New Year? New Job? What’s Your New Narrative?

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Barbara just found out she got a big promotion. Her first thought? “Finally, I get to fire all these people because I can’t stand them.” Then Barbara realized those same colleagues who got on her nerves for years were now her top performers, and the key to her success. Managing people who used to be your peers is one of the hardest things a leader can do. It’s a common challenge for newly promoted leaders, and if handled in the wrong way it can be catastrophic for performance and retention. It’s also one of the experiences that most requires us to evaluate our own personal narratives, evaluate what’s holding us back, and look to new narratives that enrich our teams and ourselves. Here’s what happened when Barbara was confronted with that challenge. Barbara was one of the top sales performers at a mid-sized organization, and over time the rigorous competition for the top producer slot created tension in her relationship with the rest of the salesforce. Some of the competition involved lobbying for resources, disagreeing about sales strategies, and in the case of a few members of the team, even being cruel to get ahead. As a newly appointed manager, she is learning how to quickly move from being a peer to her colleagues to becoming their coach. Now Barbara is supposed to motivate her team, forgetting about the competition, arguments and backstabbing she spent years enduring. Barbara is taking a mindful approach to her new promotion, but it’s not easy. Her personal narrative of being a top performer in a tough, competitive environment who has to fight to get what she needs doesn’t translate to her new position.

Signs She Needs to Change Narratives

Barbara is finding herself being hypercritical in sales meetings. Even for her own standards, some of the feedback she gives her team seems a little harsh. After one particularly tough sales meeting, Barbara did some self-reflection. She asked herself why she wouldn’t let anything go. It turns out, she was treating that meeting like payback. She wanted to teach her old peers a lesson. Then Barbara noticed that she was often denying straightforward requests on expense reports. She had always felt, before her promotion, that some of her peers went above and beyond reasonable lengths to entertain customers. And now that she had power, she wanted to show that she didn’t like their style. In reality, those extravagant meals didn’t matter too much to the bottom line. What did matter was her style of scrutinizing expense reports and often denying to reimburse a certain amount. It wasn’t good for morale, and it wasn’t gaining her any fans either. She was trying to prove that her style of customer entertaining worked better, but that wasn’t her job anymore. Now she was there to support her salespeople in their own styles. Barbara also noticed how sarcastic her tone was when she spoke to her top performers. It was like she was defending herself before she was even attacked, and she didn’t like how she sounded. The tone was coming from a defensive place, because for a very long time some of her peers had ganged up on her and shot down many of her ideas. But now that she was in charge, she had no reason to be defensive. In fact, being defensive was going to sabotage her success if she kept it up.

Digging Deep to Find the Source

Barbara could tell from the look of resignation on her teammates’ faces that her approach was going to become really destructive for the whole organization if it continued. So she decided to create a new narrative that would define her role as an executive, a leader and a coach. Barbara called on a few trusted friends to talk about her struggles and to think deeply about where her impulses were coming from. She realized part of the root cause of her defensive tone and hypercritical attitude was that she felt that the members of her team had always rejected her ideas before the promotion, and their styles were more aligned with each other’s than hers.

Writing a New Narrative

The narrative wasn’t about Barbara’s ideas anymore. It was about coaching the team to work together to find ideas that benefitted everybody at the company. In fact, Barbara realized she was now in a position where she could even stop the cycle of negativity that had come to define her sales department by encouraging collaboration and more respectful dialogue. Her new narrative was starting to take shape. Here’s what she did:
  1. She didn’t share any ideas. Barbara would frame her sales meetings by saying, “I’m not sure I have any ideas about this, but let’s talk and see what we come up with.” She told herself that for the first 90 days she was on the job, she wouldn’t contribute any new ideas. She would simply facilitate meetings, listen to her team’s input, and support their ideas.
  2. Barbara changed the way she spoke with her team. She identified certain triggers that meant she was falling into an old pattern, like sarcasm or an impulse to say no in a meeting. She had to catch herself in the act. Then she would pause and acknowledge she was going in the wrong direction.
  3. Next, Barbara had to choose a new path. She asked herself, what are words with more positive connotations that I could use? Instead of “I can’t believe they are expensing this,” Barbara started to say, “Wow, I wonder if that really works for them?” She might even go a step beyond and call her salesperson and ask, “Hey, tell me more. How did this work for you?”
Now as Barbara engaged her new role, and was part of running sales meetings, conference calls and one-on-ones, she realized that to be effective as a leader she had to engage a completely new side of her mental and emotional make-up in order to get the best out of her team.

What can we learn from Barbara?

Many of us experience the subtle nudge (at times the sledgehammer) that points us toward a new narrative. When you do, listen to it. Sometimes a new narrative could mean a whole life change or a small but critical adjustment. In either case, it’s critical to pause and look inside. Barbara slowly was able to move into her new narrative—not overnight, but over time.  All good things take time. Be careful of false starts, and the illusion of quick impact and wins.  Effective leadership is a marathon not a sprint. To succeed in the face of success and challenge, we must remain fluid and honest and always consider new narratives to help us adapt through every role we take on. What narratives are you telling yourself about your role today? How easily could you exchange those narratives if suddenly your role, or manager, changed?
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