The habit some execs think makes them powerful that will eventually destroy them

12 March 2016

Businesswoman ignoring colleague

When you’re making a name for yourself in the workplace, the one factor that is always a limiting factor is just how little time you have. There’s lots of training on how to manage your time and focus on the things that are really important. Do the big things first. Prioritise what matters. Keep meetings short. Avoid interruptions.

These are great principles in many instances. But there’s a hidden dynamic that people don’t often talk about, and that’s related to status. 

In other words, the higher up the hierarchy I am, the more important my time is compared to yours.

For the best people, it’s merely a matter of practicality. We need to work harder to find mutually convenient slots and there may be some matters that have been delegated to other people, simply because one person can’t deal with every single thing.

For others, however, it’s a matter of respect. You’ve met people who don’t have that respect, you see them all over the place.

Whatever our job titles, we have one life each, with as many hours as luck will grant us

You see it at the meeting with the senior boss who’s always late to arrive, and early to leave.

And the networking jerk you meet at the event who, while they’re talking to you have a desperate, trapped expression, their eyes are darting around the room looking for someone more important they should be speaking to.

And the person who constantly cancels your meetings with them at short notice, regardless of the impact that cancellation may have on you. Of course, unforeseen circumstances can arise in life. But when some important people manage to keep their commitments and some habitually don’t, then it’s likely not just circumstance that’s at work. It’s attitude.

This isn’t as cut and dried as it sounds. In this modern age, we know all about the psychology of social proof. We know that confident, assertive behaviour helps you to be successful. And if you’re trying to sell sustainability within your organisation, we want you to be successful! Powerful people want to do business with people of equal status. You want to avoid doing things that lower your status in their eyes.

And it’s true that sometimes, in order to be effective, there are people who need to be avoided. Certain people who, whether they are perfectly good people in their own right, have agendas that are so far removed from the reality of what you have to deal with that giving them time is a pure distraction from what you need to do.

But the danger is that you end up giving people a lack of respect purely because of your situational relationship to them. I’ve had people who were rude to me when they were flying high in their companies suddenly become interested in being best friends when they had left and started up on their own.

The message they sent out was that they were only interested in people when they thought they could do something for them.

Well, I’m not going to repay rudeness with rudeness. But I go out of my way to help my genuine friends.

The smart networkers always say that you should build your network before you need it, and build it by helping people without expectation of return. And especially if you’re a progressive values-driven business exec. You do have a choice of which success model you choose to follow. The most impressive leaders I’ve known were ones who, whilst having achieved all the status that goes with the top job, took steps to make themselves helpful and modest. 

There’s a reason why former president Bill Clinton was held in such high regard as a networker and charismatic figure (whatever your position is vis a vis the polarised world that is US politics). He was famous for being genuinely interested in people. Indeed, it was said that when he spoke to you, he made you feel like you were the most important person in the world at that precise moment. 

All of us get it wrong sometimes. I put my hands up, I can think of instances where, because I was too stressed, or too focused, or just really not paying attention, I didn’t give someone the respect they deserved.

But there’s a difference between a lapse and a habit.

You don’t even have to have an altruistic mindset for this to make sense. Let’s think beyond the sale. So your assertive and highly-focused behaviours have gotten you at last to the top slot you always craved, whether that’s the head of department, or the very top guy slot. 

Big charismatic figures who don’t listen to others, who inspire fear and a certain amount of awe in colleagues so they’re scared to tell them bad news, who don’t make time to talk to people too far down the food chain … yes, you know what’s coming even before I deliver the punchline, don’t you? 

Those people have a great track record of crashing and burning. Because however talented they are, they become isolated. Without reliable information, sooner or later they lose their way. And their enemies, of which there are plenty, then celebrate their downfall with an unbridled glee.

The other leaders are the ones who people rally around if they’re in trouble. And they probably get into trouble less often, because they take advice and they see the writing on the wall.

Those leaders understand the basic truth – whatever our job titles, we have one life each, with as many hours as luck will grant us. When we die none of the success or money goes with us. Each hour is an immutable form of currency. It is non-transferable, and it is just as valuable regardless of whose it is.

Want to be a good values-driven, successful executive? Ask yourself if you’re respecting other people’s time as much as your own.