The $36 Executive Leader

Leadership Focus

The $36 Executive Leader

A number of years ago, I met an executive who was interested in VIM executive coaching for a cup of coffee not far from our office in Denver, Colorado. As we were walking into the nicely appointed shop, he bent down and picked up a nickel.

“That’s $36.83!” he exclaimed.

I wondered what he was talking about. He said it was a little game he played with himself. Ever since he left college he was very proud of the fact that he would walk around, head down, looking for loose change that others had dropped. His “high point” was in 1995 when he found a $5 bill (he actually remembered the year!).

We got to talking. He was a mid-level executive for a construction organization that built retail locations and apartment complexes throughout the world. He had done “well enough,” he said, but he had not advanced. His performance reviews were consistently good, but never exceptional. In his last review, his new vice president said he was meticulous and never missed a detail, but at the same time he failed to see “bigger pictures” and he did not want to get involved with helping subordinates and co-workers who faced long-term workplace challenges.

Not really surprised

I stopped sipping my latte for a second and looked up at the guy. He had been out of graduate business school for quite some time. He wasn’t advancing in his career, he wasn’t relating to his co-workers, he never saw the big picture, and yet he was most proud of the fact that he remembered he was up to $36.83 in loose change!

I wasn’t surprised he had ceased to go anywhere. He was so busy looking for pocket change and nit-picking that he failed to see beyond the immediate. To him, his entire organization could be boiled down to the current detail of the current project. While it may not have been an undesirable characteristic for someone to have if they were a construction foreman but for someone involved in an area that required planning and financial forecasting it was not as desirable. In fact, it could be crippling.

Even worse, he said he never liked to get involved in the personnel issues that may have been affecting his subordinates. He preferred to let them work things out for themselves. I was not surprised at that either. He was much more concerned with “looking for loose change” here and there, than to fixing problems that could have brought about millions of dollars of new business.

Looking down is not looking ahead

Many executives go through their entire careers “looking down for loose change.” They enter and leave organizations and hardly make an impact. They may be exceptionally nice people and are effective when it comes to following code, or laws; rules and regulations, acts and orders, but they never make an impact. They never address needed changes. They allow big picture problems to fester or worse, never get involved to bring about positive changes.

The model of the loose change type of thinking may be perfect for an office in a government bureaucracy, but it actually retards the growth and financial success of more dynamic organizations. This is especially true when it comes to managing people.

“Looking for change” is also another way we might describe avoidance of problems in the workplace. In a way, it is the ultimate reaction to problems rather than the attempt at response. It is the executive saying in his or her passive way, “If there is a problem, the two of you work it out and don’t bother me. I’m busy getting ready for a meeting (or whatever).”

The more functional executive may take the course of looking up from the lesser task, and saying to employees having a conflict:

“I want to address this problem as soon as possible, being mindful of our organizational objectives against a backdrop of our strategic planning”

The executive may not exactly think in that way, but he or she is saying that when we are focused only looking down, on reacting to the two cents we see on the sidewalk, we may be missing huge opportunities right in front of us.

VIM Executive Coaching wants to work with executives who are trying to “look up.” Oh, there will always be pennies and an occasional $5 bill in a gutter, but it will cost us dearly to see only those things and not the opportunities all around us.

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