It's Lonely at the Top
Written by guest blogger Tracey Sloan.
It's lonely at the top. I used to hear that phrase, and think "Really? You got THAT far, and now you're complaining?!" Fast forward a few years (okay, two decades), and I hate to admit it, but, it's lonely at the top.
I am in a senior leadership role in the transportation industry. Not so senior that I have my own floor, or even keys to the Head Master Chef's Boardroom. But I am invited to the table, and I have a role and a team that allows me to dream big and create something absolutely fantastic for the future.
In years past, I was a little spoiled. I'd led communication, change, strategy, operations, training...well, all sorts of teams. In most of those occasions, I grew up through the ranks, and had plenty of time to invest in building great, productive and positive relationships. Relationships I could tap into in a pinch, for a word of encouragement, or a quick cup of Joe to talk through a challenge du jour. And my team, who'd I'd essentially grown up with, was there for me, anytime and always, and me for them. I got to a place where I could just share an outcome needed with a direct report, and BOOM, they delivered, just like that. On time; high quality; minimal guidance required. Guess you could say I was livin' the dream, from a leadership perspective.
In my new role (four months or less; still a babe in these woods), I know no one. Goose-egg. Came to the company new to everyone; no familiar faces or places in sight. I was fortunate enough to meet a small handful of people in my interview process, and in the first couple of weeks, I began to build a small tribe. Unfortunately, they have day-jobs, too, and can't be there at my beck and call, just because I'm feeling lonely or need a little encouragement or peer interaction. One of them even made clear that this was not a role he was even remotely interested in playing. Um, okay.
So lest you think I'm just crying in my proverbial Wheaties, there's a positive angle and some light coming (because living in darkness is just not my thing). While it's been difficult to navigate this career change, I've grown a tremendous amount in just four months. I've learned that all workforce cultures have their ups and downs, their smiles and frowns. I've learned there is always good to be discovered, and bad to be worked through. Pursuing perfection is a waste of time and life. I've learned I do much better when I remain present, and embrace the now. If you stay hopeful, and encouraged, good things will come back to you, even when you aren't sure how that's going to happen.
Recently, I had several back-to-back, high-stakes, high-visibility meetings and deadlines. Testing the new kid, I get it. They were all hitting at once, and there's only one me. Out of sheer and utter necessity, I had to let go of one of my deliverables, because I knew it would go to pot out of sheer neglect. So, after weighing my options, I took an uncalculated risk and delegated 100% of my very first All Hands to my direct reports. It had been years since they'd all been together in one place, so this was an important event. I challenged them to work together and design an event that would be informative, interactive and inspirational. I warned them that I would essentially just be showing up, and they'd be fully running the show. I then proceeded to work ridiculous hours on making sure the other efforts I was managing were on track.
When my team arrived early to set up for the big day, I was finishing up my last big meeting, which unfortunately ran two hours late, and both meetings were in the same room. This reduced their set-up time to seconds, not minutes, with eager-beavers waiting in line to get in. I prepared myself mentally for a complete debacle, realizing it would be my fault if it tanked, for leaving them in a lurch. Boy, was I wrong. The team didn't miss a beat; they put on an amazing show. The team was engaged, thinking and laughing-out-loud, like never before. Prior to this, I'd experienced my team more as a group of talented solo artists, and here they were working together, as a thoughtful and free-flowing symphony, with all but a standing ovation at the end.
Here I gave them this task out of pure necessity, and they delivered something magical, better than I could ever have imagined. The lesson was on me. I learned to trust that your team has your back, even if they're just getting to know you. That they can take - and even welcome - a challenge. That home runs happen when people are inspired, not over-coached. And that Stephen Covey was right when he said people will rise to whatever expectations you set. I just needed to get out of their way.
Since this day, I've seen my team through a whole new lens. I think we've gained mutual respect and understanding, and see the value of the diverse gifts each person on the team brings to the table. I give them more space, and greater degrees of freedom to lead. In response, they are lighter in their steps, stronger in spirit and leading with a renewed sense of creativity and determination. And me? Well, let's just say, it's not so lonely at the top anymore.