Not long ago, a new client came to see us at VIM Executive Coaching on the recommendation of an EVP in the computer industry. At first, he was hesitant to talk, almost to the point of being shy. However, the message he left stated he was director of sales for a major software company. I haven’t known too many sales directors who were shy to the point of being near silent!
I drew him out. He told me he was embarrassed to say that only two days before, he got fired from his receptacle six-figure job. He had the title, salary and benefits that many people could only dream about. His rise had been meteoric, in fact he was 33 years old. He said he had “good numbers,” that he had booked a lot of business. His sales people liked him and he had been invited to several top management conferences.
What happened? He said he was terminated because he tried too hard to be everyone’s friend. “I’m afraid I badly embarrassed myself,” he said. In fact, he went out on the town with his international sales team. He was driving a rental car when the police pulled him over for speeding (65 in a 40 zone), and then they smelled marijuana in the car. The next day he was terminated. His license was suspended pending mandatory classes and psychological counseling.
What was I to say to him? I am an experienced executive coach and before that, worked in several aspects of mergers, acquisitions and building executive teams. If human behavior was so very easy to figure out and explain, then anyone could automatically know how to be a manager. The executive was 33, and a great deal of responsibility had been heaped on his shoulders. I had absolutely no doubt his numbers were good. He was personable and driven. He was not a bad person. However, he lacked the understanding and the ability to see that if we expect there to be any boundaries at all, we need to establish those boundaries as leaders.
I understand that he wanted to “be friends” with his team, however friendship does not include incredibly poor judgment that could have resulted in tragedy. I have read dozens of papers and reports on “Millennials in the Workplace.” They are usually quite interesting and entertaining, but almost never written by executive coaches who have actually spent years working with teams and assembling corporate infrastructures. Like it or not, a great many principles that were established decades ago are every bit as relevant in this day and age.
It is no surprise that Millennial executive leaders have come to me with numerous tales of woe including termination and warnings lodged against them for harassment (including sexual harassment), illegal behavior including DWI, DUI, drug and alcohol possession, unethical behavior ranging from security breaches, stealing, cyber-crimes and theft of property. Why am I not surprised? Because the impression given to many young leaders is that as long as they get results, that just about anything goes. While such a fun view might be the domain of Reality TV, it does not apply to real-life situations.
This does not make them bad people, only that executives who don’t understand that when boundaries involving leadership and ethical behavior are poorly established or never established, it is always a recipe for disaster.
Despite the mantra of the importance of team building, mutual cooperation, connectivity and the strong need of social platforms (and they are), teams want leaders and they want responsible leaders who have clear boundaries. This does not imply dictatorship! It does imply that boundaries and expectations, no matter the organization, must be understood and defined. Had this executive’s actions resulted in injury or death to one of his team members, it could have been catastrophic.
Leadership is a skill that must be learned whether the organization is entrepreneurial, an association or a corporation. Boundaries in leadership must be maintained. While leadership structure is highly variable, accountability is unchanging.