June 11, 2021
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I had a fascinating conversation with a Director in a large professional services firm. He had just resigned for a role in a bank. I congratulated him on his new role and asked what he was off to go and do. It sounded like interesting work in the area of innovation and change. During the conversation we also reflected on certain practices and cultures within his current organisation. A number of times he said “I can say what I like now, I’m leaving” not with any bitterness, but with a sense of liberation.

Since he had resigned, he had also had ‘liberated’ conversations with leaders within the firm. They had been keen to keep him. They suggested he write his dream job description and think about what he really wanted to do and they would see if they could find a role or create a role that would enable him to achieve his ambitions and stay. My Director friend had found that a very useful exercise and wondered why didn’t we invite everyone to do that. As a result he had gone on to have more interesting ‘liberated’ conversations with other senior leaders and they had had similarly ‘free’ conversations with him about his options, the firm and so on, his perception being that these were a ‘different’ type of conversation than he had had previously.

‘So what’ you might say. Not to generalize, but this kind of thing happens all the time. People resign, they have more honest discussions and people explore alternative options. There is nothing new under the sun there. But let’s reflect on that situation and hold on to it a moment longer. What stopped him having that liberated conversation earlier — one month, one year, five years earlier? What stopped the leader having a more wide ranging and purposeful conversation earlier? What stops everyone writing and reflecting on their own dream job description? What made the difference in this instance?

My conversation with the soon-to-be ex-colleague continued:

‘Well, people feel they have something to lose if they speak up. We are conditioned at an early stage in our careers to operate the same way, follow the methods, do right by the process, have the ‘right’ conversations, meet the ‘right’ people. They don’t want to lose status or lose out on that promotion. So they don’t rock the boat. By the time they are identified as being leadership-potential they focus on not putting a foot out of line’.

Conversely, what I hear from Partners in the same firm, is that their perspective of the majority of the next generation of leaders coming through the ranks is that they lack the creativity to generate new ideas and innovate. They can be seen as risk averse, even when they are being asked to take risks. The opposite is true of graduates. All the grads we bring in are full of ideas, they over-flow with different thoughts and approaches. As a firm we then spend a lot of time and effort training them and coaching them in methods and ‘the way we do things round here’.

On the one side, we have people not wanting to say anything out of place for fear of being perceived as out of step, different, odd, or even lacking ambition and lacking the appropriate behaviours. The perceived implication being they will lose credibility, status and potential promotion. On the other side, we have people seeking creativity, drive, determination, innovation and not finding it.

There are a complex set of interactions at play here and ‘speaking truth to power’ is incredibly hard. Megan Reitz and John Higgins have written about this in their new book “Speak Up”. Megan talks about their work here. Through their research they have identified five interconnected issues, when it comes to speaking up and listening up. The first two, i) ‘Trust’ in the value of our own (or the other’s) opinion and ii) ‘Risk’, the awareness of the consequences of speaking up (or being spoken up to), both relate to the question of “Am I going to move or not move?” The latter three, iii) ‘Understanding’, iv) ‘Titles’ and v) ‘How-to’; relate to the skill of understanding the political environment, assessing how the social titles and labels (such as gender, age, job title, race) affect speaking and listening up, and then having the capacity to judge how to say things, or invite things to be said in the moment.

What can we do practically to overcome the issues of power and power relationships described above? I would suggest a couple of starters:

Name it — As individuals we may want to pay more attention to why we are doing what we are doing, challenge our own assumptions and what conversations are we having and not having. Name what you experience. Question what sits behind the actions you are taking and not taking. Name it — first to yourself and then to others.

‘Open communicative spaces’ — As organisations we need to hold spaces that allow for different perspectives and voices to be heard AND listened to. We should consider this an enriching of the ecosystem which will ultimately sustain us.

Perspective and reflection: As leaders we need to understand we cast a long shadow over the people who work with us and around us. Be mindful that what you are seeing or hearing is a (very) partial view and you need to continually reflect on the potential impact you are having on others.