outside of my shadow. 

It was like seeing through the looking glass into that “strange parallel world,” otherwise known as someone else’s point of view. Lucky for me, before I established the bad habit of using my own lens as my sole barometer for decision-making, that approach was challenged.

But there is another invisible obstacle to our ability to consider others’ perspectives. Studies show that we lose that skill as we gain power: the time when we need it most. 

In the July/August 2017 issue of The Atlantic, Jerry Useem wrote a provocative piece called, “Power Causes Brain Damage.” He referenced the research of a psychology professor at UC Berkeley named Dacher Keltner. “Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and crucially, less adept at seeing things from other’s point of view.”

Our brains can work against us which means that we must try harder to keep this lesson in mind. We need to quiet our own views to hear the dissenting voices of our team members. And we should remember that not everyone has the courage to speak up, so sometimes we need to hear what is not being said out loud and maybe even ask

I appreciate the courage of that bright-eyed college graduate who was willing to give her new boss a view through the looking glass. It shows that sometimes we get the best coaching from the very people that we are being paid to coach.

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