Margaret went into work with a feeling of dread. She knew that she was going into an intense return-to- work hearing, and she needed her manager on board with her. As the Director of Human Resources, Margaret had a lot of experience with many difficult situations over the years, but she knew she could always rely on her team to support her. But for some reason, it wasn’t working so well with Ellen, the manager in charge of this business portfolio. Ellen was also a career HR professional and had been in the manager position for several years, but it seemed to Margaret that Ellen was “checking out” — not as engaged as she would have liked.
In the previous meetings on this same issue, Margaret had hoped that Ellen would take the lead — it was her business client after all and Margaret had wanted Ellen to get more visibility and gain the confidence of her client. Ellen seemed to keep referring to Margaret until Margaret had to take the lead, which she felt confused the client. Margaret had a preparatory meeting with Ellen that morning, and the final meeting with the client was in the afternoon. Margaret fretted — what would she say to Ellen to get her on board and make her to take charge?
Pause. Here’s what is going on
Margaret has a vision for how these meetings should unfold. She has ambitions for Ellen. Margaret knows what role she wants to play, and how she sees Ellen stepping up. Margaret wants the best for Ellen and her client. We can probably agree at this point that Margaret is doing what a good director should — she is creating a successful platform for her manager and developing Ellen’s skills, abilities and knowledge. Ellen should be thrilled, right?
But what is going on from Ellen’s point of view? To be honest — we don’t know. Margaret doesn’t know either — and why not? Because no one has asked Ellen what’s going on. Very simply, Margaret is driving, and by doing so, she is creating exactly the situation that she wants to avoid. By taking charge and selling her vision to Ellen, she has made herself the leader and Ellen is the follower. By setting the roles, Margaret is directing, and she expects Ellen to step obediently into her assigned role.
Why would Ellen take the initiative? Margaret has set everything up. There is very little left for Ellen to do. In fact, Ellen may even worry that she might say the wrong thing, and by doing so she would wreck Margaret’s plans, and then she would disappoint her director. That would be a career-limiting move. Ellen’s best bet is to play it cautiously and prudently, and continue to let Margaret lead. That way, she won’t disappoint in the meeting.
At this point, you may have noticed that Ellen is also creating the very situation that she wishes to avoid. By following Margaret’s lead, she is disappointing her boss, who actually wants her to lead.
How did they get to this point? And how do they get past it to work as a successful team, not just in the short term for this meeting, but in the longer term as Margaret develops her strategic leadership and Ellen develops her autonomy and operational skills?