Some time ago, this happened to a friend of mine.
He was hired a few years back for a specific job at a non-profit organization, what at my company we’d call an “individual contributor” position. Gradually his skills and abilities led to more and more responsibility. He knew a lot of stuff, because he’d done a lot of stuff.
He was kind of an oddball, something of an interloper working among people who had been there a long time. And, no surprise, his perspective was different from that of his colleagues. He saw and sensed things more quickly than others; he spotted trends with the eye (or heart) of a prophet. He would say things, disturbing or aggravating everyone in the room, and then be proven right, which is often worse than being wrong.
But he was liked anyway. Quiet, dependable, extremely skilled and talented. Solid in a crisis. Adept at fixing messes. People generally forgave him the prophetic outbursts, which he did learn to keep under control. Mostly.
The department he was in expanded, and he found himself leading a lot of people. He had a crazy idea about people. He believed people had the same intrinsic value and worth, because they were each made in the image of God (yeah, he was one of those types). He knew that people possessed different skills, talents and abilities, but those differences didn’t make them any less valuable in God’s eyes. And that’s how he managed, or tried to. He wasn’t a socialist; he differentiated among top and good and average and bad performers. But everyone knew he treated all of his people with respect. The team flourished, producing results that were outstanding, and advanced themselves, the organization and their profession in the process. It’s still an amazing story.
Things were fine for a while, and then came one of those annual job reviews. Here’s what he was told by his boss:
Outstanding performance. Great results.
But, here’s what management thinks about you.
You are not a good leader, because your people like working for you. That means you’re too soft.
You’re old-fashioned. You don’t think like we do.
You are good at too many things. That means you’re tactical, not strategic.
Hard as it is to believe, given the performance and results of his team, that’s what he was told.
Here’s what my friend said:
I have to lead people in the way that’s central to me. I can’t and won’t browbeat them. Look at the results. Could that have happened by making people afraid?
You’re right, I don’t think like you do. And that’s what makes me valuable.
Being good at many things could mean that I can see things clearly from many different perspectives, that I may be the most strategic person you have.
The discussion ended fine; there was no shouting or even defensiveness. (Not with a bang but a whimper, as T.S. Eliot said.) But my friend was shaken.
He asked me what I thought, since I knew him well. I said that if his review was typical for others in his organization, then his organization was doomed.
He didn’t know what others’ performance reviews had been. But he knew he couldn’t change, at least in the ways his boss suggested. He started updating his resume, making phone calls, and networking.
A week after his performance review, something happened.
His boss unexpectedly left the organization.
And my friend was promoted.
He still doesn’t understand it. Neither do I.
Sounds like one of those crazy organizational things.
Or a God thing.