September 20, 2023
By Dave Bushy, PCC
These words are texted, mumbled or otherwise verbalized nearly every day in a human organization. And often I get to explore the idea with clients.
My own experience on the subject helps inform my dialogue and inquiry with others.
When I was a young officer in the Army, I worked for a commander who was committed to his troops, highly experienced, well-liked and respected by those who were in his unit. One day we learned that he was being reassigned. We were aghast to hear that a newly-minted captain with no command experience – and what was rumored to be an abrasive personality – would soon be leading us. In the orderly room and throughout the motor pool, I heard those words for the first time: “I’m not working for that guy!”
I had been mentored by our first sergeant, who had taken the junior officers under his wing. His advice, admonitions and counsel always helped to provide perspective. The day of the announcement I admit to expressing the same words others had spoken. I had commiserated a bit too often and way too loud. Late in the afternoon the first sergeant, or “Top,” as we called him, motioned towards me. I walked over. He took a pull from a cigarette and smiled.
“Lieutenant, do you know the two best commanders you’ll ever have?”
“I’m not sure what you mean, Top, tell me”
“The one who just left and the one who’s coming next.”
“How can that be, first sergeant?”
“Think about it. If you always begin with that perspective, you help create the atmosphere that will help the next guy succeed. You can choose to complain about this new commander, or you can help him become the best he can be. And when he leaves you can celebrate how you helped him on his professional path. Make your choice, lieutenant, because that choice will guide your career. You’ll have a lot of bosses in your life and you’ll seldom get to choose one.
Top smiled and walked away.
In the next 35 years, after the Army and in four different corporations, I worked for several dozen managers. I got to choose just one – the rest were assigned to be my boss, through promotions, transfers or just plain luck. I always worked to help the boss succeed and I’m glad I did.
I have worked with a number clients who have struggled when they learn that they will get a new boss. They voice “I’m not working for…” the same way I did so long ago.
“Well, what choices do you have?” I may ask and then comment: “A couple come to mind: You can accept the fact that you have a new boss and work with them, or perhaps you could leave. What else?”
“I’ll just tell my vice president that they’ll have to figure it out.”
“And what will they do?”
“They can readjust the reporting structure.”
“I’m curious why you don’t want to work for this guy – please tell me more.”
“He’s not the right fit.”
“How did you come to this conclusion?
“We all know – we’ve seen him in his current job.”
“And how will this carry over into his new role?”
I get a variety of answers – some relate to not respecting the person. Others may say they’re just not happy with the selection. A few feel very certain and justified in their outlook.
On occasion I’ve been known to ask: “How much is it that you don’t like this person and don’t want them in the role?”
Uncomfortable silence can ensue. And sometimes shifts in attitude emerge from that silence. From that change in perspective, we can together pursue the same line of questioning that first sergeant took with me. From there I can ask: “How can you try to work with this person and help them succeed and in the process help the organization meet its goals?
I have also had clients who are at the receiving end of decisions by senior leaders who accede to the demands of subordinates who insist they just will not work for the person. Reporting structures are subsequently changed.
Such decisions are often made by senior leaders to mollify individuals. The senior bosses may not feel they can do the work that requires exploring the issues, building bridges between individuals and helping them both succeed.
And perhaps they don’t know those words I heard from a first sergeant about the two best commanders you’ll ever have. I’m glad I did.
Dave Bushy of Boston Executive Coaches – bostonexecutivecoaches.com – is a an ICF-certified coach who was trained at the Gestalt International Study Center (GISC). Dave is a former U.S.Army officer and senior airline executive who works with leaders throughout the world.
Image by balik from Pixabay