Are You Helping or Micro-Managing?

Nobody likes a micromanaging boss.

If you have ever worked for a boss who line-edits your written communications or fine-combs your Powerpoint slides, you know.

Eeeek. Aaargh. And yet …

If you are the leader of a sizable team, I feel for you. Taking a completely laissez-faire approach about the endeavors of your team members doesn’t serve them and will likely keep you anxious and wondering. You may quickly become the leader who isn’t actually leading.

What is a helpful rhythm for engaging with your team? Especially if some of your team members are less seasoned than you would like, and you don’t entirely trust their ability to tackle a complex challenge – how do you set them up for success without micromanaging them?

I hire professional staff and then micromanage them until they walk out the door."


A 2021 article in Harvard Business Review - How to Help (Without Micromanaging) by Colin M. Fisher, Teresa M. Amabile and Julianna Pillemer (HBR January/February 2021) – got me thinking about this perennial dilemma. The authors hail from University College London’s School of Management, Harvard Business School and NYU’s Stern School of Business. They have spent the last 10 years studying how effective leaders offer help without micromanaging.

Their research suggests 3 specific strategies will help you to be a hands-on boss who doesn’t micromanage:

  • Time your help so it comes when people are READY for it.
  • Clarify that your role is to be a helper.
  • Align the rhythm of your involvement – its intensity and frequency – with people’s specific needs.

Reads nicely, right? In my experience as an Executive Coach, this is not as easy as it sounds. Helping well requires situational astuteness and finesse. And the ability to slip in and out of different ways of inhabiting your leadership role.

How To Operationalize Being Helpful

1. Make HELPING Part of the Lingo

Talk about the notion of helping others to be successful. Make it explicit. Explain that help comes in many forms and moves in many different directions. Demonstrate that you are not a know-it-all boss or the smartest person in the room. Talk about how you receive help – from your own boss, from a coach or an advisory team. Show how asking for help and receiving help are not a sign of weakness.

Approach your team members for help when they may be able to do so. Live the famous Steve Jobs quote: It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do. These are all ways in which you create a culture of help where you helping your team is just that – HELP, not micromanagement.

2. Be in Relationship More Frequently

Think of venturing beyond the traditional “standing 1:1 meeting” with a member of your team. You run the danger of having a predictable if unexciting work cadence with this team member - and then you suddenly swoop in and hover in the midst of a perceived crisis. Anxiety levels rise, as do the possibilities for micromanagement.

Most of the executives I support opt for a different engagement style with their team members. More frequent short calls. Impromptu, unscheduled. Texting. Just to say hi. The chat can be about work or personal matters. 10 minutes or less. The intent is not to check up on your team member. No, you choose to stay in relationship. The relationship is informal and unforced. Needs for help and support have a forum to easily emerge. They have a place where they can come forth in a timely manner.

3. Do NOT Help Preemptively

You mean well. Your team is about to embark on a critical project, and you want them to be prepared for everything that might derail things. You gather for a meeting, and you “lay it all on them” in this meeting. Cover all potential scenarios. You let the team know what you have done in the past when “things went wrong." You shower your team members with tips and advice. You’re proud of how pro-active you are.

You think you’re helping. Please note: You’re helping when no help is needed yet. You have created alarm when no alarm has sounded yet. You’re micromanaging before any of this micromanagement is possibly warranted. Thinking of potential challenges can be helpful, of course. Let your team drive this conversation, not you. Otherwise, it is more likely a case of your Ego running amok. Stop.

4. Contract Your HELP with your Team Member

If you notice that in the midst of a project one or several team members are struggling, resist the urge to swoop in and take over. Consider a more collaborative approach. Tell your team members what you observe and brainstorm possible ways of addressing a challenge or bottleneck. Make it a “together” conversation.

If you have an idea for getting involved in a hands-on way, propose it. Be clear about the depth of the involvement you propose and the length of it. Test to see if the idea of your help resonates. Chances are, your team members will feel a bit of inner pressure to accept your help. Understood. When they do, however, you have established explicit boundaries for your help. You have consciously contracted. And you have not become the jerk-boss who took over because, well, you could.

The urge to help is primal, universal and timeless. It’s a wonderful urge. Honor it. But please get your Ego out of the way. Be clear that, at times, helping might mean allowing the other person to learn from making a mistake. At other times, it might require some in-the-moment coaching. Or sending a team member to a training class. Hovering is not help. Constant correction is not helping.

Go and help well. If you have any inclinations toward micromanaging, notice how much more enjoyable it is for you to lead without doing so. Notice what a relief it actually is. And how much more appreciated your leadership is.

Be relieved. And manage your urge.

The Line Between TOO OFTEN and NOT ENOUGH

I don’t want to be one of those people who talk too much. Don’t want to repeat what someone else has said. Don’t want to upstage more senior members of the team.

I have heard it all. Reasons why we silence ourselves at an Executive Meeting.

Let’s get this straight: Someone has decided that you deserve a seat at the table at your company’s most senior decision-making body. You ARE a member of the team. And you choose to get coy?

Coy gets you nothing.

Your concerns about mis-stepping in this forum are, of course, valid. You’ve watched colleagues crash and burn when they carry on for too long, over-heat with emotion, and don’t feel the pulse of the room.

Too often/not enough.

Claiming our rightful voice in a circle of power brokers can often feel daunting and elusive.

A flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it. It just blooms."

Zen Shin

He doesn’t always know when to speak up, says Sophie, the French CEO of a global micro-chip manufacturer, about her protégé Massimo as we chat last month. There is a right moment for making your point, and when you miss that moment, it may not come back. Massimo often misses the moment, and when he jumps in, he leads with his emotions, not with strategic clarity.

You may be surprised at just how often the too often/not enough dilemma shows up in my Executive Coaching conversations. Otherwise self-assured individuals crumble in the face of the murky power dynamics of an Executive Team. Most of these individuals err on the side of under-communicating. Their under-communication serves no one.

Consider the following guidelines as you assess what too often/not enough looks like for you in your executive interactions:

Don’t miss the moment.

As the team dives into a topic, as a discussion takes shape, as you feel the urge to state your point-of-view bubble up – notice. Notice the Gestalt of the conversation. Notice the direction of the conversation. Notice your desire to chime in. What are you waiting for?

Wait another 30 seconds or a minute, and a thought that felt right will suddenly seem like a tangent. A perspective that could have shaped the conversation becomes a distraction.

Catch the moment when your instincts nudge you to contribute. Trust those instincts. Jump. Deliver your perspective clearly and succinctly. Then cede conversational space to others.

Silence is not an option.

Occasional strategic silence in a meeting can be a brilliant move. You stay out of the fray. You implicitly allow others to run with the proverbial ball.

Be clear, however: Show up repeatedly in hour-long Executive Meetings without contributing, and you have rendered yourself irrelevant. Whatever your inner chatter tells you about staying silent – ditch it. Your role is not to be a demure quiet presence. Your role is to actively advance productive conversations.

In case of doubt, manage yourself differently. Set a concrete participation goal. I will speak up at least 3 times during this meeting. While this may seem like a somewhat arbitrary goal without context, guess what – you will suddenly find more moments when you can meaningfully contribute. You will have unsilenced yourself. Wonderful.

Be a great supporting player.

No need to always be the star of the show. You know – the one who advances great ideas, fresh thinking, status-quo-challenges. Don’t wish to be that person in a meeting? Cool. You will at times wield greater influence by stepping into the role of robust supporting player. A supporting player validates another person’s suggestion. Expounds on that suggestion with additional data or anecdotal information. Connects the dots between a suggestion and other suggestions in the discussion space.

The supporting player ends up being a bridge-builder. Decision-making-accelerator. This is powerful stuff. We don’t get to play this role by being silent or questioning if we “should support.” No - we just do it.

When a topic is done, shut up.

Each topic has its own life cycle. Intensity of conversation grows. Peaks. Interest fizzles. The group is ready to move on.

Sense the cycle of a topic. Sense the energy that exists in favor of a topic or against it. Don’t be that annoying person who doesn’t know when to quit. Hammers away at a point that has already been made once too often. Doesn’t understand that some things are not negotiable. When you don’t notice the life cycle, you have become the way-too-often person. And the person with way-too-little influence. Notice – and shut up.

Most importantly, understand the decision game in your orbit. Most decisions are NOT made in meetings. They have been made BEFORE the meeting. The meeting is merely a social dance we perform to publicly align around the inevitable. Misunderstand this, and you have abdicated much of your influence.

Want to be part of the pre-meeting decisions? Hold lobbying conversations with key stakeholders prior to a meeting. In these conversations, you will have way more time to advance your point-of-view than you ever get when the Executive Team meets. You will be more thoroughly heard. How cool is that!

Too often/not enough. Now/later/not at all.

That is the dance of the Executive Meeting, isn’t it? The split-second decisions we make, moment by moment, as a team congregates.

Trust your instincts. Don’t over-talk - and know that habitual silence is not an option.

Ever, ever, ever.

Lean Into CONFLICT a Little More, OK?

It happened last week.

Javier and Natalia, Heads of separate business units in a biotech firm, are collaborating on a project. Javier has prepared the monthly Powerpoint update for the Executive Team. He’s partnering with an external vendor who has given the slide updates a sleek, polished look. Text has been reduced to minimal bullet points.

Javier is thrilled.

The day before the presentation, Natalia – who has been mired in non-project fire-fighting and had no time to hand in her slide content – submits the information she wants included in the deck. Natalia’s additions are unwieldy, wordy, way too detailed. They do not mesh with the presentation that was just created.

Javier is enraged.

And it’s not the first time Natalia has enraged him.

Conflict cannot survive without your participation." 

Dr. Wayne Dyer

We all have different inclinations about how to act in such a situation. The Thomas-Kilmann Inventory (TKI) is the best known analytical instrument that delineates most individuals’ preferred conflict-engagement styles. According to the TKI, there are 5 major human tendencies when we find ourselves in conflict with others. There is avoiding conflict altogether. Accommodating the other party. Competing. Compromising. And collaborating.

I have already tried to collaborate with Natalia, Javier may think to himself. She’s completely unavailable.

Rage. More rage.

I’m not here to tell Javier what to do. If you’re a competer, you’re likely to exacerbate a dilemma and not resolve it. If you’re prone to avoiding and accommodating, you’re likely to fuel that rage. And if you lean toward compromise (that thing Mom and Dad instilled in us as the always desirable outcome), you’re likely to feel deflated and unhappy, most of the time.

Let us consider another path, shall we! It is predicated on the belief that habitual avoidance never works. And it affirms that conversation is invariably a good thing. 

5 Tips to Lessen Our Conflict Avoidance

1. Don’t call it conflict

Labeling a conversation as “addressing a conflict” is loaded. So, unload your conversation. Semantics matter. Unload it from this label or equally charged synonyms. You’re not here to have a difficult conversation. A crucial conversation. A showdown. Overcome a challenge.

No. You’re simply meeting to share your perspective on a matter or situation. You are doing so to open the door to a conversation. You’re also interested in learning about the other person’s perspective. Bottom-line is, you’re simply having a conversation. That’s it.

2. Prepare for the conversation

If the situation you plan to discuss with your colleague makes you nervous, has caused you anxiety or invoked obsessive thinking, it may be helpful to write down in advance what you wish to say in this conversation. The act of writing tends to immediately calm us down. It helps us think of the simplest, cleanest, least verbose way of expressing what’s on our mind. We are literally gathering our thoughts. And we’re likely catching any language that might sound inflammatory in the conversation.

Important: Just because we wrote it down doesn’t mean we have to “cling to the script.” Trust that the right words will be uttered in the moment, informed by the preparatory writing you did.

3. Use an I-Statement

An I-Statement is the simplest, cleanest and most powerful way of saying something that feels hard to express. Here is the structure of an I-Statement:

Were Javier to use an I-Statement with Natalia, it might go something like this: I get very frustrated when you hand in your materials at the last minute because it causes us to totally change something that several of us have worked hard on and necessitates hours of additional work.

The key to a successful I-Statement is that we deliver it calmly. Voices are not raised. Because the statement focuses on OUR experience, it is hard for the other person to argue with an I-Statement. The beauty of the third leg of the statement is that it invites other persons to think of the impact their behavior has on us – something they likely had not contemplated up until that point.

4. Listen to their story

This is often the most difficult part in any conversation, especially when we feel slighted by someone, mistreated or misunderstood. We want to keep talking and talking and talking until we know that they GOT IT.

Stop. Shut up and listen and allow the other person to tell you about their challenges and frustrations. It’s really not that hard. Stop talking. Choose to be curious. Listen. You don’t need to agree or disagree with anything in this very moment. Don’t need to argue or rebut. Simply stop talking and listen.

5. Don’t force an outcome

You may be entering the conversation with a very clear notion of the 3 action items that would instantly solve a current dilemma. You know exactly what things you want the other person to do differently. You’re itching to say Look, here’s what I need from you. Got it?

You’re allowed to ask for those things. But why not simply allow a potential outcome to come from the other person? What might we do differently going forward? is a powerful question. It’s not What can YOU do differently? (potential attack). The we-version is collaborative. It invites a path forward; it doesn’t force it. And when the path comes from the other person, s/he is way more likely to commit to it.

The ultimate non-forcing? It has been drilled into us that a conversation needs to end with action outcomes. Perhaps what was needed, in this particular moment, was just the conversation. More time to think. Another follow-up conversation, perhaps. No forced outcomes. How liberating is that.

It’s not that hard. It really isn’t.

We’re merely having a conversation. Drop the narratives in your head that heighten the mental drama around this conversation: We’re resolving a conflict. We’re having a difficult conversation. This will be a showdown.

Drop ‘em.

We’re simply having a conversation. I’m here to share my perspective and listen. I will do so with a measure of skill and hopefully kindness.

That’s it. There may actually be no conflict. Go figure.

6 Keys to Being a Better Collaborator


I’m often NOT a good collaborator. Sometimes, I’m a horrible one.

I was reminded of this during a chat last week with my colleague Vera, Head of HR for a global life sciences enterprise.

I love to collaborate with you if respect you and your skills, I confess to Vera. If I don’t, all my worst instincts come to the fore.

Sigh. From me, from Vera.

I know, she says. Collaborating with a bunch of A-team players can be exhilarating. Most of the time collaboration feels like a complex and never-ending slog to an outcome you don’t love, and you wish you had just done it by yourself.

Another sigh. It felt good to own it.

Collaboration is one of our workplace sacred cows. We’re expected to embrace it as a rollicking good practice. The challenge, says Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, is this: Leaders who want to create collaborative workplace cultures try hard to instill collaboration as a value. What they forget is that collaboration requires good old-fashioned skills. More importantly perhaps, subtle and highly nuanced skills. The sort of skills that we hone through a commitment to life-long learning.

Collaboration is the essence of life. The wind, bees and flowers work together to spread the pollen."

Amit Ray, Indian author and mystic

Gino’s article in The Harvard Business Review – “Cracking the Code of Sustained Collaboration” (HBR, November/December 2019) – highlights the work of companies such as Pixar, Webasto, and American Express who invest in collaboration-skills-training.

When I look at the list of 6 skill sets that Gino identifies, my first thought is yeah, I know these. Upon reflection I remember how “not easy” they are – and how quickly they can fly out the window when we collaborate with someone who for whatever reason is not our ideal collaborator.

Let’s take a look at Gino’s top 6 collaboration skills.

1. Teach people to listen, not talk.

But of course, you may say to yourself, I have taken an active listening class. Well, here are some very specific ways of practicing a higher-level of listening, especially when the conversation may not be flowing with ease:

2. Train people to practice empathy.

When I was trained as a mediator at the Brooklyn Courts, one of the most potent techniques I learned was the “Shoe Swap.” Instead of rebutting what a speaker says, I intentionally pause, put myself in the other person’s shoe, for just a moment, to sincerely seek to understand why s/he thinks or feels the way s/he does.

Hard to do. And powerful stuff. It invariably changes the course of any conversation.

3. Make people comfortable with honest feedback.

Because so many of us have received vague, platitudinous or at times personally hurtful feedback, it is easy to shy away from giving honest and actionable feedback to others. Or we may, intentionally or not, signal that we don’t wish to receive feedback ourselves and just want to get on with things.

How do we begin to move into a more effective feedback environment that prevents collaborative endeavors from getting stuck? Have the courage to openly talk about aversions to feedback, choose to practice frequent feedback that is direct, specific, and actionable – and give each other feedback about the quality of feedback that is or isn’t happening. Stay feedback-conscious!

4. Teach people to lead AND follow.

I have taught these skills for years. Some folks call it switching from Advocacy to Inquiry. I like energy language and think of it as knowing when to Push and when to Pull.

Great collaborators are comfortable with both pushing and pulling. They have a keen sense of when to use one approach over the other. And they do so with clear purpose. Makes sense, right? The key success factor: Be comfortable with both communication styles AND use them with strategic intent.

5. Speak with clarity, avoid abstractions.

Know when brainstorming is over. Know when abstraction, more big ideas and additional data will not move you closer to action or making progress. Know when it is time to get specific. Know when it is time to condense what you need to say into 3 or 4 sentences. Know when it is time to call for action. And have the courage to do it. You will elevate the collaborative discourse for everyone involved.

6. Train people to have win-win interactions.

Sounds good, right? You may even have studied the terrific Harvard Negotiation model that teaches tools for getting to win-win. In reality, this is never easy. If I had to boil a win-win mindset down to 2 simple tactics, it is these:

Since I am quoting wisdom from a Harvard Business Review article, allow me to quote one more HBR article. If you’re collaboration-weary, you’re not alone. In “Collaboration Overload” (HBR, January-February 2016), authors Rob Cross, Rebele and Adam Grant asserter that in the last 2 decades, the time spent on collaborative activities in a corporation has ballooned by 50%.

Moreover, their research shows that up to a third of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.

These findings pinpoint what you already know so well from your own life. How often have you been invited to a meeting where you were not critical to a collaborative endeavor – yet, there you were? How many other folks were sitting in the same meeting who also were not essential to the same project?

Collaborate when collaboration is essential to a project’s success. Be clear when true collaboration is NOT mission-critical. Avoid collaboration overload.

And if you’re going to collaborate, do it with skill.

Connecting With The Transactional ALPHA Exec

You dread your meetings with Mitch.

Mitch is 100% transactional. All business, all the time. You feel rushed when you speak with Mitch. And you don’t know how to stop the alpha-train.

Worse yet, you’re a person who values relationships. You know that everything in business works better when you have built a rich relationship with a colleague. A reciprocal business relationship energizes you.

Nothing about Mitch indicates that a relationship matters to him. With you, or with anyone else. Mitch just wants to “get it done.”


I found myself thinking of this challenge a couple of weeks ago when I was delivering a Master Class on Influencing Skills. Building authentic and sustained business relationships - I trust this intrinsically makes sense - is a key influence lever. More influential folks are more adept at developing key stakeholder relationships.

How do you build a relationship, I was asked, with someone who is not interested in relating?

If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”

Fred Rogers

It’s a challenge. We tend to talk about hitting this wall in terms of better understanding personality differences or adapting our communication styles. This, however, is a more fundamental dilemma. How do we connect with someone who does not seem to value connection?

Let’s begin here:

  • Don’t try to stop the alpha train.
  • Accept that you will not have a great relationship with everyone.
  • Learn to love what is.
  • Focus on Mitch’s assets, not his liabilities.
  • And – drum roll, please – do not give up on the possibility of connecting. Because psychological evidence shows, over and over again, that no matter the personality type, no matter how “closed” a person may seem, the longing to connect runs deep. Connection is why we’re here, Carl Jung wrote. It is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.

Consider the following tips as you engage with a highly transactional alpha executive. Think of them as your “disarm them” tool kit.

4 Ways To Disarm a Transactional Executive

Meet them where they are.

Don’t force the small talk. Don’t chatter about what you and your family did over the weekend. Don’t ask her or him what they love to watch on Netflix. Let go of your preferred way of connecting, just for the moment. Make peace with transactional, because transactional is just fine.

Reframe transactional, for yourself. Transactional need not be cold, formal, unpleasant, or difficult. Transactional is focused on completing a transaction. And completing a transaction, beyond the human connection lens, can be mighty satisfying. So, relax please.

Connect around the present moment.

Instead of bringing extraneous stories into a conversation, notice what’s happening in the present moment. If there’s a thunderstorm brewing outside of your window, mention that. If there is a vacation photo on your conversation partner’s desk, inquire about that. If there is a beautiful painting on the wall behind your colleague, acknowledge it. These are simple and safe ways to initiate a human moment that is not forced. And your prompts may invite the other person to share more.

Gina, a Corporate Comptroller, described one such moment to me. I was on a Zoom call with my international team. Some of them I have never met in person. Archie from the UK was wearing a sweater that had this goofy design on it. I was chuckling to myself, inside, as I noticed Archie’s sweater. I wasn’t sure if I should comment on the sweater or say something cute.

If Archie wears a goofy sweater, Archie wants you to notice the sweater. It’s almost rude to not acknowledge the sweater. The sweater is literally staring you in the face. It is present-moment-reality. And acknowledging the sweater may well prompt a fun story or two.

Connect around work history.

If you sense that a colleague does not wish to get into “personal stuff,” go deeper with the business content. When you are trying to solve a problem or need to make a decision, open the door to the past. How have you tackled this in the past? What was the biggest challenge you faced last time this happened? What did you learn in previous times that we should consider today?

Questions about past experience are safe. They explicitly acknowledge the other person’s experience and expertise. They will always expand a conversation and may elicit an unexpected story or insight. All wins.

Celebrate them.

Successful people rarely receive enough compliments. Here’s one thing I hear in my Executive Coaching practice all the time when we talk about paying a compliment. It always startles me. Well, I don’t want to sound like I’m sucking up to her.

Please be clear – this is your crap about giving and receiving compliments. Drop it. If you find yourself in a fast-moving transactional conversation and the other individual says something genuinely helpful or insightful, please acknowledge it. That was so helpful, Mitch. I never looked at it this way before, Mitch. Thank you for helping me look at this situation differently, Mitch. I appreciate how you analyze a difficult situation, Mitch.

Don’t say it if you don’t mean it. If you mean it, DO say it. Your comment may well open the door to a much richer conversation than you thought was possible.

Sometimes our light blows out, the theologian and philosopher Albert Schweitzer famously said, but is blown again into instant flame by the encounter with another person.

Think of the possibility of connection as one of those instant flames. Respect the other person’s conversational limits and personal boundaries. Do not force yourself on her and him. At the same time, remember that the simplest statement from you has the power to ignite the flame.

Stay in the moment. And light the match.

Great Leaders Apologize WELL

Here’s a chat I had with my friend Carl Ficks last year, sitting at the counter at Java &  Jam in Downtown Ft. Lauderdale, having a mid-morning breakfast.

I remember checking into a hotel, said Carl, a former trial lawyer turned fitness mentor to stressed executives, and I didn’t behave very well toward the young lady behind the counter.

Carl paused and elaborated. As I left that conversation, I thought to myself, ‘wait a minute, I wouldn’t want anyone to act toward my two daughters the way I behaved right now.’

Another pause. So I went to a nearby Starbucks and got a $ 25 gift card. Went back to the hotel and gave it to the young lady behind the check-in counter.

She thanked me, explained Carl, and saidbut you didn’t have to do that.’

Of course, not. Carl didn’t have to do anything.

Especially when we have power, or the illusion of it, as might be the case in an exchange between a guest and a hotel employee.

Carl’s amends was a choice. The beauty was that it came swiftly.

And Carl, of course, made the amends for himself.

Karma means that all actions have consequences. Grace means that in a moment of atonement – taking responsibility, making amends, asking for forgiveness – all karma is burned.”

Marianne Williamson

Carl’s tale may read like a feel-good story. Please think of it as a story of ultimate self-leadership.

In our stressed and over-extended lives, we all have moments when we mis-speak or act in a manner that we later regret. When, momentarily, how we show up in the world does not match our deepest values and beliefs.

We all do it. We often don’t actually notice that we do. And even when we notice, we are slow to make an amends. Worse yet, we are tempted to minimize the disconnect between our public behavior and our inner values, and talk ourselves out of an amends.

Carl noticed. And he acted. Quickly.

The rewards of a swift amends are endless. I trust this is inherently clear. Here’s how you get to a quick amends, well, a little more quickly.

Deepen your self-awareness.

Self-awareness sometimes sounds like just another leadership buzz word, doesn’t it! What do I actually mean by that phrase? For one, self-awareness is more than an inside job.

Let’s begin with the externals of self-awareness: I notice the impact my words and actions have on another person or group of people, in the moment. I especially notice if my words or actions create discomfort or withdrawal in the other party. Discomfort is not inherently a bad thing - unless discomfort is not the impact I wish to have.

The internals of self-awareness? Something “doesn’t feel right.” I’m in the middle of a situation and it “doesn’t feel good.” I have a queasy feeling in my stomach – and not because I ate something bad over lunch. I stress the word feel because that really is what it is. My gut, my intuition, my sixth sense – call it what you will – tells me that something is not right in a situation.

I have learned to receive such signals. And I do a quick gut-check – what is causing this discomfort? Is it anything I am saying or doing?

Notice a mis-step.

The above is the pre-requisite. Without it, noticing a mis-step becomes a lot tougher, unless our actions are so egregious, and their impact on others so blatantly evident, that ignoring what’s wrong is near impossible. At worst, we become conscious of a mis-step when another person “calls us out.”

That “call-out” clarity can be helpful. True self-leadership, however, does not wait to be called out. It notices a signal, external or internal. It inherently knows the nature of the mis-step. And it is animated by a willingness to assume responsibility.

It notices, not in hindsight or upon reflection. It notices in the moment. It trusts what it notices. It doesn’t shun the mis-step. Doesn’t wish it away.

It notices expeditiously.

It accepts.

Act quickly.

This is the gift of Carl’s story: Once Carl sensed that his behavior toward the hotel clerk had been “off,” Carl took action.

He did not second-guess himself. Didn’t try to analyze his way out of his behavior. Like, you know, perhaps the hotel clerk is having a bad day. What I did wasn’t so bad. I mean, I would apologize if this relationship mattered, but the woman is a complete stranger to me.

No, none of that. Carl assumed responsibility.

And acting quickly wasn’t about the gift card, of course. It was about accepting his behavior. And getting to the amends at once.

Let it go.

The rewards of a quick amends are endless. I can stop ruminating about my mis-step. I can stop agonizing about whether I should engage in a corrective action. I can discard the temptation to ceaselessly find ways of justifying my mis-step. I hadn’t slept well. I am under a lot of pressure. I never had good customer service at this hotel. I really hate this hotel, anyway.

When I don’t act quickly, I become my own energy vampire. The energy vampire tortures me by replaying a past moment that I have not cleaned up. The energy vampire also seeps into my sub-conscious with a leering sense that I am one of those people who doesn’t act in line with his purported beliefs or values. Someone who is, at her best, a bit of a fraud. At his worst, a jerk.

All of this will simmer right below the surface because I have not let the moment go. The amends is, in fact, my letting-go-valve.

It purifies my polluted psychic realm.

It allows me to show up fully present for my next social encounter.

It sets me free from the baggage of my past mis-deeds.

If the notion of self-leadership and a higher degree of personal mastery is of interest to you, swifter amends will be one of your great personal growth accelerators.

It starts with a heightened self-awareness.

This heightened awareness invites me to quickly sense when I have mis-stepped.

When I mis-step, I have the courage to make a swift amends.

And I am willing to let it go.

In the end, so simple, isn’t it? Do more of it, please.

A Case for Friendships at Work

I’m on a highly social European vacation. Much of my socializing is happening with friends I made through work.

I find myself remembering a series of essays in The New York Times on the nature of friendship. On April 18, 2021, the Times’ Style Magazine published a Culture Issue titled “With Friends.” An entire issue devoted to friendships. All sorts of friendships.

The mini-articles were quirkily titled and coalesced into a marvelous glossary of the many reasons for friendship. Friends Who Cook Together. Friends Who Summer Together. Friends Who Share a Language. Friends Who Party Together. Friends Who Came Up Together. Friends Who Saw It All.

IntrIgued? I found myself thinking of the different friendships in my life. Past, present. Lasting, fleeting. And the extraordinary impact that these friendships have had in and on my life. I found myself fixating, most especially, on the friendships we forge through work.

  • Clients Who Became Friends
  • Mentor/Protegee Friends
  • Friends Who Create Together
  • Work Friends

Friendship isn’t a big thing – it’s a million little things."

Paulo Coelho

More categories from the New York Times Magazine. As I devoured these mini-articles, I thought of the advice many of us were given about relationships at work: You’re not here to make friends. Don’t bring your personal stuff to work. Keep things professional. Make sure to separate professional and personal.

Insanity. Utter Insanity.

What animates this antiquated “keep it professional, please” mindset? Especially when all evidence shows that as we move into positions of power, we’re more likely to hire someone we have worked with in the past, someone we know well, someone whose expertise we trust, someone with whom we have developed a deeply personal relationship. A friend.

Behind all these well-worn “friendship warnings,” I am convinced, lies the fear of things getting messy. A little “too real.” Too human. And the fear that we might not be able to handle that.

Hogwash. Life sometimes gets messy. You can handle it.

Let us deconstruct some of the myths behind the “making friends at work” warnings.

Myth #1: Don’t be friends with someone who reports to you.

Meet Mike. Mike had worked in the same manufacturing business for over 25 years. He was affable. Had many close friends in the business. There was a crew of 12 colleagues who every spring went on vacation together. Then, seemingly overnight, Mike was promoted from a senior Sales role to the General Manager of the business. Suddenly, Mike was the boss of his 11 vacation buddies.

Easy? No. Mike decided that going on vacation with his direct reports had to stop. As the business was tasked by Corporate Headquarters to down-size, Mike had to terminate employment for some of his 11 friends. 

No, not easy. But easier, Mike discovered, because there were strong bonds of friendship. Easier because his friends understood the tough decisions he had to make. Easier because, deep down, Mike’s friends loved him. Friendship kept the difficult part of being a boss “real.” It kept the tough decisions of a leader more human. And friendship survived the tough decisions.

Myth #2: It’s harder to hold a friend accountable at work.

What is this about, really? I can have a tough conversation with a colleague who matters little to me but fear having it with a friend? A difficult chat with a friend creates greater discomfort even though I have a relationship that supposedly involves shared history, honesty and trust?

Chances are, if a transparent work conversation with a friend feels difficult to you, there are opportunities for you to look at how you handle conflict in ALL of your relationships. Especially the personal ones. If we shy away from difficult conversations with folks we’re close with, we are likely to do the same in our professional relationships. 

Chances are, we’re keeping ALL of our relationships light and a bit transactional – and try to shield them from discomfort. Don’t. Summon the courage to have difficult conversations in all aspects of your life. Summon the courage to hold your friends accountable. In life, at work. It’s actually easier with a friend. And yes, it does take courage.

Myth #3: I don’t wish to give preferential treatment to a friend.

Well, then don’t. I do not suggest this smugly. There may be the pressure we feel inside to be “especially nice” to a friend at work. The fear that we risk losing a friendship if we have to set a boundary with a friend. The worry that others will think we give preferential treatment to Stephanie or Miguel because, well, they’re our friends. Our protegees. Our “guys.” Our “gals.”

Yes, all the levers of ethics and fairness and professional integrity get triggered when a colleague is or becomes a friend. Know what? Those triggers NEED to get triggered if you wish to be a professional at the highest level. They are integral to playing your highest professional game – with anyone, friend or not. 

Please remember - the advantages and benefits of a professional friendship are extravagant. We have a rich measure of trust. We communicate in short-cuts. We play on a foundation of powerful shared history. We “get” each other. Why would you deprive yourself of that!

One of the mini-articles in the New York Times is titled “Old Friends.” In it, legendary Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar reflects on the beauty of his friendships with actors he has worked with for decades.

I have this stable group of actors I work with, Almodovar writes, but I only ever put a face on a character once I’ve finished the first draft of a script. After that, I can start to build a film around the actor, and I know the necessary chemistry will kick in.

Penelope Cruz and Rossy de Palma are two actresses with roles in his most recent film “Parallel Mothers.” Almodovar first worked with de Palma in 1982, with Cruz in 1997. They are a part of his band of actors.

Rossy’s the one who keeps me up-to-date on the impression our films make on young artists, Almodovar explains, and Penelope always has an eye on me, the way any selfless daughter would behave with a father she adores.

Nice. Really, really nice.

Old friends at work. What a beautiful thing. Cultivate some, will you!


4 Everyday Trust Builders

In his classic book “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team,” Patrick Lencioni keeps it simple.

Lencioni offers a 5-stage pyramid as a metaphor for how team behaviors frequently play out.

At the top of the pyramid are our business results, or more specifically, our inattention to these results. All the targets that were not met, the projections that were missed. And the attention that was not paid along the way.

In a time of supply chain disruptions, these disruptions will, indeed, cause unmet projections.

In more predictable times, we tend to blame a lack of commitment or accountability on outcomes not met. Not so fast, suggests Lencioni.

The bottom of his pyramid, where it all begins, is trust, or the lack of it. When we don’t trust, we don’t have the critical conversations that need to happen. We don’t fully commit. We don’t hold ourselves or others accountable. We don’t deliver.

A lack of trust dilutes every single business effort.

It derails all other efforts in life.

Remember, teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.”

Patrick Lencioni

I am reminded of the importance of trust every time I listen to a business executive address a Town Hall meeting, every time I catch a politician make a public statement in front of a camera, every time a sales person seeks to engage me. I watch, I listen, and I do a gut check:

Can I trust you?

I think about you and me. Our spheres of influence. Our everyday interactions with folks. Colleagues, clients, friends. Our laboratory for everyday leadership.

Can they trust US?

Let’s assume competence, for a moment. Let’s assume that we honor our commitments.

Beyond these 2 C’s, it boils down to consistent behaviors that embody our character, doesn’t it? Behaviors that unambiguously signal that we can be trusted. These signals are transmitted in nanoseconds. Here’s the tricky part. The specific behaviors can be learned. They will, however, always inhibit trust the moment they become rehearsed or faked.

Fake it ‘til you feel it doesn’t work when we seek to build trust.

Here are 4 of those behavioral signals. I think of them as Everyday Trust Builders.

You speak the truth.

You have your own bullshit meter. You keep your own crap in check. The platitudes. The easy responses. Yeah, they often sound good. And folks can tell when you’re running on automatic pilot.

You understand context and know what to say when. When there are things you can’t divulge, you don’t pretend to be transparent. You acknowledge that there are things you can’t talk about. You stay real even when you have to be strategic. That is speaking your truth. You don’t avoid it with pretty talk.

You shut up.

You invite conversation. In conversation, you let others talk. You listen to the words they say. To the deeper meaning behind the words. You don’t fake-agree. You don’t fake-listen. You give evidence that you have listened AND understood. If you don’t understand, you ask for clarification. You engage with sincere curiosity.

You appreciate.

You appreciate folks at every organizational level. The attendant in the parking garage. The receptionist. The new hire. The accountant who is retiring after 30 years of service. The Head of the Board. Your competitor.

Your appreciation doesn’t hide in your thoughts, it is actively expressed. It is expressed not with clichés and platitudes. Your every word and action explicitly show that you have noticed, and that your appreciation is heartfelt.

You are FULLY present.

That means you show up on time. Show up mentally prepared. Show up with heart and mind intact. You don’t pretend to not have feelings. Yes, you show up undiminished, as the whole person that you truly are, beyond the confines of your job function.

We don’t remember our Everyday Trust Builders only on a good day. We remember them on a tiring day, on a frustrating day, on the occasional day from hell. Yes, every day.

The more we remember, the sweeter our interactions become.

The day from hell becomes a sweeter day from hell.

The shift happens nanosecond by nanosecond. We just need to remember.

Our world gives us lots of reasons to be cynical and distrust. Be a trust-builder. Remember your trust-building behaviors, one nanosecond at a time.

Trust will unfold in delectable ways.

When 2 Are Better Than 1

Power sharing, Marvin Bower who grew McKinsey & Company into the organizational consulting juggernaut that it is, famously told Goldman Sachs, never works.

Mr. Bower may have to eat his words. Because it often does.

While some well-known companies with Co-CEOS – the software company SAP and Chipotle Mexican Grill immediately come to mind – have not performed all that well in times of stress, the findings by Marc A. Feigen, Michael Jenkins, and Anton Warendh, as disseminated in the current issue of Harvard Business Review (“Is It Time to Consider Co-CEOs?,” HBR, July/August 2022) tell a different story.

Faigen, Jenkins and Warendh examined data from 87 public companies that identify their leaders as Co-CEOs. The authors found that these firms, on average, tend to produce considerably more value for shareholders than their peers do. While Co-CEOs were in charge, they generated an average shareholder return of 9.5% per year - significantly more than the average of 6.9% for traditionally led companies.

Co-leadership should permeate every organization at every level.”

David A. Heenan, Co-Author with Warren Bennis of Co-Leaders: The Power of Great Partnerships

Having Co-CEOs is not the right solution for every company. Anyone who has ever had to co-lead any sort of initiative with another person likely remembers just how challenging many aspects of the endeavor were.

The advantages of having Co-CEOs, nevertheless, seem blatantly obvious. Co-CEOs can bring deep and diverse competencies, backgrounds and perspectives to the job. They can be in two places at once – literally so. They can form a potent left-brain/right-brain partnership. Together, they can much more effectively master the increasingly complex corporate functions that CEOs today are expected to manage.

How do companies ensure that Co-CEOship succeeds? What are some key factors that set Co-CEOs up to deliver on the tantalizing premise that 2 are, indeed, better than 1?

I cherish the very practical guidelines proposed by the HBR authors. Whether or not you actually are a CEO or Co-CEO, consider how these suggestions apply to any scenario or circumstance in which you are asked to co-lead with another human.

8 Keys to Co-CEO Success

1. We Both Want It to Work.

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But please think of the many situations in your life when you may have been asked to co-lead a project, and either you, your partner, or both of you did not truly wish to share leadership.

When we are coerced into co-leadership, we are sabotaged from the start. When we like the notion of co-leadership but not with “that person,” we are sabotaged from the start. When one person, deep down, wants to run the show on their own, success is sabotaged from the start.

Don’t fake your way around this one. It is the prerequisite for all the rest.

2. We Have Shared Values.

Co-CEOs fail when they have different values. We have taken the time to clearly articulate our values to each other. Our values are conscious to ourselves and our co-leader. We both understand that if we wish to succeed, honesty, trust, respect and the willingness to compromise need to be among the core values we share.

3. Our Skill Sets Are Complementary.

I think of a classic hiring dilemma: You have 2 great finalists for a key role. They both are supremely qualified candidates. They each bring their own unique set of expertise and perhaps a different sort of leadership style to the role. You secretly think to yourself, I wish I could grab the best of each person and merge it into one.

The scenario screams potential Co-CEOship, doesn’t it? We don’t get “2 is better than 1” if the two individuals seem like mirror images of each other. We don’t get the expanded thinking, the augmented areas of expertise, the bigger performance range. Furthermore, the more complementary the skills sets are, the less likely it is the leaders will have major conflicts with each other.

4. We Understand Our Responsibilities  

Being Co-CEOs does NOT mean we act like Siamese twins who do everything together. The opposite is usually true. We have distinct portfolios that we own. We get to devote quality time to these portfolios. The portfolios are aligned with our strengths.

We touch base with each other frequently. And we have agreed on which decisions have to be made jointly and which each of the Co-CEOs can make on their own. This is how we maximize the power of being able to be in two places at once.

5. We Have Mechanisms for Resolving Conflict.

We understand that we will have disagreements. We actually welcome those disagreements. We have prepared for those moments in advance by agreeing to how we plan to communicate with each other when we strongly disagree on a matter. Our mechanisms for resolving a conflict might involve calling on one or several members of the Board for guidance. At SAP, Co-CEOship was supported by a strong executive chairman who could settle disagreements and provide focus. Most importantly, we have agreed up front on an approach to conflict resolution.

6. We Project Unity.

Even when we have disagreed on a matter, we choose to speak to our team and employees with a unified voice. When we don’t, we sow doubt, confusion and insecurity.

At Jefferies Financial Group, for example, led by Co-CEOs for the last two decades, the top team reports to both leaders who make decisions together. Speaking to one of us, says Brian Friedman, one of the presidents, is considered speaking to both of us.

7. We Share Accountability.

Even when we have separate portfolios, we are jointly responsible for overall performance. That means we are also accountable for outcomes produced by our Co-CEO, even when they may have fallen short of expectations. We own performance as a team. We do not throw each other under the bus.

8. We Have Full Backing from Our Board.

Our Board is fully committed to the success of having two Co-CEOs. It is philosophically aligned with the benefits of co-leadership. It resists the temptation of favoring one CEO over another. While the Board in its entirety or individual Board members are available to help mediate conflict, if necessary, the Board understands that undue meddling - never helpful in the case of a solo-CEO - will be exponentially more damaging in a Co-CEO structure.

As an Executive Coach, I see on a weekly basis the power of having a sounding board, and how a sounding board helps my clients find clarity and make better decisions faster.

A Co-CEO is a supreme sounding board and thought partner.

Two CEOs can do a brilliant job of keeping each other grounded in times of turmoil and crisis. For 17 years, Chip Kaye was the Co-CEO of the private equity firm Warburg Pincus. He pointedly notes that having a Co-CEO helps individuals keep their egos in check.

That’s not a bad benefit, is it?

The Gifts of the Professional Good-Bye

I remember saying good-bye to my trainer. I had worked out with Ron for over 5 years. Liked the discipline. Appreciated Ron’s focused and not overly chatty demeanor. As part of the simplification of my life, I decided to do without the trainer part. Focus on swimming laps in my pool and going to the gym once in a while on my own.

Simple, right? Well, as the moment to tell Ron approached, I found myself hemming and hawing. Wanted to procrastinate. Wanted to find the “perfect moment” to say it. I suddenly felt awkward and tongue-tied. It was tough to get the words out.

Endings are hard. Good-byes are difficult.

This simple ending made me think of the many professional situations in our lives when the time comes to say good-bye. Because we have accepted a position in another company. We may have been let go. We got transferred within our company to a new role, a new business, a different location. And then there are all those moments when we stay but an individual we have worked with closely moves on.

Saying good-bye is part of the dance of life.

How lucky I am to have something that makes saying good-bye so hard.” 

Winnie the Pooh

Don’t sweat the good-bye, and don’t avoid it. A loss is a loss. If you have spent any time at all in the corporate world, you have likely attended a workshop about how we humans move through change. You’ve seen a graph about the emotions we’re likely to experience. The emotional change curve, as it is often called, is based on the wisdom and books of Dr. Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross (On Grief and Grieving and On Death and Dying).

Yes, it was “just” a professional relationship. And yes, feelings will kick in. Saying good-bye is not a mere transactional moment. It’s an opportunity to acknowledge a loss. It’s also an opportunity to celebrate the rich encounters you and I had. Even if what we had was not always easy or friction-free.

Here are some Do’s and Don’ts you may wish to consider when it is time for a professional good-bye. This I know - you will have many opportunities to apply them:

Good-bye DO’s:

Good-bye DON’Ts:

Saying goood-bye to Ron reminded me just how uncomfortable a good-bye can be - and how powerful it is, at the same time, when we show up for it. Do the dance. Choose to show up. Be genuine. Be prepared. And tap the part of you that will enjoy the dance.

A year ago, in the depths of the pandemic, I suddenly missed my work-outs. Lap-swimming on my own wasn’t enough. I gave Ron a call.

Ron and I have been training in his private storefront gym again, ever since. Until it will be time to say good-bye again.