The regional VP and I would fly into the district office. We would first meet with the district Director, and then over the course of the next two days the VP, the Director, and I would meet with each station manager in a series of rather intense “three-on-one” station review meetings.
This particular district was once again underperforming; it was the worst district in the region by far. This district’s meetings were not pleasant for the district Director, and they were not pleasant for most of the managers.
One of those three-on-ones I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
Scott was a young station manager, only a few months into his promotion. He took over a station that had a reputation for being tough, intractable; and to make matters worse, the previous station manager had transferred out amid accusations of falsifying reports to prop up performance.
Scott was cleaning up the operation; doing so necessitated firing some of the previous front-line managers who simply did not want to play straight. That meant he was bearing the burden of being understaffed. And because the performance reporting was now honest, Scott’s operating results were showing rather dismal year-over-year comparisons on many of the key metrics.
If the meeting were today, I’m quite sure he would have explained his situation with a matter of fact “it is what it is” but that phrase wasn’t in popular use back then…
Everybody knew the situation. The RVP was going to test Scott a bit, but he was not going to go hard at him.
Scott was clearly nervous as he initiated his presentation, but most of the station managers were, so his nervousness wasn’t overly conspicuous. He was doing a reasonable job explaining his difficult status and his challenging plans.
Until he said something that struck me as not quite right. It was an innocent, off-hand comment; but, to me, it seemed packed, loaded, heavy. I wanted to not hear about the numbers anymore. I wanted Scott to unpack it for me.
I distinctly remember interrupting him, timidly turning to the VP and the Director, and noting that I wanted to ask Scott a question but warning that it might take us off track a bit. The VP told me to go ahead.
“Scott, can you speak more to why you think the drivers don’t respect you?”
And the floodgates opened.
We never did get back on track. Scott wasn’t able to finish his presentation. He broke down; he shared that he had been working 20 hours a day; he was sleeping in his car; his marriage was in trouble; he went on… until we called a time out.
I remember the debrief afterward, and the VP wanting to talk about what we could do for Scott. I remember the district director at one point turning to me and asking how I knew to stop and ask that question, and how I knew it might lead us to something else entirely, something important.
I didn’t know how I knew. I just knew. In fact, I think it was more a feeling than a knowing. It was one of those times when feeling was knowing.
By me asking that question, Scott knew I knew. Or at least he knew I knew something. And it allowed him to release. He needed to release. But of course, in a leader, that is weakness…
But it isn’t what it is.
Shortly after that meeting, Scott resigned. He didn’t see his situation as recoverable. He may have been right. But I’m not so sure. Regardless; we’ll never know.
You might be thinking that this wasn’t exactly a great outcome. You might point out that this didn’t end well, that we didn’t improve the situation with this approach. Hard for me to argue with that.
But everyone learned something. The VP learned that he was under supporting this young leader; he likely wondered how many other young leaders he was under supporting. That’s a valuable lesson in my book.
The district Director learned that she had an emotional blind spot; she likely wondered what other leader stress across her district was not being recognized and managed. That’s a valuable lesson, as well.
I learned that I had something to offer that was in short supply in business circles and that I needed to trust my instincts. And that, without a doubt, was valuable too!
I don’t know what Scott learned. But I want to believe he learned a lot.
I don’t know where he is now. I’d like to think that he went on to realize his leadership potential, because he certainly had it; in spades.
It was just too much, too soon, for him. By all appearances, he was decisive, leading, in control, taking charge.
But sometimes it isn’t what it is.
And, without empathy, we never know.
And thus, we never learn.
And thus, we can’t correct.