Guest

11

“You've got to be improving. You've got to be learning. The day you stop thinking you need to learn or adapt, I think a lot goes out of life if you get to that point. And probably a lot as a leader goes away if you get to that point."

In this episode

In episode #11, Michael Watkins discusses some of the strategies that new leaders can adopt to be successful in their roles and climb up the learning curve.

We also talked about the self-doubt phase, and why almost 90% of leaders deal with the urge to prove themselves when they start a new job — something that Michael calls the “action imperative”.

Michael Watkins is the co-founder of Genesis Advisers, a global leadership development consultancy based in Boston Massachusetts, specializing in transition acceleration for leaders, teams and organizations, where he coaches C-level executives of global organizations. He is also Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at the IMD Business School and was recently ranked among the top fifty management thinkers globally by Thinkers50. He has spent the last two decades working with executives – both corporate and public – as they craft their legacies as leaders.

Watkins is author of the international bestseller The First 90 Days, Updated and Expanded: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, which The Economist referred to as “The Onboarding Bible.” With over a million copies sold in English and translations in 24 languages, The First 90 Days is the classic reference for leaders in transition and a standard resource for leading change. Amazon named it one of its top 100 business books of all time.

Tune in to hear all about Michael’s leadership philosophy!

. . .

Like this episode? Be sure to leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ review and share the podcast with your colleagues.


3:09

How did Michael become so interested in transitions?

5:44

How has Michael’s advice about transitions changed over the years?

7:54

Onboarding remote employees and the importance of learning plans.

9:42

The difference between onboarding a remote leader nowadays and the way it used to work before.

13:16

Why managing by strengths can be a disaster.

16:38

Should you create a vision for your organization?

21:01

Overcoming the self-doubt phase / imposter syndrome.

24:00

The STARS model: Startups, Turnaround, Realignments, and Sustaining-Success.

26:11

The action imperative: the urge to prove yourself by doing something.

30:16

Building a positive relationship with your new boss.

35:22

What can leaders do to get valuable feedback?

38:45

The challenge of leading former peers.

41:45

Michael’s parting advice for managers and leaders: learn about negotiation, influence, and mediation.


Resources


Episode Transcript

Aydin Mirzaee  2:25  

Michael, welcome to the show.

Michael Watkins  2:27  

Great to be here.

Aydin Mirzaee   2:29  

I’ve been looking forward to this conversation for a while. You are obviously the author of many books. And one of the ones that I think like most people have heard of is The First 90 Days but recently, I think you did a revised edition of another book that you’ve put together called Master Your Next Move. 

And so it’s very interesting. I mean, a lot of this stuff is very focused on transitions in general, and leaders transitioning from one thing to another. How did you become so interested in transitions to begin with?

Michael Watkins  3:09  

Well, so there’s two stories associated with that. And one is the story I used to tell. And the other is the real story. Right? 

And the story I used to tell  is I was teaching a program at Harvard, on leading change, and someone in the class asked me about how do you sort of apply the ideas I was talking about if I’ve just got a brand new job? and I was kind of befuddled by this and that stimulated me to go and start doing all this work. And for a long time, even I thought that was the answer. 

But then I subsequently realized that between the ages of like 3 and 10, I moved every year. And went to a different public school every year. So I went to eight different public schools. My father worked for Ontario hydro, you’re in Canada, and it was construction and so they were building dams and power lines in the north and so every year we moved. And I had to become very good at fitting in and adapting and, going to a new place where I didn’t know anybody and establishing myself, right. 

And it was only sort of years later that I realized that was something I just kind of intuitively learned to do. And was really good at it. And I had some ideas about how to do it based on the experiences I had. So the notion of transition is something I remain very, very interested in, even after many years of studying here. 

Aydin Mirzaee   4:32

I’m curious when did you realize that that might have been the key thing that influenced what you’re working on? 

Michael Watkins  4:41

There was really only about four or five years ago. And it was the result of my wife doing a coaching program and starting to do work on transitions. And we were talking about some of my experience and she kind of just sort of poked at me a little bit and it was kind of like a head snap, of course. So relatively recently.

Aydin Mirzaee   5:03  

Yeah, it’s fascinating how we keep realizing things about ourselves and how we became who we are. Never, never stops. 

One of the things is that you have come up with new editions of the books that you’ve done, you continue to teach and you continue to coach. I’m curious, How you have found that the advice and like what you were kind of teaching leaders in transition has changed over the course of the last 20 or 30 years, since you’ve been focused on this?

Michael Watkins  5:44  

Sure. So I mean, one part of it is just a gradually deepening understanding of this. I continue to work directly with leaders these days, it’s pretty much exclusively CEOs in typically pretty large organizations. I know you speak to a small-medium size enterprise audience and I certainly got things to say about flux at that level. But I continue to learn and every time I learn, I incorporate ideas into the framework. I have a consultant company that basically does work with leaders. And so there’s been an ongoing refresh of all this. 

But I think in terms of bigger trends, and we talked about it at the very beginning, technology and virtual work, and how you transition successfully when you’re working remotely. This was something I was interested in before COVID-19 hit and it’s become so much more important now. And I actually just co-authored an article in the Harvard Business Review about onboarding new leaders remotely, because it’s just a whole different animal of how you connect to people. If you think about the essence of making a successful transition or a new role about learning and connecting, like to me that’s the two key bases that you use. Those are both much, much more if you’re operating in a remote environment. Or even before this, if you had a global team, operating across many geographies, many different time zones. 

So how do you transition successfully in a circumstance like that is certainly one piece of it. The other thing is transitions have become more and more frequent. So, as we look at what happens these days, people are- well until COVID- people were moving increasingly quickly through different roles, which meant they had even less time to get up to speed. And so there was a need to even more compress that transition period. For CEOs, boards are less patient honestly, than they used to be. And then of course, with COVID-19 I feel like everybody is in transition. I mean, it’s 100% transition all the time right now. So it’d be a couple things, I think that have kind of changed over time.

Aydin Mirzaee   7:54  

So just digging into the onboarding leaders remotely part. I know that one of the things that you advocate is just this concept of always having a learning plan. As a leader going into a new organization versus just randomly talking to people and seeing what happens. 

Do you think that the remote aspect actually makes it easier for folks or almost makes it that you have to have a learning plan, because you’re not going to randomly bump into people in the way that you might have previously? 

Michael Watkins  8:33  

So I think that that’s a really interesting observation. I think you hit both sides of it in some sense. First of all, I don’t think people just kind of randomly go around, even before the stuff I did. People have a model in their heads about how to learn about organizations. And it’s developed over time. They’ve taken this job, they’ve taken that job. They learned kind of rules of thumb, techniques that work for them, but they don’t step back in time and say “Is this the most efficient and effective way to get up to speed and roll?”

And that revolves to me around, first of all, being clear about what you need to learn, and being clear about what the best sources of insight are. And then finally seeing if there’s some things you can do to speed up the learning process. And when I talk about a learning plan, that’s the elements: learning goals, sources of insight, approaches to speed the learning process. 

And even people who have done a dozen transitions still can kind of go “wow, I hadn’t thought about it that way”. And it makes so much sense. It’s just a far more efficient way to get up the learning curve quickly.

Aydin Mirzaee   9:42  

What would you say is the thing that would make the most difference? In other words, What is the key difference in just onboarding a remote leader versus the way it used to work?

Michael Watkins  9:57  

I think you hit on some big pieces. Which is, in some ways, it’s easier because you can connect to just about anybody. And it’s more or less a level playing field. In some ways, it’s harder because you’re not just absorbing organically from the contacts, you don’t have the same resources available to you. On the organizational side, what I’m recommending is that organizations are much more structured in how they onboard people. Meaning, I’m much more thoughtful about what information I give you. I’m much more intentional about who I’m connecting you with. And why. 

So if you’re going to do it successfully, remotely, I think in some ways to your point originally, it’s easier. Because you can connect and do stuff. And in some ways, it’s harder, because it’s harder to know exactly what you need to learn. And there’s no ability to kind of do that normal organic “Wait a minute, what about x kind of stuff”, right? 

But in the end to me, the big recommendation I give to companies and leaders is: be a little more structured than you would, even ordinarily. And as a new leader coming in, be more specific about what you think you need, and ask those questions to make sure you’re getting what you need. Those would be the biggest points.

Aydin Mirzaee   11:20  

The other thing I wonder is, because you also talked about it, you just mentioned that everybody’s basically in transition right now. I would agree. One of my favorite things that you kind of talked about in the book as well as in approaching so [let’s say] you’re in a new role in a new situation, you’re obviously starting to meet with a lot of people and you want to have that structured plan. 

But then there’s also a structure to those meetings that you’re having. So you have this list of five questions, and you ask the same five questions from all the different folks that you’re meeting with, I wonder if you think that current times actually necessitates leaders to actually take a step back and say “Hey, I actually need to re-transition myself. And even though I’ve been doing this role for a long time, maybe it’s time that I go do something like that with all my reports one more time.”

Michael Watkins  12:23  

So I think it depends a lot on the magnitude of what’s going on. Anytime you’re going through a major change in responsibilities, focus, team. To me, that’s the transition. Whether you call it one or not formally, whether you’ve got a new job title or not formally, doesn’t matter.

I often talk about hidden transitions. Anytime those things are true. These ideas are valuable, right? Because you step back and you ask yourself questions like, what new relationships do I need to build to be effective? What things do I need to learn about that I don’t understand today but are necessary? And then questions like, how am I going to get early wins in this situation? So I think there’s basic ideas there, that anytime you’re going for a major shift, which virtually everybody has right now, that’s a valuable set of questions to ask.

Aydin Mirzaee   13:16  

That makes sense. And speaking about asking a set of these sorts of questions, one of the topics that has become popular in management in general is to really focus on strengths, your own strengths. But also, strengths of people on your team and to manage by strengths and not necessarily try to eliminate weakness in people individually, but try to put them in positions of strength as much as possible. 

So strength has been like a very sort of positive thing that everybody keeps talking about. And what I really liked about something that you touched on was, you have this quote which is “watching out for your strengths, and your strengths can actually be problematic”. So I’d love for you to just tell the audience why you have to watch out for your strengths? 

Michael Watkins  14:11  

Sure. So something I like to do as a thinker is identify some things that everyone assumes is true, but turn out not necessarily to be absolutely true. And it’s kind of conventional wisdom these days, and there’s been lots written about it. Discover your strengths. Find them, understand and leverage your strengths is kind of the core of what you should be doing to be successful. As opposed to the way we used to talk about it, which was to figure out what your development needs are, focus on your development needs, try to close the gaps around the things you need to close. Well, the answer is yes. You need to do both. 

You take a new role, right? There may be elements of what you’re really good at, that you’re just going to continue to do and leverage but there may also be elements of what you need to do that you’re just not particularly good at or prepared. And so the notion that you can go through life, just leveraging your strengths? I don’t see that happening in general. 

Now, there are exceptions. You work for a private equity firm and you’re an interim CEO going and doing turnarounds. Maybe you’ve got the same playbook and you just keep winning that baby out and you’re good at it, you’re good at making hard calls. But for most of the leaders I work with, they’ve got much broader ranges and things they need to do to be effective. They’ve come up through particular functions, and now they’ve become a general manager or a CEO. If they continue to do what they’re good at, they’re gonna continue to be operating like they were a functional manager and not like a CEO. 

So to me, it’s all about being very clear headed about what you need to be good at to be successful. And I usually tell the people I work with, what are some things that you’re really good at, and you love doing that you need to do less than? What are some things that you’re not so great at? And maybe don’t like doing that you need to do more? So to me, it’s that balance right of those two things. But if you’re not clear about the destination, and you just rely on what you’re good at, we call that the comfort zone trap. We call that what got you here, is not getting you there, if that makes sense.

Aydin Mirzaee   16:23  

Certainly, and thank you for going through that. I think it’s really helpful for people. And I love your approach as a thinker when everybody thinks something is true maybe you should ask: Well, is it ever not true? 

Michael Watkins  16:38  

I’d like to give you another example if you are interested. Should you create a vision for your organization?  I’m sure the folks that you know are running the businesses that are the people who listen to your podcast who want to get better at what they’re doing. They probably mostly have been told you’re not a great leader if you don’t establish a vision for your organization. But that’s a choice. And it’s not sort of written on tablets in someplace that says “Thou shall create a vision for your organization”. There’s times when it makes sense. And there’s times when it doesn’t. But there’s always this assumption that you should and if you don’t, you’re judged. Either by yourself or, potentially by others. 

To me, it’s important to be very clear on where you have to make decisions about whether you do something or not. Building a team. You’re almost always told you should be building a team. You’re a regional sales VP, running a sales organization with everyone operating more or less independently. You don’t need much teamwork. The notion that you need to build the team is not true. You need to manage those people one to one very effectively, you need a high performing group. So to me, what’s interesting is finding things like that where there’s kind of conventional wisdom, but it turns out that it’s more complicated. And leaders have to make decisions instead of just following the rote kind of approach to things.

Aydin Mirzaee   18:09  

That is incredible advice. Beware of conventional wisdom, or at least, understand why it’s there. And it’s certainly true in a lot of cases, but doesn’t mean every case. But I have to dig in, just because I’m curious… The “Should you have a vision?” part- can you outline an example of where it would not make sense to have a broader vision for the company?

Michael Watkins  18:36  

Sure. Well, and sometimes it’s a matter of timing. Also, what I do say is you personally should have a picture of where you’re going. That’s a different thing than building a shared vision for the organization. You inherit something and it’s a disaster, right? And you’ve got a team that half of which you know are not going to survive. You’re going to start doing a shared vision exercise at that point, there’s not a chance. For most of them, it’s the vision of pain and ending. 

What you do is put in place goals and objectives. You get some plans in place, you do this all in analytics, you cut some things. You reshape the team. And then maybe at some point, you start taking that team, once you’ve got them aligned and built down the road of “Do we need a shared vision?” And by the way, that should be a conversation. Do we need it? Is it valuable? Right? The purpose of a vision is to inspire. If you can inspire people, you shouldn’t be trying to create a vision.

Aydin Mirzaee   19:34  

Yeah, I love that. I mean, it sounds like you take all these different pieces. And then you ask, Well, what is the purpose? So if a vision is supposed to inspire people, but if it’s not actually going to do that, then you are wasting your time? I love that. That is very contrarian, and I really think that’s incredible. 

I wanted to also talk about something else. So one of the unique advantage points that you have is that you’re a thinker. You’ve written a lot of books, you’ve taught a lot of classes, but you’ve also coached. I mean, you are basically a coach for executives making major transitions and you’ve done this for a very long time. One of the things that you hint at is just these moments of transition, and you know, moments of change for most humans are mentally tough. And there are times where, basically, it seems like self-doubt is something that happens a lot during these times. So one of the questions I was going to ask you is, how perverse is it? Like how many people go through this self-doubt phase where things are not going? Is it like 10% 80% 90%? 

Michael Watkins  20:56 

90%

Aydin Mirzaee   20:57 

Okay, so that’s, that’s reassuring folks. 

Michael Watkins  21:01  

It’s funny you asked, because I teach a program. It’s now a fully virtual program at the IMD Business School. The First 90 Days program four times a year. And I just did the full for the first fully virtual version last week. And one of the very first questions that came up was How do I deal with imposter syndrome? And it was like, Me too. Me too. Me too. Me too. It kind of lit people up, right? Because I think to some degree you take a challenging new role, of course you’re excited. Of course, at some level you feel like you’re ready. Of course, people who put you there think you’re able to do it. But there’s almost always this little voice that says I’m not really fully ready. Or if they truly knew my capabilities, you know. It’s just incredibly common. I’m not even sure it would be a good thing if you didn’t have some self-doubt some of the time. I’m not sure what that would say about your level of self confidence verging into arrogance. If you think that you’re just utterly able to do this, and there’s not even a moment when you go through a bit of a phase of reflection. 

There’s models of transition that are really about the kind of emotional cycles that you tend to go through. The excitement, but then you hit the frustration. I see almost every leader I work with do that. I’m working right now with a senior leader of a pharmaceutical company, he’s based in Switzerland. The organization is mostly in the US, because of Covid he couldn’t move. He’s gone through real moments of frustration because he can’t engage the way he normally would like to engage. And it’s about energy. It’s about sustaining your energy through these times. And it’s not easy. By the way, I think having people to talk to helps. Whether it’s peers or it’s your partner or some other advisor, but having people that can help you sort of stay in some sense of equilibrium, recognizing that you’re going to go through really difficult moments, almost inevitably. When things are not progressing the way you hoped they will.

Aydin Mirzaee   23:18  

I wonder if you would agree with this, but I think in certain cases say that you are managing a turnaround situation. You could probably go in and very rapidly make some changes, see some results, you’re burning a lot of cash. And then you’re not as much. But in some scenarios, some projects, some activities take a long time, especially if you need to say lead cultural change, or do some of this sort of thing. These are long standing projects, and I feel like self doubt can maybe creep in more when it takes longer to see feedback, coming in at the other end, would you agree with that?

Michael Watkins  24:00  

I think that’s a really good observation. One of the models I built up for The First 90 Days is called the STARS model. Startup, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment, sustaining success. And it’s really about different types of situations you could inherit, and how do you operate differently depending on which one you’re in. 

Of those five. I think turnaround is probably the easiest. Because of exactly what you said right there. There’s a burning platform, people no changes necessary. You can go in and do some diagnostics, trying to figure out what to do. You know what to cut, who to move. But it’s often reasonably clear cut, at least at the beginning. It then gets more complicated as you get deeper into it typically. Whereas if you’re there to accelerate growth in a business, or you’re there to sustain success in a business, or you’re there to change a business that doesn’t know what needs to be changed as much as it does. These are very hard, right? Very hard. And the frustration levels absolutely can be higher in circumstances like that. So I’m agreeing with you, but a little loop around to get to it.

Aydin Mirzaee   25:12  

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And so it sounds like there isn’t a surefire formula to help alleviate a lot of these emotions. It’s just like it’s part of the game. This is how you know that maybe you’re growing as an individual and you’re getting better. If you’re comfortable, I think… did you call it like the comfort zone trap? If you’re in that kind of place, then that’s not good either. So you should have a healthy dose of doubt from time to time.

Michael Watkins  25:42  

I think it is healthy to have that level of anxiety, not crippling anxiety, but that sense that you’ve got to stay on your toes. You’ve got to be improving. You’ve got to be learning. The day you stop thinking you need to learn or adapt I think a lot goes out of life if you get to that point. And probably a lot as a leader goes away, if you get to that point. 

Aydin Mirzaee   26:11  

That makes sense. There’s another topic that I wanted to ask you about, which is the action imperative. I’d love for you to just define that and explain it to the audience. And I wanted to also ask, Do you feel that the action imperative and how much of it you have is based on your personality type?

Michael Watkins  26:35  

Sure. The action imperative is actually very related to what we were just talking about. The action imperative is basically the inner pressure you feel to do something, to take action. It’s the trade off between doing and being. There’s a real pressure to do, or learning and being. 

Let’s use you as an example. We put you in this new role. People have told you “Oh man, you’re gonna be so good at this!” “We really have confidence in you. You’re gonna go man, go.” And you get there and maybe you’re suffering a little bit of that imposter syndrome and you’re feeling “Maybe I need to show them that they made a good decision here”. You’re feeling that internal, and it’s often internal pressure to prove them right. Or sometimes it’s just the anxiety of feeling like you need to take action of some form. 

So you do something, but it’s not quite right. You didn’t dig in deeply enough. You make a bad decision. Whoops. That’s where it begins to become problematic. And so to me, it’s this balance, striking the right balance between the learning and connecting and the making decisions and taking action and deciding when to begin to shift between those modes and not doing it before you’ve got a reasonable foundation for doing that ‘doing’ piece. Does that make sense?

Aydin Mirzaee   27:59  

Yes, it totally makes sense. What I was thinking about was, and maybe some of this comes from what area of responsibility you may have had in your previous role before you take on a broader role that actually encompasses a lot more things, hypothetically. 

I mean, if you were a sales leader and you change some things; there’s usually immediate feedback, you can see the numbers changing. Now, you become responsible for also product management and products take a longer period of time. And I just wonder how much of the action imperative depends on what you’ve experienced previously in life, but then also just personality types in terms of say, if you’re an enneagram three, and you’re ‘the achiever’ type, I feel like those folks would be more productive. 

Michael Watkins  29:02

It’s a great point. There’s no question that personality plays a role, your level of patience plays a role. Right? If you’re very action oriented in terms of your own personality, the notion that you’re going to want to fall into action is kind of natural. And so, sometimes my job as a coach is to tell people like that: slow down. Like just slow down. Maybe the only value I add is: just slow down. You’re trying to move too fast. 

And maybe in that sales organization to pick up your example, you’re a highly dynamic sales leader. You go in and you know what to do, and it is pretty quick that you see sales results, right. But you try to operate the same way with that product development organization. And you’re making bad calls about product features. That’s a large problem.

But I think the personality point is a good one. Personality matters. I use assessment instruments all the time with leaders to try and get at what are some potentially derailing behaviors that might be there. I don’t use the Enneagram. I use something I call Hogan assessment to get at that kind of stuff.

Aydin Mirzaee   30:16  

Cool. That makes sense. I want it to switch gears for a second and ask about something that is talked about  in your work, which is, you say assume that the job of building a positive relationship with your new boss is 100% your responsibility. So this is interesting for me. I like the concept of this for a number of reasons. Regardless of whether you’re a boss or like you’re talking about you being the boss or you being the teammate. 

This concept of Extreme Ownership and taking responsibility for everything no matter what. Is probably like an interesting way to live by, but I feel like now it’s become much more like the modern way to talk about this stuff is that it almost feels like it’s the opposite. We talk a lot about servant leadership, and we talk a lot about leaders changing their styles to match their team styles. I wonder where you kind of strike the balance between this, Whose responsibility is it to adapt to the other person?

Michael Watkins  31:24  

The way I sort of describe it and I think you just framed it beautifully, by the way, I think it’s exactly the trade off, right? And if there has been some shift in this, I agree. 

But the way I sort of think about it is you’re the new person. You’re reporting to this person. If you go in expecting that person to change, to make life easier for you. That’s a pretty dangerous assumption to make. Right? And so to me, this is more about bias yourself in the direction that this is your responsibility to make this work and if they meet you part way, fantastic. That’s fantastic. But don’t assume that’s going to happen.  

So it’s more a question of mindset, of orientation and just saying ‘you as the new direct report, come in with that mindset of thinking you’re the one that needs to make this relationship work.’ And then if you find you’re working for someone who’s a servant leader, and wants to connect with you, and wants to make sure that you’re engaging effectively, wonderful. But don’t count on it happening. And I agree with you. There’s more servant leadership today, but for every servant leadership, every servant leader, there’s someone I work with who is not a servant leader at all. They’re an anti-servant leader. I think it’s more a question of just biasing yourself.

Aydin Mirzaee   32:49  

It totally makes sense. I think the question that comes up for me is at what point should leaders almost stand their ground?  And to say that: no, I actually don’t want to change. I understand that this doesn’t work for you, but I don’t want to change it. So it’s like, how do you determine what when you should change? And when you should not?

Michael Watkins  33:15  

I’m gonna make a joke about this. I’m sure you’re ready to leave the job is the answer. Just before you hand in your termination, your resignation. 

Look, what you’re describing and I think a way to think about this is, this is a relationship that is a kind of negotiation. And there is always a balance of power in a negotiation. If you’re a highly valued, unique employee, doing incredible things, and I don’t want to lose you, I may be as your leader quite prepared to put up with some stuff or adapt myself to you. If you’re the cog in the wheel, and I can get a dozen of you tomorrow, maybe not. 

And so I hate to put it that sort of baldly. But there is something about power that operates here. I think even today, in the midst of our millennial thinking and our servant leadership thinking and so on, you’re well advised to be realistic about where the power lies in these relationships. I think.

Aydin Mirzaee   34:21  

Even if people don’t talk about it, that’s probably the thinking that goes on anyway.

Michael Watkins  34:26  

Well, one other thought I just picked again, you talked a little bit about your audience, right? You know, if you’re a startup CEO, I’m not gonna say this is true to all startup CEOs, but many of those people have pretty high control needs, right? Or they wouldn’t be out there driving to be an entrepreneur and build the business. Take whatever conclusion you’re watching that about how to work with somebody like that. But you’ve just got to be, and again, this gets into being emotionally intelligent and making good assessments politically and otherwise about these situations and adapting yourself accordingly. And I mean, there is a big chunk of The First 90 Days that’s really about alliances and politics. Because we know they operate maybe less than smaller organizations sometimes, but it’s never irrelevant, in my experience. 

Aydin Mirzaee   35:22  

Got it. So speaking of this adapting and so on and so forth, you’re obviously a big advocate for getting feedback and do it often. I’m curious, as a leader, is it challenging to make sure that you’re getting the honest feedback that you’re looking for? 

It seems like the higher up you go in the corporate ladder, it almost becomes harder to get more honest feedback. Wondering if you have any tips or tricks, or like what people can do to really get at the heart of the battle feedback they need.

Michael Watkins  36:01  

So first of all, I totally 100% agree with what you just said, on both counts. It’s hard,in general, for leaders to get good feedback. Although, there’s a movement now around more continuous feedback that I think is helping. Also, the higher you go, the more challenging it can be to not just get feedback, but have anybody to talk to. 

I mean, there’s this whole thing, you know, it’s lonely at the top and it sounds very trite. I work with CEOs, it’s lonely at the top, they don’t have people to talk to each other. They’re lucky if they’ve got a few key advisors, they’ve got no peers, they have to be very direct, very careful with the people that they report to. And so you’ve just got to be cautious with this. Around getting feedback, unfortunately, there is a tendency to not give new people feedback early enough. And it’s almost always partially about ‘we need to give him some time’. ‘He’s finding his feet, you know’ ‘We want to create a positive environment, we don’t want to come across as negative early’. And so people are kind of hands off, even as to use a sailboat metaphor. You’re watching the sailboat kind of head off course towards the rocks. And if you just said “Well, can I adjust course here a little bit right before they get too far off.”  

But there’s this tendency not to do that. And so part of what I force in the coaching work I do is I go in and get that feedback. Or I have an instrument I use sometimes to go get that feedback, and I build it right into what I do. And people will usually be fairly straight with me. In part, that’s reputation and part is because I use aggregates. No one gets the finger, clamping down on them. But it’s one way I add a tremendous amount of value as a coach is making sure that you as a new leader, don’t go too far off course. And then we can talk about corrective action. As a leader, without someone like me, there’s no easy answers. 

I think part of it is just really genuinely trying to get feedback. I think you can do these days your own little surveys, if you want. Set up an anonymous survey. Three, four questions, how am I doing? Get the people reporting to you and the people or your peers to fill it up. Not rocket science. But I’m surprised that people don’t make use of available technology, for example, just to get a little bit of feedback on how you are doing. I use surveys like that all the time.

Aydin Mirzaee   38:43  

That makes sense. And certainly, now there is Glassdoor and all these other forums and I think there’s this product called Blind where people can talk honestly, amongst each other in big companies. And yeah, there’s so many other tools. 

So if you don’t get the feedback, feedback will appear. But maybe in a channel that you weren’t expecting it. So that makes sense. What are your thoughts on just going out of your way to make friends throughout the organization at all levels? Like actually forming beyond just like “Hey, I’m the boss”, actually forming friendly relationships, and not just with your direct reports, but you know, all throughout the organization.

Michael Watkins  39:28  

So fraught with challenges, right? Because first of all, even today, to some degree chain of command matters. And if you’re constantly going in underneath people reporting to you and talking to their people about things that can be problematic. Not saying you shouldn’t do it. It’s wise to have some set of connections. They’re friendly relationships. I think it’s important to be friendly. 

Whether you’re actually making friends is a different question. I mean, I think generally isn’t, in my experience, compatible with meeting people to be too friendly with large swathes. Because you often got to make really hard calls about them, their performance, and their lives. I wrote one of the books you mentioned Master Your Next Move, I wrote a chapter about leading former peers. And I’m thinking of a specific example, where someone had a reasonably close relationship with one of her peers and was also competing with another one of her peers. And then she gets promoted. And she’s got problems with both those relationships. The competitor is annoyed that he didn’t get the job. He’s quite good at what he does. How do you keep him if you want to, which she did? Here’s this friendship, and all of a sudden I’m giving you performance reviews. Am I still able to be your friend and in a way can we actually separate that? It’s hard. 

But I think that’s what you’re saying though, is being connected in the organization, being perceived, at least to be accessible. Those are indispensable things for any leader. Whether that verges then into… I’ll give you another example. I’m working with a CEO right now. And one of the biggest challenges she faces is that the board members have really good relationships with a number of the people who report to her. And don’t think anything of calling them up or giving them advice or getting information. It’s very challenging to operate in an environment like that. So I’m not gonna give a straight answer, but there’s trade offs. It also depends a lot on culture, which is a whole other subject.

Aydin Mirzaee   41:44  

Yeah. I feel like most worthy challenges are never clear cut. They’re always trade offs. So we’re getting tight on time. I did want to say that this has been incredible. So many nuggets of wisdom and what we’ve done talks about. 

but I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you, for all those managers and leaders out there that are looking to continuously grow and improve in their craft of management and leadership. Are there any tips or resources or words of wisdom that you would want to leave them with?

Michael Watkins  42:21  

Originally before I was a leadership person, I was a negotiation person and an influence person. And I think there are tremendous resources out there about negotiation, influence, mediation. Skill sets that every leader would be wise to dig into. Crucial Conversations is a book I think is a really good book. There’s a book called Mediation for Managers, I think it’s a really good book. 

There’s some excellent coaching skill books, but that’s at a process skills. Gold. And negotiation. There’s a book by a former colleague of mine, Michael Wheeler called The Art of Negotiation, gold. So focusing on that core set of influencing, negotiation, conflict management, crucial conversations. You’ll never regret it.

Aydin Mirzaee   43:14  

Yeah, probably paid dividends for the rest of your career. 

Michael, this has been incredible. Thank you so much for joining us, and we really appreciate it. 

Michael Watkins  43:25  

Thanks for having me. I really enjoyed it.

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