The best, and worst, leadership advice given to me came in the form of a single sentence. It was delivered more than 20 years ago by the managing editor of a newspaper in California.
The comment resulted from a conversation I initiated concerning a colleague in the process of deciding whether to leave the paper. Her reasons for quitting were easy to address, and I went to bat for her because she was, and is, a very talented writer (who became a national best-selling author) who made the paper better. Plus, she served as an important mentor to several reporters, including myself.
After I finished pleading my case for action, he leaned back in his chair and said I should not concern myself with what decision she made because, “the paper will be printed and delivered tomorrow morning whether any of us quits or stays.”
Intentional or not, the statement’s wisdom is that no matter how important anyone thinks they are to an organization, it will not fall apart because one person leaves. This insight keeps me from getting “too big for my britches,” and is a reminder that no single person, regardless of title, is stands above the entire enterprise.
However, once I settled into my first leadership position, I learned that while the statement is true – it is dumb. The top priority for all leaders is to build, and sustain a great team. That means creating a positive culture, re-recruiting high performers, ensuring adequate education, and providing advancement opportunities.
When leaders, such as my former editor, infect a workplace with the attitude that employees are simply interchangeable cogs in a machine, it de-humanizes people.
Not surprisingly, one of the half-jokes in the newsroom was that reporters were going to be replaced by specially trained monkeys from Honduras (not sure why they were from Honduras). The culture resulted in poor productivity. It sank the point the managing editor created story quotas for news reporters.
Unsurprisingly, the quota system created a disincentive to work. Story length was not taken into account, so reporters who had beats that tended to result in short stories simply went home once they hit their quota because they were “done.” That aggravated many people, and added to the divisions and distractions already festering in the newsroom. The quota policy eventually faded away, but the damage was already done.
I have done my best to not emulate that editor. And if I could go back in time and respond, I would have said, “perhaps, but when you hire, value and support the right people, the product will be much better.”
Gregory Alford, MS. Psy., is founder of Accelerated Coaching & Consulting LLC, and specializes in business, leadership and life coaching and Marcom consulting.