You Can’t Please All of the People All of the Time


Artist Credit: Victoria Cowan

My client was feeling uneasy as we reviewed some confidential all-employee comments that had been collected after a recent town hall event. Most of the comments were unwaveringly positive, focusing on the crisp strategic focus and improving execution that had become noticeable since my client took the reigns of this large firm. However, some of the respondents expressed criticism of my client’s leadership style, lamenting that she was not a charismatic, larger than life leader as was her predecessor. This theme ran through many of the critical comments, and my client was jumping to the unpleasant conclusion that she was somehow less of a real leader than the previous boss.

Our ensuing discussion touched on themes that are important for any CEO. The first, and most universal, is that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Sometimes clichés become cliché because they happen to be true, and it really is the case that in any large group of people there will be such a diversity of opinions and preferences that it will be impossible to satisfy everyone. This sounds obvious; however, it is often an unsettling realization for a new CEO. Many of us who have successfully grown up in organizations have done so in part because we are very good at interpreting and responding to others’ expectations.

Keeping everyone happy is easier to manage when groups are smaller and functions are more homogeneous, but keeping all stakeholders happy becomes impossible when leading a large, complex organization. It can be very disorienting for a leader to realize that on any given day some group of people will view him or her as a bad person doing a bad job, and that there is nothing that he or she can do about it. I often say to clients that even the most popular decision will be received poorly by at least 10% of a population, often for reasons that can only be understood at a psychological level. This idea can help to manage expectations in the sense that in a group of 100 people, a leader can expect that at least 10 will disagree or be hostile to a particular action.

The second theme that my client and I discussed is the old coaching gem of authenticity. People can spot a fake in a second, and so it is vitally important that any stylistic changes that a leader decides to make must be done in a way that is authentic to their personality, values and experiences. In this case, my client and I discussed how taking more time to prepare for large group interactions might make her feel more at ease and so allow more of her genuine enthusiasm for the organization and its people to shine through (please see my blog post on Practiced Spontaneity for more on this idea:http://jrfleck.com/2014/01/23/practiced-spontaneity/ )

Finally, my client and I spent some time comparing her leadership style to that of her predecessor, and I pointed out that she really reminded me of the characteristics of a Level 5 leader. Jim Collin’s introduced the world to the idea of the Level 5 leader in his 2001 classic “Good to Great” Collins stated that, when his team started to dig into the targeted “great” companies, they could not avoid the reality that all of the CEOs demonstrated a similar leadership style, which was quite different from the larger than life, narcissistic “superstar” CEOs who were regularly featured on the cover of Fortune magazine at the time. The CEOs of the studied companies displayed personal humility, but also expressed great passion and ambition for their organizations.

As I’ve gotten to know my client, I have concluded that she naturally does behave like a Level 5 leader. This is completely authentic for her, and it helps to explain how she has developed alignment around a new strategy and its execution. Having said this, her way of doing things is a real departure from her predecessor, and she needs to expect that it will take some time for some people to adapt to her and, more importantly, for her to understand that some people will never adapt and will remain critical and hostile to her approach.

Artist credit: Victoria Cowan (click picture to be directed to her website)

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