The Leadership Lesson Don Learned Unexpectedly

candid-conversationsI am honored to introduce another Executive Author, Don Victor, to our candid conversations series.  Don is senior executive and currently head of a division of 300 people.  Don is a senior executive, and is currently the head of a 300-person division. I am so pleased that he agreed to be an Executive Author for my website. He has over 25 years of experience, and he has so many stories to tell. I look forward to learning from him with you through this candid conversation.

I met Don last year through a mutual friend. I was looking for someone senior to network with in his company, and my friend referred me to Don. He is one of the most approachable and passionate senior executives I know. He actually reached out to me for our coffee. Our first meet and greet turned into a two hour conversation, talking about everything from organizational dynamics to our families and kids. We have been friends ever since.

I didn’t realize the point of his story until well into our conversation; he is  a master story teller. The leadership lesson that he learned 15+ years ago is one we all need to pay attention to as we become more senior in our career. I won’t give it away by putting too much in the introduction.  Listen to it and see what you can learn.  You can also read the audio transcription of the recording below.


Your comments:  Have you ever been in a situation where you had the perfect answer, but no one seems to be listening to you?  I hope this recording helped you understand  why that may have been the case, and what you can do differently to influence others and lead people to change.    Leave your comments below and let’s have a discussion.

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Best wishes to your career success.


Audio Transcription of this recording:

Don: This is with the previous employer and this is quite some ago, but I can tell you, at the time I was one of these people that was viewed as a, I’d say a high-potential employee.

Lei: Okay.

Don: Which, a positive thing, right? So, you know…

Lei: That’s really positive.

Don: The company considered myself and some of my colleagues to be people that had a great amount of potential in terms of growing and developing. My background was in accounting and finance, and I was working in the division of the company that needed that level of expertise. That consolidated approach, how do you look at your organization across disparate geographical land perspective, because the companies that we managed were in different parts of the world.

Lei: So let me set some context for the audience. I want to find out a little bit about, at the time of the story, how many years of experience have you had? And are you managing people at that time?

Don: Yeah, I probably had 10 years of experience.

Lei: Okay.

Don: And was not managing people directly, but I ended up managing a project team.

Lei: A cross-functional team?

Don: Yeah, a cross-functional team.

Lei: Okay.

Don: And so I was the business owner of the project and then I had an IT partner that did a lot of the infrastructure, heavy lifting under my guidance from a business perspective.

Lei: Okay, so you were a high-potential, recognized to be one of those up-and-comer leaders. What was the issue that you faced?

Don: The issue was that the information that was coming in from these different locations around the world, back into the headquarters, was not in a consistent format. There were concerns about the timeliness of the information as well as the accuracy, and then there was an issue around converting it back to US accounting standards, because it was coming from other countries.

Lei: So that was the business issue you were facing. About what was the career issue that the story is about?

Don: Yeah, sure, sure. So, the career issue for me in the story is that I’ve always been someone that was a problem solver and I thought that just, you put your head down and you solve problems and good things are gonna happen, right?

Lei: Okay

Don: And, I think as this story unfolds there’s some lessons learned from me in that assumption.

Lei: Okay, okay. Yeah, definitely tell it.

Don: It challenged my thinking and my belief in that, that good work pays off.

Lei: I think a lot of us, myself included, had that assumption, at some point in my career. So, I would love to hear what happened.

Don: Yep. So, we talked about the business challenges. Well, it was just kind of put to me by the actual president of the business unit, hey, I need for you to solve this problem. I need to be able to look on my computer and have it at my fingertips and understand what the results are.

Lei: Across the world. Across, yeah.

Don: Yeah, exactly. And so, we solved that.

Lei: Okay.

Don: We created an online reporting system. Had never been done before.

Lei: Okay.

Don: It was a phenomenal project. It went well. It called for coordination across all these separate business units as well as coordination with the IT group that was based in the US.

Lei: That’s awesome.

Don: Yeah.

Lei: So, good results?

Don: Good results, fantastic project, even to the extent that the project was acknowledged by the CEO as one of the top projects of the year, and myself and my team were given the award, top award for performance. And so…

Lei: Great.

Don: Exactly, right?

Lei: I’m waiting for the, wow. So, that’s, congratulations. That’s a huge accomplishment. So you worked with a lot of people and created a very new solution for the company and it was recognized. So what am I missing?

Don: So, so then the fun part begins and we start seeing and understanding what it means to truly change a corporate culture and to truly get buy in from various levels of the organization. I was under the mistaken impression that because the president wanted it that it was going to be done and adopted by all the key stakeholders in the company. And the reality of the situation was that I hadn’t really done a good job of understanding what it means to go through full change management and truly get adoption from various levels of leadership within the organization so that they truly saw this as a tool for them that could help them be more efficient and better at their jobs versus it being something that they were just being told to use.

Lei: Ah, so you actually implemented a solution. The solution itself met the needs of the president. The president recognized you and your team for it, and it kind of was mandated down for usage instead of supported by the middle-tier management that is supposed to use it to, to do it’s work.

Don: Exactly. And being at that stage in my career I didn’t connect the dots quickly. I eventually figured that out, but it was probably a little bit late in the game.

Lei: Wow. What exactly happened that sort of triggered you to think, oh wait, something is wDong here.

Don: A lot of resistance to the tool.

Lei: Okay.

Don: Even after the award.

Lei: Oh, so, president already supports it. The tool is functioning.

Don: Yes, it works.

Lei: So it’s kind of like, and there’s all these logical reasons why everyone should use it, yet people are asking questions, pushing back or just not using it.

Don: Not using it. Not using it or you’re dragging them across the finish line every month just to get the data put into the system.

Lei: Wow, okay.

Don: Versus it being a part of their rhythm where it’s just a natural part of what they’re doing during the course of the month. It was always like, oh my gosh we gotta get this data put into this tool.

Lei: Ohh. And what was the assumption you made that you thought, oh, whoops. That’s not…

Don: You know, I think it was one of those things where we thought that it was just growing pains, and then we realized, no. This was more than just growing pains. This is actually resistance. People don’t really want to use this.

Lei: Oh, okay.

Don: And it was really disheartening because we had done, and the core team, I mean we’re talking 15-20 people.

Lei: How many months of work?

Don: Six months easily. You know, enough for us to feel very dedicated to the effort.

Lei: Of course.

Don: But we realized that the change management piece hadn’t stuck. I mean, we did have a change management person and we, but you did the typical things, right? You did the communications and you had the meetings with the leaders and they all sat and nodded their heads, so it’s not like we totally turned a blind eye to it. But what I didn’t recognize, because I was probably junior in my career was that as we were having these superficial change management meetings, I didn’t recognize that there were still some, there was really resistance to what…

Lei: StDong signs of. And why do you think, did you ever figure out what the resistance was that they were just, felt slighted that you didn’t talk to them earlier? Or that you didn’t understand where they were?

Don: Yeah, I think it’s always a challenge when something feels like it’s a directive that they haven’t had a chance to provide input on. And there could have been some very simple things that could have happened. Which is, first of all, granted, let’s say the president saw it and he was happy about it. I think that my immediate manager should have pulled us aside and said, okay guys, if you really want to be successful here, we need to start working bottoms-up and have some good work sessions and allow people to provide input and iterate and that kind of thing, and we didn’t do that.

We kind of went off into our little silo, created this wonderful product, popped back out of the silo and said, here you go.

Lei: [laugh]

Don: And yeah, by the way, we did have some simple little conversations with your leadership teams and everyone’s given us thumbs up and we’re ready to go.

Lei: And now you do. You add this workload on top of what you’re doing.

Don: Right, and figure out how to replace what you’re doing with this, which clearly you can figure that out, right? And it wasn’t said like that, but that’s, I’m sure that’s how it was received.

Lei: Yes, yes.

Don: So a big lesson learned. And it’s one of those things where it’s the nuance of it, because in many ways, again, me being relatively, 10 years is not junior, but it was junior for what we were doing because it was such a big project. And not really understanding that while we did have, quote-unquote, some change management sessions in meetings, we truly hadn’t hit it in the right way.

Lei: You gotta influence all of the people who need to change their everyday work in a way that they felt empowered and included instead of told.

Don: Exactly, yep. And not really understanding that as deeply as I do today. I mean, obviously that’s something that I clearly get today. Infact, if I could do that project all over again I, it’d be very different.

Lei: Right.

Don: And I think it’s still, it would have been something that would have had the same type of gloss on it and would have had the bright lights and bells on it and caught everyone’s attention like it did, but underneath that I think it would have had the real substance to actually stick.

Lei: So what happened with that tool?

Don: Eventually it was mothballed, after about two years. After all the fanfare.

Lei: And all the dedication, all the hard work.

Don: Yeah, and all the hard work. And the thing about it, to this day, the company still doesn’t have something as evolved as that. And this is 10 years ago, before you even have some of the technology that we have today. The concept, and the online capabilities, and the drill down capabilities…

Lei: You got the perfect answer, almost, like from a technology and process operation standpoint, but when people don’t adopt and people are resistant to it, it doesn’t matter.

Don: The technology solution was so good that in many ways today, if we didn’t change any aspect of that technology, it would still be competitive today That’s how good our thinking was on the tool.

Lei: Wow.

Don: And you know how much technology’s evolved in 10 years. Technology evolves in 10 months, but it was that stDong.

Lei: Wow, so did it affect your career in any way?

Don: It probably, it affected me and ultimately I think my career in that I actually had one executive tell me, you should stop talking about that project.

Lei: Oh.

Don: Yeah.

Lei: Oh, because you were such a champion.

Don: Yeah. This is after the awards and all the accolades and everything else, and I’m trying to move on and do something else with my career. Well my ticket into the conversation was, hey, by the way, I ran such and such project. Pay attention to me. We should talk. Because they didn’t know who I was, so I would explain, well here’s some of the work I’ve done. Everyone knew about, everyone knows what the award is, so if you say I won this award for this project and this is my skillset and what I bring to the table, that helped when I was going to talk to executives who didn’t know who I was within the company.

Lei: Right, but what did he say about why you shouldn’t talk about it?

Don: Because he felt like it could lead people down the path of me being a one-trick pony. And then for those that were closer…

Lei: They had a bad memory of it.

Don: Their perception was, this project didn’t go as well as people might think it would have gone. It went. And so his advice was, you should really stop.

Lei: Talk about your skills, but you don’t have to actually have to focus on a project that had a lot of potential and had the right answers, quote-unquote, but didn’t have the people change influence behind it that made it happen.

Don: Exactly.

Lei: This is a fascinating and awesome story. Thank you so much for sharing it, and I know it’s a big lesson learned for you. I guess if there was one parting advice you want to give to someone listening to this recording, what would it be?

Don: I would just say that aspirational projects are fantastic. Doing something that hasn’t been done before. I mean, that’s absolutely the kind of things that make people like myself tick, and that’s not for everyone. So if that’s where you are, then you should embrace that. However, along the way you really have to think through, how do you bring people with you? How do you bring the organization with you? That’s the key element for me that’s the lesson learned.

I’ve always been someone that’s had these aspirational thoughts and have always thought beyond the current construct. In the past 10 years, I have evolved to develop a skillset in how to bring the organization with me and to build a team with me that understands that point of view as well, and that’s truly where your impact can be exponential. And I think this story that I shared was a great example for me, because I learned from it. Even to this day there are people that will still look at it, there are people that will tell you, oh, that was a great project. It was a success. We used it. It was a great tool.

Lei: Right. There’s some people who obviously, definitely used it, but for the most part the organization…

Don: Struggled with, how do we adopt this and how do we own it? It only takes a handful of them to be that way, a handful of people to feel that way.

Lei: Well and also, now you manage a lot of people, and I think that, I’m sure that you also look for opportunities to mentor others who are in that situation, because there’s a lot of people who’re extremely smart, extremely driven, and almost don’t understand why the right answer can’t be implemented in some ways. And so this kind of story where it might be the right answer in a black box, but you have to bring the organization along and figure out, is it ready, and how to make it ready. And that kind of knowledge is something that you have personal experience with, and so you can recognize if you are that manager now of initiatives, you can not only help yourself, but actually mentor a lot of your team members.

Don: Exactly. It’s something that truly, I have to say, it truly was a gift for me, because I’ve been able to share my, I don’t necessarily share that story, but I’ve shared the learnings from that experience in a way, just as you suggested, that I think is helpful for others.

Lei: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for sharing that.

Don: Sure.


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