8 Extending Your Reach – The Chocolate Conversation: Lead Bittersweet Change; Transform Your Business

Extending Your Reach

Reaching your people on an emotional level is an indispensable part of leadership. It’s the secret sauce that gets people to follow you, and—let’s face it—you can’t call yourself a leader if no one is following you. Some leaders have an intuitive feel for their people. Whether they are conscious of it or not, these leaders have a high emotional intelligence quotient. Others have to learn how to develop their emotional intelligence. The good news is that you can increase your emotional intelligence quotient.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to read people and situations. Leaders who have it know what to say and when to say it. They have the ability to kick someone in the butt when it’s needed or put their arm around someone at just the right moment to restore that person’s confidence.

Leaders who have high emotional intelligence get better results across the board. They are more successful at transforming their businesses and more successful at getting the best and the most out of the people who work for them.

There is often a misconception that leaders who have high levels of emotional intelligence are soft. To the contrary, Jack Welch, Lou Gerstner, and Steve Jobs all led best-in-class transformations and none of them would ever be labeled as soft.

Leaders with high emotional intelligence also know how to clear the clutter, and say things simply and directly. They don’t have many Chocolate Conversations. When the occasional misunderstanding arises, they recognize it for what it is and they do something about it. These leaders know how to inspire others to embrace their worldview. They know how to be specific about standards, and are willing to face concerns head on.

The concept of emotional intelligence was first introduced to the mainstream in 1996, when Daniel Goleman authored the book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, which became a popular read among businesspeople. For those who had emotional intelligence, the book gave language and validity to a phenomenon that had been difficult to describe. For those who didn’t have it, Emotional Intelligence opened new territory for considering the concept and offered a framework for developing EQ.

What is important to know here is that having a high level of emotional intelligence will significantly extend your professional reach. Other leaders, community influencers, competitors, and potential partners want to be in the company of successful leaders. When you pick up the phone, the people you want to reach take the call.

My first assignment as chief transformation officer at Xerox was to onboard and advise the new CIO we hired. Pat Wallington was a high-profile CIO regarded as a strategic change agent among technology gurus, and she played a key role in the transformation of Xerox from copier company to technology solutions company. Pat was brought in to rebuild our global IT infrastructure, define and reengineer the business core processes, upgrade and consolidate our systems, and attract new talent.

A significant aspect of Wallington’s strategy was to outsource the legacy systems, hardware, and services so the new infrastructure could be funded. Included in the deal were the employees who would transition with the legacy environment. We were in the process of approving a short list of companies for the outsourcing deal when our CEO, Paul Allaire, asked that IBM be included on the final list.

After an exhaustive evaluation, the team concluded that EDS was the leading candidate and best partner for the deal, and a meeting was arranged between Allaire and Les Alberthal, the CEO of EDS. Both men were awkward in the meeting, and the discomfort between the two was obvious. Wallington and our CFO tried to ease that discomfort by doing what they could to facilitate the discussion and summarize the key benefits of the deal.

A week later, Allaire met with Lou Gerstner, the CEO of IBM. Allaire personally met Gerstner in the reception area and walked with him to his office. I saw them walking and talking. Gerstner had his arm around Allaire, laughing and chatting with him like they were old friends. Allaire looked pleased with himself, like the proverbial cat that swallowed the canary.

EDS was the best option, hands down. It was willing to purchase Xerox’s legacy and it was offering a large sum of upfront money that we could reinvest in the new infrastructure. IBM wasn’t willing to do that. EDS had one of the best track records for managing a legacy environment. IBM didn’t. In fact, people in the know at Xerox thought a deal with IBM would be akin to one lumbering elephant trying to tow another.

Meanwhile, Paul Allaire favored IBM from the start. Wallington and the CFO met with Allaire several times to extol the financial and operational benefits of EDS. Allaire talked about the importance of a strategic alliance with IBM. The decision was at a stalemate. They were having a classic Chocolate Conversation.

Pat and the CFO were missing what made IBM attractive to Allaire. It had nothing to do with financials and operational expertise. The attraction was Lou Gerstner. Gerstner was quickly becoming an internationally known celebrity CEO, while Les Alberthal was unknown outside the industry. Ironically, Alberthal was a lot like Allaire—introverted and a little stiff when you talked to him. On the other hand, Gerstner was animated, passionate, and a big piece of stuff, everything Allaire admired and wanted to be.

Looking at this from a different angle, it was easy for me to see what was going on. I shared my perspective with my colleagues on the senior team, telling them they needed to change the conversation they were having with Allaire. The talk track I suggested went like this:

Paul, we get that it would be good for Xerox to have a strategic alliance with IBM. That said, we’re not sure this is the right deal around which to form that alliance. If you do the deal with Lou, he’ll know he has an admirer and a fan. On the flip side, if you do the deal with EDS, you’ve just made the decision Lou would make—and Lou will know he has a formidable peer.

A partnership with Lou and IBM makes sense, but not for this particular deal. You might want to talk to Lou about going to market with him in other areas of business—ones where the partnership would be focused on new opportunities for growth rather than on our past and our old stuff.

You might also consider whether you want Lou exposed to our legacy environment. It’s pretty messy and fragmented and doesn’t bode well for the new image we are trying to create.

That conversation won the day.

Both Pat and the CFO were intrigued by what they just heard from me. They asked me how I knew what was really going on. I took out a sheet of paper and drew three circles:

• The first circle represented the technical sphere: What I know.

• The second circle represented the social sphere: Who I know.

• The third circle represented the political sphere: Who knows me.

I said, “You guys were stuck in the technical sphere. You kept telling Paul what you know: the financial and operational benefits of the deal. Paul wants to know Lou Gerstner and he wants Lou to know him.”

It was as simple as that. Allaire wanted to extend his reach by having a powerful influencer like Gerstner in his inner circle. He was willing to sacrifice the shorter-term financial gain for what he perceived to be a longer-term strategic gain. I told them, “By changing the conversation, you got underneath Paul’s concern and you were able to support his worldview by giving him a new standard to have a strategic relationship with Lou. This required operating in all three spheres; technical, social, and political.”

We will dive deeper into the spheres later in this chapter. You will learn a simple method for applying them to any situation where you are stuck.

I’ve coached hundreds of senior executives in the years since, and time and again I’ve seen them derailed because they are on the wrong stack of mail, just as my former colleagues were. I’ve seen talented individuals do excellent work and yet fail to advance their ideas or their careers beyond a certain level no matter how hard they try or how smart they are. I’ve also seen my share of executives—perhaps not quite as brilliant—rise and succeed to levels beyond their own and others’ expectations. The executives who lost out are frustrated; they can’t see why their talent goes unrecognized. What they can’t see is that they are missing something vital to their success.

Why Not Me?

Let’s look at the case of a client who had an opportunity for promotion in his organization a few years ago. He was an IT professional and had led one of the project groups at a large technology company for several years. The internal CIO position had opened up, and he felt he was a shoo-in for the job. He had a great reputation for getting complex projects done and he could rattle off important facts about every IT project in the company at the drop of a hat. He talked confidently with me about how I could help him once he was in the new job.

The next thing I heard, the guy was on the phone, bitterly disappointed. Someone else had gotten the promotion. The thing that hurt my client the most was that the new CIO was not as technically savvy. I could hear his anguish as he said, “I am excellent at what I do. I understand what is going on in IT at this company better than anybody. But some guy who is just a suit got the promotion. How could my company do such a thing?”

My IT client had the technical sphere nailed down, but he had missed the possibility that there could be a nontechnical side to qualifying for the job. The company wanted a CIO who had excellent relationships with the heads of the businesses and who could talk their language. The person they put in the job filled that bill. Technology partners were important to the company’s business strategy. The new CIO had a large external network. He knew all the right people and they knew him.

There is actually a technical, social, and political component to just about every business situation. It doesn’t matter if you are applying for a job or are implementing a strategy for a multibillion-dollar company: at every level of business, the technical, social, and political components are key parts of doing your job well. People who realize this and work effectively within all these spheres are highly successful. People who remain blind to them are often baffled when others who are less technically qualified move ahead of them—and they are left wondering why.

This was the case with my IT client. We began to work on his emotional intelligence using the spheres as a simple tool to expand his professional reach. Eighteen months later the CIO moved to another company and my client got the job.

Move Beyond Your Comfort Zone and Like It: You Are Good at This!

As we develop professionally and seek to advance our careers, we tend to rely on the areas in which we feel most comfortable. The way we lead—and the way others see us as leaders—reflects the areas where we feel strongest. These are where we are the most knowledgeable, the most confident, and where we think we look best in front of others.

Our areas of greatest strength tend to fall into one of three spheres: technical, social, or political. When someone else gets a promotion and you think you should have gotten it because you’re perfect for the job, there is usually no mystery. It’s most likely that the person who was promoted is strong in a different sphere than you are, and that is what is making the difference.

Here’s how the spheres play out:

People with a strong functional talent and background may feel more comfortable trying to influence others by making a technical argument. This is where they feel most competent and confident. We tend to promote them into leadership positions because they are highly skilled, knowledgeable, and experienced—they have mastered the technical sphere, and the people they lead respect this. You can think of the technical sphere as WHAT YOU KNOW.

People in the technical sphere have strong subject matter expertise. They are great problem solvers. They know how to manage and get things done. They have a natural strength in managing tasks and projects end to end.

Some people are outstanding in the social sphere. They are excellent at bringing people together, building formal and informal networks, and relying on their relationships to influence and lead. They have technical expertise, but they are most recognized for using their social skills to make connections and secure resources outside their formal area of control. The social sphere is WHO YOU KNOW.

Leaders with strength in the social sphere exercise this ability beyond the basic building blocks of courtesy and respect. They are adept at developing and cultivating their influence in informal networks built on valuing relationships, at being available as a resource, and at collaborating and communicating.

Not everyone starts out with a facility for connecting with others outside their immediate circle. One way to get started is to offer your technical expertise to others. You can lead a special task force or join one. You can share a best practice or a solution you discovered with interested parties outside your circle.

When you’re a leader, the job becomes less about doing things yourself and more about getting things done through others. Knowing how to tap into resources you need—but don’t own—brings you the benefit of the social sphere. Becoming a well-known resource yourself is a stepping-stone to the next sphere.

People who are good at balancing the different realities in the company will excel at influencing others by supporting their positions and skillfully introducing alternatives. They are known by high-profile people in their company or in their larger network and are well regarded by others because of it. These people use their political savvy to drive agendas and bring others around. They are operating effectively in the political sphere, which is WHO KNOWS YOU.

The IT client I mentioned earlier operated almost entirely in the technical sphere. His problem was that his strength didn’t extend into the other two spheres, and that was starting to impact his career. As he went further up the career ladder, he was required to influence peers in Marketing, Sales, and Finance. This required an ability to put what he knew into the context of those functions. This is often referred to as socializing an idea. My client wasn’t practiced at this and unaware that he was missing a critical skill.

He is not the only one with this dilemma. The biggest blind spot many rising executives have is recognizing that their careers are about more than what they know.

If you reflect on your career over time, the technical sphere tends to be the primary area early in our working lives. It is where we establish credibility in our organization and begin to develop a reputation. If we mature beyond a primary reliance on the technical sphere, our reputations will eventually translate into a professional network and broader influence, and, eventually, competency in all three spheres.

When I talk to groups about the political sphere, I ask “Is ‘political’ a bad word?” Some will say “yes,” and, clearly, a reliance on position or connections to give you authority might make you feared in the company, but it will never earn you respect and collegiality. On the other hand, someone who can connect all the dots and understand the company, the customers, the competition, and how to put things together and make things happen is a priceless resource and a huge help to others.

The political sphere is the center of gravity of the senior leader—the executive leader of other executives. Leaders who are strong in the political sphere have a stature and a presence that inspires others. They have an ability to understand nuance and overcome objections. They know instinctively how to position themselves and their ideas. They understand timing, that is, they know the best time to float an idea or bring a situation to the table. They see how to work in and around the system to get things accomplished. They manage upward beautifully and put everything they talk about in a wider context. Frequently, these are the hallmarks of leaders at the apex of their careers.

Each of us gravitates naturally toward one or two of the spheres, but to lead change and transform a business you have to be adept at operating in all three.

The technical sphere is where you have professional expertise. We spoke earlier about this sphere’s importance early on in a career. It remains important when you reach a senior leadership position. People respect you for what you know and for “getting the job done.” They need to feel confident that the person in charge knows the business and understands what’s going on. Remember that this sphere is about what you know. To develop strength in this sphere, ask yourself the following questions:

• Have I laid out clear direction?

• Can I speak simply and informatively about the business and our challenges and opportunities?

• Can I answer the tough questions about our competition?

Getting other perspectives can help supply you with useful answers. Once you have this feedback, you can assess gaps and develop a plan for communicating decisions and actions you plan to take. As you improve transparency and visibility in the business over the course of several months, you will enhance your reputation and begin to show technical strength.

One client I worked with was promoted to president of a product division he knew very little about. He had outstanding business acumen and an amazing track record everywhere he went, but he was uncomfortable with his knowledge about the product line. He resolved to learn as much as possible in his first ninety days. I suggested that he ask around about product experts in his organization and tap several of them as tutors. He met with different experts on a regular basis for early morning coffee and learning sessions. These chats brought him up the curve a lot more quickly than just reading hundreds of decks, product descriptions, and reports would have.

The social sphere concerns your professional network and the influence you have. Bear in mind that “socializing” and “networking” are two very different activities (people who are not good at networking sometimes make this error). When you’re good at networking, you can have a series of short, effective, business-focused conversations with any group of people. You become known for marshaling resources and getting others on board. Nurturing your network is important to you and enables you to enlist others when you need them. Remember that this sphere is about both what you know and who you know. To develop strength in this sphere, ask yourself the following questions:

• Who am I connected to?

• What are the strengths of my conversations?

• Am I having the right sort of conversations at the right time?

Making a simple chart may help you conceptualize this. Place yourself in the middle of a page. Put your boss (if you’re the CEO, the board of directors is your boss) just above you and your team just below you. On the right, list all of your industry peers and partners, whether you know them well or not. On the left, list all the channels, departments, functions, and geographies in your company. What sort of relationships do you have with the leaders of these organizations and the key players on their teams? Below, list the community leaders who are influencers. Building your network means being able to have meaningful conversations with people in all of these categories. A good way to build your network is to talk with peers from other businesses and executives in the accounts you do business with. Ask them about the challenges they are facing and the opportunities they see. Offer your perspective. If you help someone else, she will view you as both a resource and as someone she would like to help in the future. This builds your network and increases your ability to reach resources outside your formal span of control.

As you get good at this, people in your network will call on you for help and you won’t necessarily do the work yourself—you’ll refer the person to someone else you know who can help him. Your knowledge of the corporate network and its various capabilities will become very valuable to others, meaning that you are now showing strength in the social sphere.

The political sphere refers to your professional standing and the power you have validated by who knows you. Getting a seat at the table allows you to influence game-changing policies and introduce alternative ideas. This is what you know, who you know, and who knows you. Think about this sphere in terms of the following questions:

• Do you make others look good?

• Are you furthering other agendas?

• What boards or external community groups are you a member of? These can include not-for-profit, artistic, or health-care institutions.

Referring to the chart you made to help you visualize building social strength, consider the names you placed above yours. This includes the company’s leadership up to both the CEO and the board. What other top-level stakeholders are there in your organization? Do you have a parent company or venture capital investors? Are there shareholder groups or NGOs interested in your company’s strategies and policies? Include all of these. Below your team, write in all the groups between you and the front line.

Because you have already plotted your peers and all the functions and geographies, you now have a diagram of exactly where you fit in the company. How are your words and actions furthering the agenda upward, downward, and on either side? How are you personally showing leadership in the eyes of all these groups? How are you a resource for others? How are you a champion for them? Answering these questions as you look at all the places you touch will help identify where you need to extend your professional reach.

Building strength in all three spheres will not only extend your professional reach, it also extends your leadership reach. It is challenging for a leader to touch everyone. When you are operating in all three spheres, your credibility, network, and influence can reach a large and diverse audience.

Figure 8–1: Spheres

Many of us are unaware of the spheres—we simply play to our strengths in every situation we encounter. But relying too heavily on one sphere has its dangers.

When you rely mostly on your technical competencies, you risk missing the political realities in your organization and you also leave necessary social networks undeveloped. People may view you as a content expert, but one who is not able to work the system. If people in your organization think of you as only a technical expert, they’ll call on you to solve problems and love you for what you know, but it won’t occur to them that you can do more. In a sense, you haven’t shown them that you can. People simply won’t think of you outside your area of public expertise.

You will also miss some of the vital messages percolating in your organization. Networks do something vital—they tell you more than official channels. They give you a context for why decisions have been made, for why some things work in the company and others don’t, and for what is going on in the lives of the other people who make up your organization. E-mail and formal meetings don’t give you the same background information that the informal network will.

When you put too much emphasis on cultivating social networks, people may see you as a “pleaser” who won’t risk relationships over difficult decisions. No company is perfect, and there are instances of people who work their networks so effectively that they do get ahead—up to a point. The thing about most large companies is that, with each promotion, you become exponentially more visible, and if you don’t have the expertise necessary for your job, people will notice.

In a senior role, you have to be able to make tough decisions or you will lose credibility with the CEO and other senior leaders. You also have to base your actions on a deep understanding of what the company does in the technical sense, or you will lose credibility with your team and with the workforce. Either way, your network will only carry you so far. You have to be a top performer and good at networking. Without the performance, people in your network will begin to feel that they are “carrying” you, and in today’s environment that situation never lasts long.

Finally, when you put too much emphasis on posturing, position, and power, people see you as a “suit” and they discount your ability.

Figure 8–2: Perception of Others When One Sphere Is Overly Relied Upon

Facility in the social and political spheres requires an ability to read situations, understand what motivates people, and communicate at a very high level. This is where message discipline and emotional intelligence come together in the complete package to extend your reach effectively.

Let’s move on to emotional intelligence and how it extends your reach as a leader.

A Practical Guide to Emotional Intelligence

A few years back, we got a call from an HR director at a large consumer products company. She wanted to talk to us about an executive named George. At the start of his career, George had been one of the company’s best salespeople. He outperformed everyone on his team and consistently made quota in every metric.

George went on to run a sales team and again was in the top 10 percent of his peers year after year. The team did exactly what George told them to do, and because he knew each sales rep’s territory as well as the rep did, it was hard to argue with George’s direction. The company promoted George to head of the Sales Department for its U.S. Northeast region.

It was a train wreck.

As soon as my partner and I talked to George and the members of his Northeast leadership team, the problem jumped out at us. George had taken over from a very popular leader named Paula, who seemed to have a magic touch with people. Everyone contrasted Paula’s approachable, conversational style with George’s formal, by-the-book manner. It was obvious that team members would go through a wall for Paula. They performed in spite of George, not because of him. We heard nothing but complaints about George: he was cold, he behaved as if no one could do anything right, he obsessed over plans and analysis. He couldn’t simply talk with his people. Just about everything he said seemed wrong.

George knew he wasn’t connecting with his people, but he didn’t know why. He had always gotten ahead by using his analytical mind. He decided to try what had worked for him in the past—he called a meeting with the whole team and laid out his goals and objectives for the region, how he planned to achieve them, and what he needed from them. The team acted insulted, as if they’d been dragged to a remedial performance class. George knew his strategy didn’t go as planned, but once again, he couldn’t figure out what went wrong.

We asked George what he knew about emotional intelligence. We got an extraordinary answer. “I’m not going to spend my time talking about a lot of touchy-feely, personal stuff,” George said, with the first real passion we’d seen. “And I’m not dragging my personal life into my job either. If that’s what it takes, maybe I’m not cut out for this.”

George’s assumption about emotional intelligence—that it’s all about “soft, sensitive, private stuff”—is very common. We’ve met it before.

When you look at emotional intelligence as tapping into people and how they work, you find that it’s got nothing to do with laying out your private life for all to see. Instead, think of yourself as a human engineer—someone with an essential business skill that drives performance. In the same way George needed to know what made his customers tick, he needed to know what would move his people.

There are several phrases we hear that describe people with emotional intelligence: “He’s got a good gut”; “She can read the tea leaves”; “He can read between the lines.” Here’s a simple one we heard in one of our workshops: “It’s how you read the gauges and push the buttons.” You have to understand where people are coming from—that’s reading the gauges. Pushing the buttons is knowing what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. Does it sound hard to do? For some, it comes naturally; for others, it takes practice. One piece of advice that may help: trust your gut. Don’t talk yourself out of what feels right—yes, what feels right.

Reading the gauges is the first step. Think of how many times you’ve heard someone say, “I just don’t get this guy—I can’t read him.” If your team is a closed book to you, perhaps you are a closed book to them.

Read Your Own Gauges

Start by getting in touch with your emotional triggers. What sets you off? How can you use your emotional triggers instead of being used by them? What triggers you is one of your own personal gauges. It’s important to become aware of your triggers because they tend to stop the forward action. Here’s an example:

Renee was a senior executive who liked to brainstorm with her team before her presentations to her board. Her personal style was that of a storyteller—she presented facts with rich detail that contributed to the whole picture. After meeting with her team, she would send them off to prepare slides for her presentation. When the PowerPoint deck came back, she inevitably found that her team had cut out all the story and reduced her natural style to a series of bullet points.

Each time this happened, Renee would become angry and upset—it triggered her to see her holistic approach summarized in a few bullet points. She called me to complain that her team never seemed to understand what she wanted.

I talked to her team and found that they always left the brainstorming sessions unclear about what Renee wanted, so they culled her presentation down to its bare essence. When they brought it back to Renee, they were always surprised that she was angry and upset that the presentation wasn’t the way she wanted it. This was a classic Chocolate Conversation.

In order to move the process forward—and to create a way for Renee and her team to communicate about the spirit of her presentations—I worked with Renee to uncover her trigger.

What she realized was that she felt personally diminished every time her team took what she considered to be her thorough synopsis of the business and reduced it to a few bullet points, as if she could be reduced to a few bullet points. She wanted the board to see her as a smart businessperson, capable of relating a context as well as the key points she needed to get across. Once she realized what triggered her, she was able to be clear with her team about what she wanted to convey and how she wanted it illustrated in her decks. She worked with them to create an outline and a slide-by-slide flow that would both tell her story and capture the key points. The team was relieved to finally have a handle on how to collaborate productively with her and deliver what she wanted.

Renee was mature enough to look at her own trigger as her gauge. Because she was willing to have the conversation with her people and work differently with them, she and her team were able move the work forward together.

How People See YOU

Another gauge is how people see you. For example:

One VP in an organization we were working with was a terrible project manager who blamed his people whenever something went wrong. He often referred to them as “clueless.” And, he had no idea how his people felt about working for him. Among themselves they called him “Mr. Wonderful,” which was a sarcastic code for “Mr. Disaster.”

At a performance review with his boss, this executive was asked about the poor relationship between him and his team. “What are you talking about?” he asked. He was amazed at that statement. He responded, “They love me! I’ve heard that they even call me Mr. Wonderful!” With that, his boss realized how out of touch this executive was. That was the final straw that led to his termination.

You can’t afford to be clueless, but you don’t need to be a mind reader, either—you just need to pay attention. Here are a few things to bear in mind:

Nobody likes “perfect” people. What is worse, no one trusts perfect people. Someone who works at doing everything perfectly and not showing any chinks in his armor comes off as fake. It turns people off. We are all flawed—it’s part of being human.

People are strongly attracted to someone who is unassuming and authentic. The paradox is that authenticity creates greater regard. It makes you real. It forges a connection with people. They feel comfortable around leaders who show their muddy shoes—and they’ll be a lot more likely to come to you with theirs.

Don’t rush to fix things. There’s a big difference between being a strong leader and a “super-doer.” Resist the urge to take over work you think you could do better. You’re there to guide others—not to do their work for them. Your job is to set clear goals and objectives, clear the clutter, and manage toward desirable outcomes.

Take other views on board. Don’t be closed to what your team has to say. Even when you have a very clear idea of what you want, talk with your team, not at them. You may be surprised by what they contribute. If you are closed to your team’s input and don’t actively enlist their collaboration, you may miss an opportunity. They may also take a page out of your book and work the same way—closed off and as if it’s “every man for himself.”

Seek out feedback. Let other people tell you from time to time how they feel about working for you. This will give you a reading for how you come across. You don’t have to do this all the time—pick the occasions that make sense. When you seek this feedback, truly listen. Don’t become defensive or push your own opinion.

Read Your People’s Gauges

We worked with a CEO who had been the CFO before he took over his company. To say he was a numbers guy is the understatement of the year. He sounded like a math teacher every time he pulled his senior team together—he cited facts and figures, and completely turned everyone off. His slides looked like he put everything on his laptop into an Excel spreadsheet, and no one could make heads or tails of them.

This CEO succeeded in his career up to this point by always having the number. He found it hard to let go of what he was comfortable with, even though it did nothing to move the performance of his team. The CEO did not make it. The board recognized his financial talent, but saw that he lacked the ability to convey a bigger picture and take his company forward. The greater misfortune was that this CEO left the company perplexed and unable to concede that he had caused his own demise.

The flip side of this coin is a team we worked with that liked competing for stretch assignments. There was good-natured “one-upsmanship” on the team. The leader of this team knew what they were like, and she played on their competitive nature to step up performance. It worked because she could read her people. This approach would not produce the same result with every team. This team leader, unlike the fired CEO, knew that it’s all about reading the gauges. Here are a few things to look for:

Different strokes for different folks. Your team is not you. What turns you on and off may not be what turns your people on and off. You may be the type of person who likes to know what’s expected and when it’s needed. Once you’re clear on the expectation, you’ll figure out what you need to do and how to do it. Someone else may want more detail and more face time. Others like to work independently but also like being in contact with the person they work for. They enjoy the relationship, but don’t need a lot of oversight.

We use a tool called “Touch/Task” in our work that helps leaders get a sense of how to balance the relationship with an individual with the work you need the person to do. Reading the “how I like to interact with you” gauge is critical to making the tool work. Individuals on the team do a card sort where they stack rank in order of importance to what matters most to them in both touch and task. Touch referring to relationship and connection and task being about the work. Once leaders figure out the right balance between connecting with individuals and managing the work, they have far more effective interactions with their teams. The touch task tool comes in four varities as seen in Figure 8-3.

Figure 8–3: Touch/Task Tool

Give them what they need to succeed. No matter what industry you’re in, your team needs resources to do their job. They need tools and methods, the right level of guidance from you, and the time to do their work. In the real world, people always have to work around something that’s missing—insufficient information, time, or money, for example.

Good teams can handle pressure up to a point, but keep your eye on the “I’m being asked to do too much and we have too little to work with” gauge. When the needle on this gauge moves into the red, people will start to snap at one another, complain that not everyone is pulling their weight, and perhaps complain about you as well.

Read between the lines. Any experienced Wall Street hand will tell you that numbers are only part of the story. Read between the lines when you evaluate the performance of your people. How do they sound when you talk to them? What body language do they use? If you need to add another project this week or up the ante, will they slide up a notch and keep humming while they get the job done, or will they burst with the added strain? You need personal contact with your people to get a sense of whether this gauge is in the red.

Reading the gauges is vital, but it is only half the story. Armed with information, you need to push the right buttons—take your readings and change how your team sees you, works with you, and delivers the performance you need.

Push the Buttons

If your company or business could run smoothly and profitably every day of the week, you’d have a lot less to worry about. You’re a leader precisely because business is complex, with many moving parts. There are multiple options and different levels of risk, depending on the course you take. Your team needs direction from you.

Everyone needs to pull together toward the goal. When you push the right buttons, you get everyone lined up behind you. This is at the core of what it means to be a leader. You deal with the conflicts, make direction clear, get commitment, and keep people focused on what’s important.

The conflict: cool-it-down button. When people start to raise their voices, situations spiral rapidly out of control. This can happen in moments, face to face, or it can build in a slow burn over days in e-mails. The more people lock horns, the less the conflict is about the work.

Press the “cool-down” button by reframing the conversation. Take it out of the personal and back to the basic business problem. What unsatisfied need got this whole thing started? Be impartial, rational, and business focused. When tempers flare, be ready to press this button quickly.

The conflict: heat-it-up button. Is there ever a time to press the “heat-it-up” button? Absolutely. Posing a conflict can spark creativity, innovation, healthy competition, and performance. When your team seems to be lukewarm, you want to generate some heat. Be sure that you are reading your people’s gauges when you press this button. Otherwise, your attempt may backfire and you’ll need to cool it down again.

The simple button. If your people are locked up, overwhelmed, or don’t know what to do next, press the “simple” button. Give them the three things they need to focus on. Keep the language simple and the message clear. Stop and check that everyone understands. Paint a picture for them and illustrate how they fit into that picture. People need to know what success looks like—show them. Give them a context in plain words. Make it simple so it sticks.

The commitment button. Walk the talk. Behave the way you want your team to behave. Work the way you want them to work. Treat customers the way you want your team to treat customers. Let others see you’re totally in it with them.

Be authentic about this: people can smell an impostor. Appreciate others in public for their committment. Use this button sparingly and for what’s really important—if you go to the well on everything, your people will register high on the “commitment fatigue” gauge.

The motivate button. Everybody has a “motivate” button, but it’s not the same for each person. Some are motivated by money—show them how they can earn more dollars and they’ll take it up a notch. Others are motivated by acknowledgment—praise their work or accomplishments and they’ll go to the wall for you. Some want to know how they can advance in their careers—knowing you are helping them achieve their career goals motivates them. It is important to have a handle on what matters to each person on your team. It will serve you as a leader and positively impact the performance of the team.

The step-out-of-character button. Many of us have a style that we are comfortable with and others are accustomed to. There are times when changing it up can be useful. Pushing the out-of-character button can change perspective, getting a different reaction and often a better result.

As a leader, you have to know what buttons to push, when to push them, and how to push them. One of our executive clients used this approach in meetings with his senior team. This guy had served a stretch in the military before launching his corporate career. He spoke his mind and had a clear voice that carried. When his meetings got off track, he would lower his voice and speak in a calm, low-key manner. Once the team picked up on the change in style, the room would suddenly get quiet—you could hear a pin drop.

He knew what they expected—he had read their gauges—and he knew what buttons to press to play it differently. By speaking in a different tone and volume, he stopped endless debate and got everyone focused. He was pressing both the cool-it-down and the step-out-of-character buttons. It took only a moment, and it was effective.

If you’re a quiet, even-keeled leader, raising your voice and acting with a bit more fire would have the same effect. The key is knowing yourself, knowing your people, and pushing the right buttons.

Emotional intelligence plays a key role in our effectiveness as leaders, our influence on others, and our ability to get high performance from our teams. We work with leaders who do it well. For them, there is nothing artificial—it’s a natural part of their leadership. It’s not about being soft, it’s about being practical and getting the job done.

For all who have struggled with this concept, remember, this is not exclusive to one type of person. You don’t have to be an extrovert or love being around people to have emotional intelligence. There are leaders who have it who are more private and introverted.

Observe people you know who have high emotional intelligence. Watch how they read gauges and push buttons. Then take what you think would work for you and try it. Keep practicing. Tap into people on your team who have it. Where appropriate, ask if you’re reading the gauge correctly. Remember, you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to pay attention and be willing to keep at it.