How to make yourself a better leader and contributor in three steps

Curtis R. Sprouse

September 2019

Step 1 - Acceptance

Eureka Connect spends a lot of time assessing business leaders in highly-technical fields to provide valuable insights into who they are and how they can improve. We have the privilege of assessing and working with many highly education, highly-experienced people, and we have never found a person lacking an opportunity for improvement. Some of the areas may seem small or immaterial to the participant at first but prove to be large once people recognize the importance of the opportunity, own the need for change, and make strides toward changing.

So why might people with significant experience and success struggle to develop specific areas of their behavior? In many cases, it is because they do not understand the nature of the opportunity. Let me offer one extreme example from my experience.

Years ago, we worked with a senior scientist from a major pharmaceutical company who we will call Dr. John for the purpose of this story. Dr. John was material to the advancement of an asset that was being developed through collaboration with two Fortune 500 companies. However, the two companies were ready to abandon the $50 million project after three years of work because Dr. John had become to difficult to work with. When we spoke to Dr. John for the first time, he told us, “I know I am difficult to work with, but I am always the smartest person in the room and people needed to adapt to my way of working.”

After hearing this, I asked Dr. John if I could ask two questions to determine if we should continue the conversation. He said, “Sure, let me see what you’ve got.”

I asked him if he ever walked down the hall at work and had a colleague intentionally ignore him, look at the ground or their phone, or duck into a room to avoid interaction. After a long pause, he said yes, so I presented him with a scenario.

I asked, what if that colleague had just spent all morning working on an important technical issue that they knew you could solve, but the idea of interacting with you was so troublesome, they choose not to engage? Then I asked a second question: “Is it worth it to you to be the smartest person in the company that nobody wants to interact with, and is it acceptable to compromise your own science because you refuse to learn how to effectively work with others?”

Again, after a long pause, he said no.

During a conference call with him, his boss, the company’s two vice presidents, the project leads from each of the collaborative companies, and a colleague— I suggested that we might have something to discuss, and he agreed.

Over the next hour we discussed why Dr. John struggled with interpersonal interactions. We started with the behavioral data that allowed us to enlighten Dr. John to the material nature of his challenge. We focused on his interpersonal model consisting of four behaviors:

- Social Skills: the ability to connect

- Goodwill: genuine care and compassion for others

- Communication: the ability to exchange information in an effective way

- Collaboration: the frequency of interaction.

Dr. John had a social skill score and goodwill score bellow 10, out of a scale of 100. His collaboration and communications scores were also under 20 on the same scale. At this point, Dr. John started to talk about his childhood. He was not athletic, he had a slight build, he was awkward in public settings, and many people made fun of him. He was not out going much either, as he loved math and science and found great enjoyment and success focusing on those two disciplines. Dr. John realized at a young age that he could excel in both subjects and outperform his peers. As Dr. John got older and eventually attained two PhDs, he used his intellectual skills to put people in their place.

He told us that he had given up on people many years ago, as he did not need them to succeed. We know from research that the events from our youth can have significant effects on our ability to develop and function as we get older. Now faced with the realization that he had not optimized his technical skills and that he was compromising the very thing that was most important to him—his science—he was troubled with the realization that he had spent many years not using a key resource—his colleagues.

As the discussion progressed, it was apparent that this bothered Dr. John significantly. Toward the end he asked us, in a very calm tone, “What do I do now?”

Step 2 – Focus

We now had Dr. John’s attention. We focused his education and development on two key behaviors. social skill and goodwill. Dr. John had strong dominance, expertise, reflectivity, and competing skills. He was not afraid to take the stage or persist in his pursuit of an objective (high Dominance). Dr. John was overconfident, having strong belief in his technical acumen (high Expertise).

He also has a very creative mind, with the ability to take disparate information and see things others do not. He has a tremendous capacity to get his mind around topics (high reflectivity) and he engaged in all topics with a sense of urgency and a need to succeed and win, while lacking fear (high competing). These four traits—dominance, expertise, reflectivity, and competing—make it easier for Dr. John to engage.

Our work has shown that high dominance, expertise, reflectivity, and competing are not a requirement for the successful development of social skills and goodwill, but they do make it easier for those who have not attained a proficiency in these areas when required to develop or refine what we term as social acumen (SA), the intersection of social skills and goodwill. We also found that SA, when combined with dominance, expertise, reflectivity, and competing, is a key element of emotional intelligence (EQ).

As one develops the ability to effectively connect and feel, show and emote care and compassion, they enhance their ability to read others and react in an appropriate and more optimal way regardless of the other person’s interpersonal skills and the dynamics of the situation one is faced with.

We tasked him Dr. John with connecting on three levels as he engaged with family, friends, and colleagues, and we challenged him to learn about others and provide them with insight into his interests and feelings as they related to important topics. We provided Dr. John with an outline to help him understand the levels of connections. There are three fundamental levels of connections: experiences, engagement, and meaningful life.

We define experience as a shared place or event that may be common to many. These are easy to find and do not expose a lot of personal information. For example, I enjoy Italian food. When others share a love of Italian food, I am often interested in the restaurants they frequent and memories of meals they have enjoyed. Concerts, movies, community events, common upbringings (where you grew-up) and vacations are just some of the topics we would say define a shared experience. When you grow up just a few miles from Pittsburgh like I did, you do not need to explain to others who are from the same area the love we share for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Having lived in New England for almost 30 years, it is the same for Red Sox nation. There are no other baseball teams if you were born and raised in the Boston area.

Engagement is the next level. Engagement is when we choose to undertake physical or intellectual endeavors that not all people would choose. Engagement involves choice, effort, practice, proficiency and in some cases, mastery. These activities tend to be repeated, as they bring joy and satisfaction to the participant. Playing an instrument, playing sports, painting, writing poetry, hunting, mountain climbing, and cycling are just a few examples of activities that require a person to put forth a physical or intellectual effort.

Meaningful life is the last level of social interaction. The elements of our lives that we care most about—family, friends and colleagues that own a special place in our hearts, minds, and souls. Just today I was chatting with a good friend, I will call him Tom for the purpose of this story. Tom became a new grandfather last week. Having had three children of his own, Tom was telling me of the joy he is experiencing hearing from his middle son how his oldest son who never had any fear in his life, who navigates life with a sense of invisibility when faced with physical, emotional and intellectual changes has been brought to his knees by this infant.

Tom and I are both fathers of three. We both laughed as we traded stories about our two boys and our youngest daughters. It was funny when both of us admitted to using the very same unconventional parenting techniques to restore order when the boys were at war, our daughters were egging them on, and our wives were not present to consult or intervene. I have known Tom for more than seven years. I have spent weeks on the road with him. We have shared many meals and have traded hundreds of stories, but today was the first time we shared these stories.

Meaningful life is important because it is when we learn what is most important to others. It tends to evoke a broad group of deep emotions. Tom and I discussed the anger we had when the boys were fighting but took great pleasure in the laughter we shared as we told our stories and realized we both used the same approach to gain control of the situation. At that moment we shared in the memories of deep broad-based emotion. We shared the same exact feeling at different times with different people that we loved.

Now back to Dr. John. He listened intently as we outlined the concepts. He asked questions about how he would get to meaningful life in a conversation with someone he’s never met. He struggled with the idea of taking time for “small talk,” but in the end he was open to trying it.

It should be noted that there is a body of scientific evidence that would suggest that it is disingenuous to call a social interaction that allows two people to connect small talk or a soft skill. We now know using brain scanning techniques like EEG, PET, MRI, and FMRI that interactions that make us happy or feel good evoke thoughts that cause the body to produce and release specific hormones. We know that the hormone released in these situations contribute to the formation of neurological connections in the brain that impacts activity in regions of the brain. We know that these social interactions, when repeated, are often the foundation of lasting and permanent behavioral changes and behavioral development.

Dr. John now had a clear mission. He would leave the discussion and take action to connect, to show genuine care for others views and interest. He would open up and let people learn more about him. Intellectually, the concept and three levels of connection made sense. The question he had was, could he do it, and would it work?

As we concluded the call that day, I asked Dr. John if he had any last thoughts or questions. Without hesitation he said something that surprised everyone on the phone:

“I just want you guys to know I really love you,” he said, laughing.

At that moment, he was trying to be funny, but a few things were clear. We had gotten his attention, he had taken ownership for his inappropriate behavior, and he wanted to act. The fact that he was able to bring humor into what had been a very intense conversation showed that he understood much of what we had discussed, and he had the ability to start making changes. It was also his way of saying thank you. In my opinion, it was very well done on his part.

Step 3 – Action

About three months after the initial discussion with Dr. John, I received a call from Mike, one of the Vice Presidents also on the call. Mike called to provide update on the team’s progress and was happy to report that they were seeing tremendous improvement in the team’s communication and collaboration. Much of the tension that had existed had dissipated, and people were developing better relationships. Team members interacted in more direct ways and demonstrated respect for different approaches to problems. The team had become more efficient, more effective, and the morale had markedly improved. I was pleased to hear all this news, but this was not the main reason for the call— Mike wanted to talk about Dr. John.

Mike informed me that Dr. John is a “changed person,” and that he believed that much of the change in the team was due to the actions and leadership of Dr. Jon. He went on to say that Dr. John became not only nice, but kind.

The Monday morning following the initial call we had with Dr. John, he brought in donuts. Dr. John did not just bring donuts in and set them in the break room. Dr. John took time to chat with people as they came in to get a donut. He told some of those people that he was sorry for the way he had acted and that he was going to work on being more approachable. He asked people to feel comfortable letting him know when they felt he was not listening to them.

What Mike told me was that this new accountability continued as Dr. John had meetings with colleagues. He told people that he knew that he was not always a good listener, but that it was ok for people to call him out in meetings. In meetings when this eventually happened, Dr. John was able to step back and loosen up. His colleagues now had the green light to disrupt non-optimal behavior. Dr. John’s ability to be vulnerable in front of others was being recognized by his colleagues. People felt more comfortable engaging with him and he developed a better approach to interacting with his colleagues’ one on one and in group settings.

Several months after my call with Mike, I had a call with Dr. John to discuss his development focus. Dr. John sounded great. He was upbeat and had a very positive demeanor during our call. This was much different than my first encounter with him on the phone.

My first question to Dr. John was, “Are you a better collaborator and leader than when we first spoke six months ago?”

Dr. John said yes, so I asked him to prove it.

He explained that he was building stronger and better relationships with his peers. When I asked him to give me evidence of this, he was able to provide me with names of colleagues and how he now knew more about them. Dr. John told me that he had shared information about himself with many of his colleagues and could site very specific examples of conversations and meetings where he had taken a different approach to the interaction with colleagues. He told me he was enjoying the work more than ever and that the team was making progress and the science was advancing on many new and interesting fronts. Dr. John was experiencing a lot of personal satisfaction form the organization’s success.

Dr. John admitted that it was not a perfect transformation. We discussed how he still lost his composure in meetings and at times he would jump conversations and be dismissive of other views, but the new dynamics to these situations was that he was doing this far less and when it happened, Dr. John would let people interrupt his less-than-optimal behavior. Often, someone in the meeting would have the courage to tell him he was not listening, or they would gracefully ask a question that would give a colleague an opportunity to expand their thinking or redirect the discussion.

Dr. John said that in many situations he was able to take a deep breath, make a joke about his bad behavior and let others present their ideas without his continued interruptions. He told me this was very hard for him as he wanted people to see his position, but he realized that he needed to take the time to listen and teach, not dictate. He told me he felt he had a long way to go, but that he had made good progress.

Consider the first statement Dr. John made to me:

“I know I am difficult to work with, but I am always the smartest person in the room, and people need to adapt to my way of working.”

The person I was now talking to was not putting himself first and was now focused on how others truly saw him. He had made the transition from seeing himself through his own eyes to seeing himself through the eyes of others. This shift alone is monumental, as Dr. John was not focused what he thought of himself and was now focused on what others thought of him.

Developing meaningful connections with others, effective collaboration, and productive conflict resolution skills is not easy. We make our first impression of others in less than 15 seconds. We all have different views of what we hear when people are talking. Cultural and language differences will and do accentuate these challenges. People with strong personalities like the sound of their own voices. Dr. John was able to disrupt what had been ineffective behavior relative to interpersonal connections, collaboration, and conflict resolution in his personal interactions and in meetings with peers. This was proving to be a beneficial change that was making a big difference with the team and organization.

It is important to note that over 25 people that worked with Dr. John had gone through the same behavioral assessment and behavioral training as Dr. John. Everyone on the leadership team and management team was being held responsible for improving their behavior and supporting the development of their colleagues. Dr. John was not the only person on the team that struggled with interpersonal skills and effective collaboration. This made it easier for him to admit his ineffective behavior, as others were having to do the same thing.

Let’s fast forward approximately three years. The company that was formed as a result of the collaboration went on to secure many industry contracts. The leadership team had significant turnover, but Dr. John remained as a leader of the project. He continued to improve his leadership skills and never went back to his old operating model. I was told that the company was sold for more than $300 million.

What is the moral of the story? It is not always easy for people that have had success to realize they are not optimizing their talent. This becomes a bigger challenge as people amass experience, knowledge, and wealth. They believe their success reflects their great collaboration and leadership skills. But this I know for a fact: everyone can get better. Most people do not realize the magnitude of improvement that is possible. What is important is that they do not understand how the development of one person like Dr. John can positively impact so many others.

May times leaders of teams will ask me, “What is the one thing I should do to make this team better?”

They want one thing that all members of the team can do to make the team perform better. I tell them that finding one thing each person can do to get better will make the largest difference on themselves and the organization. When people are committed to helping each other with the thing each person has chosen, it can be powerful. Dr. John and his colleagues proved it.