Sunday, April 06, 2008

Bosses, choose your words carefully

From The Mistake Bank.

[The Mistake Bank has received permission to publish excerpts from the Harvard Business School Press/50Lessons series "Lessons Learned: Straight Talk from the World's Top Business Leaders," The books are full of great stories, including some very useful mistake stories. Our first is from Paul Anderson, Chairman of Spectra Energy]

As I progressed in my career and got into increasingly more responsible or powerful roles, …it was almost like my words took on the power of the position, and things that were casual before were no longer casual. I had my first example of this when I was a manager. It was fairly early in my career, and a woman named Sarah had come in. I was running a planning organization, and Sarah came in to me and said, “Look, I don’t have any background in planning—I’m from the IT group—but I would love to join your organization. I’ll work hard to learn what I need to learn to do a good job. I will strive to do anything you need done. Just give me a chance.”

I said, “Well, that sounds fair to me. Why don’t you join the organization? I’ll give you a year. At the end of the year you will either be a planner and contributing; or, if it’s not working out, you can go back to the IT group, and we’ll assume that it was a nice try but it didn’t work out.”

So she joined the organization and she was outstanding; she was the best new employee we had that year. She took on everything; she learned. She became the “go-to” person—everybody came to her with their issues. She was a star, there was just no question; she was doing an outstanding job.

And I thought, “Well, this has to be one of the best moves that I’ve ever participated in,” and I was quite comfortable that things were working out nicely. But at the end of a year, she came into my office, and she was in tears. I said, “Sarah, what’s wrong?” And she said, “Well, I don’t understand why it’s not working out. At the end of a year, you said you’d tell me if it was working out and you haven’t told me that, so I must assume that it’s not working out and I’m going to have to go back to IT.” I was flabbergasted, and of course I told her, “Hey, you’re doing a great job!”

But it struck me that I’d made a casual comment: “…in a year we’ll know.” She had gone back to her office and marked her calendar, and, by God, at the end of a year she expected me to walk into her office with a decision. That casual comment was very powerful to her, and so insignificant to me, that it really struck me that I had to be very careful in making comments as I went along.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Press. Excerpted from Lessons Learned: Straight Talk from the World’s Top Business Leaders--Managing Your Career. Copyright (c) 2007 Fifty Lessons Limited; All Rights Reserved.

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