“We’re going to fire ourselves in this meeting, and we’re going to explain to each other why. In detail. I’ll go first,” I said.
Then I sat silently for a moment and looked around the room at my team, studying the expressions on their faces, which ranged from puzzlement to confusion. I had recently read an article about Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, and his habit of going through this exercise once a year or so. It had resulted in Intel exiting the highly-commoditized RAM chip business to focus on the core processor business. A bold decision at the time, yes, but now we all routinely offer up the “Intel Inside” analogy to explain business strategies that have little to do with silicon or even manufacturing.
I had prepared carefully — and proceeded to explain, slowly and deliberately, all the reasons why I should be fired. Any executive who is honest with him or herself already knows this narrative, but would never dream of saying it out loud. Some live in fear that others will discover this secret list. I swallowed hard and expounded to my team upon exactly which initiatives I had failed to achieve, metrics I hadn’t hit, vision and strategy I had failed to crystallize. I pulled no punches about why I should be replaced by a more enlightened, competent executive.
Like a child who has just been scolded but is visibly relieved at having discovered his boundaries, I took a deep breath and sat back.
“Who wants to go next?”
One of the more charismatic leaders on my team grabbed the baton and offered up his self-immolation. The rest took their turns, one by one. By the end of the meeting, we had discovered something about ourselves – and we had formed a bond. We recognized that we had been too timid. We had failed to take actions and make decisions that we all quietly knew were critical, if difficult. We had spent too much time sitting in meetings, managing the routine of business — and too little time actually managing the business. We had bitten our tongues too often, in order to conform to the political environment.
And what had been our reward? A strategy that could reasonably be described as “striving for less mediocrity through incremental improvement.” Unfortunately, this is the unspoken strategy of far too many organizations, dressed up in common platitudes of “taking it to the next level” and “raising our game.” This timidity is the origin of the corporate-eze and double speak with which we are all so familiar. We listen to our leaders give “all hands” updates and inspirational speeches riddled with clichés. All because leaders are afraid to be bold, to say what we mean, and to be what our people truly hunger for – someone thoughtful, dynamic and curious, but human and imperfect.
The good news is, by the end of the meeting we had all agreed to re-hire ourselves, provided we promised to address the shortcomings we had just laid bare. As a result, within weeks, we produced a new strategy and vision that our teams found exciting, unconventional, and (mildly) audacious. Our new approach had not just business value, but social value – something that would produce incrementally better results for our society and our customers: the moms, dads, uncles, aunts, and cousins that live down the street. We forged agreement on the most important priorities to pursue and the resource allocations necessary to achieve them. We had a sense of purpose, every player knew exactly how he or she fit in, and every player cared about the mission. It was a palpable transformation.
In order to bring this about however, I had had to make myself vulnerable – the exact opposite of the strong, confident, unwavering leader we often idolize. Rather than George Washington crossing the Delaware, I was a humble congregant confessing my sins. But I’ve learned that effective, modern leaders hone their craft by creating an environment in which their people excel and improve themselves, becoming better managers and leaders themselves. They encourage them to develop their skills, to raise their profile in their industry, and to become more valuable in the process.
And most importantly? They never hold them back.
This process creates a parallel vulnerability similar to that associated with the “firing yourself” exercise. What if your people get so good they decide to leave? A valid concern, but one that is addressed by the virtuous circle you’ve just created. By instilling meaning, by giving your people wings, by humbling yourself, you’ve created just the type of environment they will find desirable. Those that you lead will also appreciate what you’ve done for them — and more often than not, reward you handsomely for doing so by delivering enviable business results.
Only in this manner will you achieve the goal that eludes the old-school leader: your business will truly become less mediocre, and might just become great.