About seven years ago, my boss asked to speak with me after a meeting. I thought the meeting went well. Our marketing and sales teams had gathered to discuss what our focus should be in the next quarter and I energetically spoke up. I guess I was too frank and filled with emotion. She asked why I was so defensive. Uh oh, the D word. Anyone in business knows this is like a swear word. Because defensive people get categorized quickly as overly dramatic and loose canons, and loose canons can’t be counted on in leadership positions (unless you’re the founder or CEO :). I learned a lot from that day. Mainly that it’s about how others feel about your contribution to a meeting or conversation that matters. It’s rarely what you say. Paying attention to how others perceive your comments is ultra important the farther you go in your career and leadership journey.
Another interpersonal skill that can catapult your career is having an excellence meter. CEOs like to know that the company’s key leaders and managers can set the bar high. I recently had a C-level leader tell me she’ll never be ashamed of seeking excellence and being critical of other leaders whose teams don’t perform up to her standards. I couldn’t agree more. The problem is when there’s confusion on what a company’s mission-critical projects are or should be. Ever heard the phrase “Quality, price, speed. Pick two.”? You can’t be excellent at everything, so seeking excellence is often a red herring for being able to set priorities and sticking to them. If you can set the right priorities, and you’re halfway competent, you can usually hit the quality standard.
Last thought on interpersonal skills. The further you go up the org chart, the more you’re judged on how well you help others realize their potential. The media likes to glorify individuals, and it’s true that brilliant ideas usually come from individual moments of inspiration, not committees looking for consensus. But in terms of execution and staying power, teams can always do more than individuals who stop and go, stop and go, etc. In 2000, I hired a programmer in Lithuania to help me develop an elearning service. I had a product I could have grown into an amazing and even a lucrative business. But it became such a struggle to develop, improve, sell, and maintain a new software product all at the same time. Years later, I was one of three people who contributed to the launch of a similar elearning product. This time it was different. This time, I could lean on the energy and ideas of two others. At times, this meant letting others have the glory, get the credit, and take the lead in setting direction. But in the end, we built a real business and I felt great being part of a successful team. Teams win in the end.