Part 2: How to avoid (mitigate?) being a terrible leader

This is part 2 of a 3 part story - published a bit out of sequence - feel free to read Part 1 (Pondering your Purpose) and Part 3 (Changes to rTraction Leadership) first... or after... the Internet is yours to command.  

This story may appear, at first glance, to be about me. It is actually about the team that I have built. Truly, it is a team of superheroes. I can credit one overarching skill that has brought me whatever success that I have had - my greatest skill is hiring good, smart people. To be clear, I don’t mean ‘good’ just from the technical skillset perspective; I mean ‘good’ in a far more impactful way -- I mean good-hearted. The ever-changing team I've built through the past 17 years consistently has displayed an indisputable amount of hard work, dedication, and perseverance. My team regularly outperforms my ability to effectively get things done. 

I don’t know exactly when it happened. For the longest time I did not include a “CEO” appellation of my title, believing that rTraction did not have a CEO. I operated as President, getting the day-to-day activities of the company done. I credit joining Pillar Nonprofit Network as a board member, and eventually becoming its Chair, for understanding the importance of strategic planning and long term outlook. In 2015, I added “CEO” to my business card as “President and CEO” for the first time. Many business models, EOS included, categorize the CEO of an organization as a “Visionary”. In researching and understanding the role I had to face two truths about what my skills bring… the positive and the negative.

From the Blog Post “What is a Visionary Part 1,” Gino Wickman covers the ups and downs of Visionaries quite succinctly. 

The good:  The Visionary typically is the founding entrepreneur, operates more on emotion, and has ADD (but not always). This person is great with big relationships, the culture of the organization, and solving big, ugly problems (not the little ones); sees things others can’t; creates and holds the company vision; and is great at closing big deals. Visionaries are the creators of everything.

And the challenging: On the other side, a Visionary isn’t good at holding people accountable, doesn’t like details, doesn’t like running the day to day of the business, isn’t good at following through, gets distracted easily, and is always trying to get 100 pounds in a 50-pound bag. All of this can create a lot of chaos for an organization.

Human beings are far more complex than a series of bullet points. However, in Gino’s summary above, I can look at each point in the “challenging” side and say “yes, that’s totally me.” The only possible exception is “isn’t good at following through.” That is because I realized long ago that this this ability that seems innate for some was not for me, but it was necessary, so I built my own systems to keep from dropping the ball. Anyone who knows me, or has worked with me, would probably honestly acknowledge that both the strengths and weaknesses of Gino’s profile align with the strengths and weaknesses in me. 

So let’s expand on a few of these points to illustrate how these attributes of my personality actually negatively impacted my ability to perform as a leader.

“Isn’t good at holding people accountable” - For me, this manifests itself as not very good at providing feedback, (positive or negative). I have been guilty of saying to people in my organization “if you get a paycheque it means you’re doing a good job!” I am relentless about trying to hire the best person for any job, and have built a team culture around that job. If you’re part of my team I expect excellence, so excellence doesn’t stand out. With this expectation, if something goes off the rails I assume people are doing their best. 

The problem with not holding people accountable, and not giving solid feedback, is twofold: firstly, people do not know that they’re performing at the ‘excellence’ level. Our basic instinct is to assume the worst, so if you don’t hear “hey you’re doing a good job” regularly then you assume that the result is that you’re doing a “bad job”. In my accountability measurement, the opposite is true. 

Secondly, when people or projects go off the rails, sometimes people are not aware of the problems that exist because they don’t have the perspective to understand where a seemingly innocuous problem may be brewing into something bigger. So I often make a dangerous assumption that my talented team can see the catches woven into their process. As someone with a satellite view of the organization, my perspective is different than the person weaving the tapestry every day. 

“Gets easily distracted” - In my upcoming personal post, “My Broken Brain,” I recognize how my ADHD has played into my development as visionary. In my day-to-day life it’s not uncommon for me to juggle and reprioritize thousands of information points in a single hour. In order to survive ADHD I think our brains develop an automatic filtering and prioritization system in order to help us survive.

While it is by no means a perfect system, my prioritization allows us to stay focused long enough to complete tasks or activities while still having ideas and notions floating around in my active brain. Because I am easily distracted, and was in charge of running the day-to-day business, our organization developed what we called “Organizational ADHD”. 

I have realized that for a complex organization with multiple different types of people working in it, it’s problematic if you try to bring in my method of prioritization of information. For people who think differently than I, it’s simply a distraction. While I can literally hold 3 conversations at once (one in email, one in voice, one an inner dialogue), most people can’t. Organizations like mine, that are led by people actively working on 100 projects, it’s easy to become fatigued, unfocused, and frustrated. 

Critically, I must acknowledge that my team do not necessarily have the capacity to handle my mental filtering and prioritization system. For example, I’m presently involved in a few initiatives to solve community problems that I’m excited about being involved in. Yet I have taken deliberate restraint in not sharing those initiatives internally to try to keep our team’s focus. 

The way my Organizational ADHD would typically look is for me to say “Hey I think we should investigate cryptography and the blockchain as a way of solving outcome measurement.” I would mean “someday, maybe, we should find a project that we could use to explore this concept,” but what might be heard is, “I, your CEO, want you to learn cryptography so drop what you’re doing and get learning it.” Three months later I would turn around and be surprised to find that we’re developing a prototype blockchain technology while all of our other strategic priorities were off the rails. Oops. (Important note to rTraction staff who may be reading this - EXAMPLE THEORY ONLY. DO NOT IMPLEMENT BLOCKCHAIN ...yet.).

Here is the greater paradox of working with me - sometimes I do share information that, to me, is so completely logical to action that I am equally surprised when people are NOT working on the ideas I shared. My team therefore gets to see me frustrated at people working on things that don’t matter, and equally frustrated that they’re not working on the things that do matter. Without a filter or way of knowing which is which. What is so clearly obvious in my mind rarely makes it out of that forum into actionable advice. Frustration abounds, both from me and, fairly, reflected back on me. Direction without clarity is irresponsibility. 

“Always trying to get 100 pounds in a 50-pound bag.” Guilty. Even as I write this blog post I am impatient to get on to the next one, and will likely be frustrated at the fact that I need to have it reviewed for editorial consistency, grammar snafus, and spelling errors. I’m constantly frustrated by the pace of change (but also, paradoxically, amazed by how fast things change when looking backwards… a post for another time, perhaps). 

Unfortunately, this aspirational attribute manifests itself in some pretty unfortunate ways. For example, I’m always feeling a tension that we’re not getting things done quickly enough. I haven’t integrated a filter for when people are working too hard or outside of the norms of what should be expected for their position. The brutal truth is that I like seeing people working on evenings and weekends because it makes me feel that other people are with me trying to get the 100 pounds into the bag.

This tension is a values conflict, because I want people to have a healthy relationship with work and I do not want to stress or burn people out. I would just like them to have a healthy relationship to work and complete the impossible amount of work for the advancement for our organization in an amount of time that can’t humanly be achieved. I can have both, right?

The solution was fairly obvious once I recognized that I was responsible for a lot of the organizational chaos and lack of alignment and focus that we had. I moved myself to the “Visionary” seat, dropping “President” from my previous title of “President and CEO”. I’m now just the CEO of rTraction, with a very capable leadership team handling the day to day details of implementing our plan. (You can read the details of that change in Part 3: Changes to rTraction leadership.)

I’m only a few months into this transition but I can honestly say I’ve never been happier in a role I’ve had before. Based on a recent employee survey, I also believe it’s the happiest our team has been before. It’s exciting to know that I can still add a lot of value to our organization on a day-to-day basis, but pursue the challenges of problem solving, doing research by meeting with current and prospective clients, and, frankly, having more time to do activities like writing this blog post… and it’s the work I am supposed to be doing.

I’m fortunate to have an amazing team that can support me through this change of roles. I recognize it’s not a pivot that everyone can make. If you are leader I encourage you to reflect not only the strengths that you bring to your organization, but also to recognize the damage you may do by not mitigating your weaknesses. It takes a lot of courage to say “I suck at this,” but based on my personal experience, addressing it has been a huge productivity boost for me and everyone on my team.

Finally, I have a confession to make. I’m usually too hard on myself. The title of the post implies that I am, or have been, a terrible leader. It can be both true that I succeeded and failed at being a leader. At the same time. Scaling Up reports that only 4% of businesses achieve more than $1 Million in revenue, a milestone my company achieved. Yet it’s also true that I know I failed to lead our organization as effectively as I could have, and that took a personal toll on both me and people I care about. 

I wanted to acknowledge that some people may read this post and roll their eyes and think I’m being self deprecating or I’m not appreciating my business’ successes. Nothing is further from the truth. It is important to explore and understand that my privilege, gifts, and skillsets were important to starting and growing a business, but the same traits are potentially harmful skills when growing, supporting, and sustaining an organization. I’m also exploring that those same gifts can be useful in helping the organization to chart a new path with an aligned team at my side. 

David Billson