Today is my birthday and on my birthday I wear a tiara. No kidding. I wear it on the subway and the bus and to client meetings. Last year I wore it to the mall, much to the delight of the sales staff in Sephora where boys and girls took turns trying it on and taking selfies (no fear – I carry a spare just for sanitary reasons when the occasion requires sharing). Over the years it’s become an amusing joke among my staff and my friends in the industry. Why do I do it – other than the fact that I am an attention-seeking extravert who is an only child and grew up listening to Sally Starr sing that your birthday is your excuse to be the center of the universe? I do it because because I think it makes me a better leader.
So much has been written on what makes an effective leader that we tend to roll our eyes mid-yawn when presented with another theory. However, there is a data-based body of research conducted by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman that I believe offers some real insight. They started with a fundamental question: Are some skills more or less important for leaders at certain levels of the organization or is there a set of skills fundamental to every level? (“The Skills Leaders Need at Every Level” by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman. Harvard Business Review, July 30, 2014). Not surprisingly, while there is a core set of skills that we need at every level of our career, their importance shifts as we rise within an organization. Top executives need to:
· Inspire and motivate others
· Communicate powerfully and prolifically
· Display high integrity and honesty
· Drive for results
· Display a strategic perspective
No argument from me. But how does any leader really operationalize this sort of guidance? How do we make it real in the context of our own personalities?
I have spent much of my career trying to improve in areas where I was weak. I took a class in the Fundamentals of Finance two times because the first time I STILL didn’t understand what the instructor was talking about. And then the Gallup Organization popularized the notion of strength-based employee development: don’t try to “fix” someone; figure out what his or her strengths are and use those strengths (paraphrasing and interpretation all mine).
I will admit to being a bit disappointed by this approach. I wanted people to grow and develop and learn new things and get better and be constantly improving. In fact, when the first Gallup Strength Finder&trade assessment was released, I took it as a job applicant at Gallup way back in 1999.
One of my “strengths” was described as found in “persons who tend to want to fix themselves rather than build on their strengths. They define life as overcoming obstacles. They tend to focus on the weaknesses of people…they spend a good deal of time thinking about what it is …they must improve about themselves.”
The people at Gallup were clairvoyant…and really good at designing assessments. Needless to say I did not get very far in their interview process.
Many years of experience softened my need to fix everyone and I came to appreciate playing to people’s strengths – and my own – much more. My tiara is one of my strengths. It told the people who worked for me many things:
· I am not afraid to laugh at myself.
· I run an organization in which humor and a bit of silliness is valued.
· This is an organization in which people are individuals and each of them makes individual, important contributions to what we do. We celebrate birthdays and other personal milestones as a team, together.
· This is an organization in which individual idiosyncrasies are honored and treasured.
· It is a way to show staff that I am approachable and down-to-earth.
It is a visible statement about the values of the organizational culture. But make no mistake. Wearing my tiara without first getting down to the serious business of outlining the strategy, communicating our direction, driving for results and pushing the business forward would just be ridiculous. There are no birthday celebrations before every individual in the company knows where we are heading and how his or her job helps us get there. There are no “Giving Back” afternoons until we are clear how our teams need to function and what the expectations are for each and every job.
But it is as important to recognize that businesses are comprised of people and people need to feel appreciated, validated and understood. They need to laugh at work. And sometimes they need to eat chocolate cake and sing off-key and celebrate each other. And me. On my birthday. With a lot of attention.