Leaders must work at being more cognizant of their own preferred styles and its implications when dealing with people with other preferences
As I observe leaders in action, it amazes me how much of their effort is going waste. If we could adopt some simple culinary techniques to demonstrate leadership behavior, there is an opportunity for unimaginable impact, both in interpersonal relationships and finally, on organizational success. Simple learnings from the kitchen can enhance awareness of ourselves and also of others, dishing out more exciting leadership recipes, that our titles and rooms otherwise blind us to.
I have a friend who told me she does a lot of cooking that she deep freezes in different bowls, neatly labelled and microwaves parts of it whenever needed in the days ahead. She draws small portions from the cooking when not very hungry and big helpings when she has guests dropping by. She found it convenient, quick and a food bank that she could also draw from. And had guests always happier in the process! The HR thinker in me has been reflecting since on the tremendous insight I discovered from this very unusual anecdote. Indeed, there are powerful leadership lessons hidden behind this culinary genius.
In our organizational life, leaders have a choice of the relationships and emotional experiences they can create for their stakeholders. Unfortunately, many miss the opportunity to create powerful banks of positive goodwill that can be a great asset to build for the future. What a rich treasure one would have if every positive moment could be deep frozen, before it loses its flavor. There are always moments of joy, success, accomplishments and smiles. Do we look hard enough for them? Do we put them in our vaults and dish them out when the relationships are waning or our people not succeeding as much? If we could only microwave these moments and plate them up, many organizational dynamics would be more maturely handled. All it needs is the will, and a little skill to do it. And this resolution often gets martyred to personal ego and territorial revanchism.
On one of my business trips to some Asian countries, I had the opportunity to participate in some cross cultural sessions. It was learning beyond cultures. While it is not unusual to stereotype cultures, and indeed there are differences of national cultures, I noticed that even more sublime is the issue of individual communication styles. In organizations, many leadership conflicts are not as intellectually anchored as they are reflective of contrasting communication approaches. If only leaders were more aware of their own predominant communication preferences and the repercussions it may have when communicating with those with a different bias, much of the leadership entropy could be mitigated.
There are leaders who are more spirited, freewheeling, conversational, empathetic and energizing in their communication style. Imagine their conversation with a person who is more data led, quiet, questioning and even boring. Both seem to be doing right for the company but their possible exchange could be very strained with its own attendant organizational consequences. Likewise, someone whose communication is more task-driven and devoid of any small talk can be very misunderstood. Leaders must work at being more cognizant of their own preferred styles and its implications when dealing with people with other preferences. It is equally prudent to be able to flex their styles to be more in line with the dominant approach of the other person. The most effective leaders indeed practice communication that is customized to the one across. As the MasterChef television serials show, plating it up must be appealing and often is the key. Difficult it may be but with practice it works!
I had a colleague of mine, a well known CFO, who I have always admired as a phenomenal leader. Quite different than the conventional stereotype of an uninteresting number cruncher, he had a crazy sense of humor. I observed him over many occasions steering very serious business arguments through impossibilities. When the temperature would be scorching, he had the uncanny ability to leverage humor to defuse the tension, get people to smile, step back and resume the debate with more positivity. A Michelin chef knows the stellar value of that one special condiment and uses it exceptionally well. Humor in leaders is indeed a scarce spice. To be able to take a laugh on oneself is an even more precious ingredient. Honed well, it is not just a great seasoning anytime but can be a huge force multiplier for leadership effectiveness.
There is the story of yet another leader that I am aware of. Young, acclaimed, and brilliant at her task, she has every reason to feel she is the next big thing waiting to happen. Yet, hers could be a derailment waiting to happen. Extremely territorial and siloed in her approach, she would almost never seek help, even if it meant reinventing the wheel. Over time, many peers started to get put off with such perceived arrogance and began holding back, almost isolating the young lady and impacting her overall effectiveness.
A master chef recognizes that the kitchen must have all key strengths to serve the variety of dishes he may need to cook up. No one is equally adept at making desserts, soups and meats. And if one does know all, he is more likely to be a Mr. Jack, not a super chef! Leaders too must acknowledge that seeking help is a sign of strength, not one of weakness. It indicates willingness to acknowledge that one is not the paragon of all virtues. Indeed accepting one’s limitations and vulnerabilities is a sign of far greater strength than one typically may think. It conveys the sentiment of humility, an ever-green leadership virtue. It breeds inclusiveness and generates more ownership of one’s agenda. Such organizational synergy ensures a more optimal use of resources and the harmony spreads a smoother team spirit across ranks.
While one may like to believe that these insights apply only to leaders, this is quite misleading. Each one of us is a leader. The earlier we start investing time and effort to evolve ourselves, the better leaders we will be. In today’s times, the difference between the one who genuinely gets accepted as a leader, from the one who just about missed making the grade, are these little things. And little things are the ones which finally count! Deep freeze them while you can, microwave them when you must, as my good friend shared!
Prabir Jha is the Senior Vice President & Head - Human Resources at Tata Motors. The views expressed here are purely personal