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A Tale of Two Leaders: Who Would You Rather Work For?

Lila has worked at a thriving high tech animation company of 200 people for six years. During that time she has been recognized for her technical skills, her ability to collaborate with other disciplines, her willingness to be flexible and her capacity to grow. She has assumed greater responsibility and now is a director in charge of new business project teams. Overall she has been very happy with her job and career trajectory.

She asked me to meet with her because she needed a reality check. During her six years with the company Lila has seen three CEOs come and go. With each new leader there were adjustments: shifting strategy, projects taken off the schedule, new reporting structures, staff eliminations, new external partners. Lila likes the new CEO and the feelings are mutual. In fact, it is this new boss that elevated her to director.

So what was her concern? “I still like my job and feel confident that I am valued at the company. My problem is that I don’t trust the management of this place. How is it possible to have four CEOs in six years and feel like there is a stable future ahead? Plus, I’ve had so many different job responsibilities and titles that my head is spinning. I would like more than a minute to master one role before leaping into the next one. I know I’m supposed to be flexible and go with the flow and see all of this as a great opportunity. But, honestly, I’ve started to fear coming into work. Who is in charge today? And what is my job today?”

Upon my suggestion, Lila set up a conversation with the CEO. She asked more in depth questions about where the company is headed and how he saw Lila fitting into the picture. He spoke of still being the market leader and redefining animation and three major projects that would be game changers. “You are running two of those teams so you are poised for great things. I have confidence in you, you have a proven track record, everyone speaks so highly about your skills and leadership contributions. There is a reason why you are one of a couple dozen longer term employees. You embody what we are about. Your future here is very bright.”

In my follow up talk with Lila she still was unsettled. “I get that the CEO likes my work. I get that I don’t need to leave. But I can’t help but feel like something is totally messed up with this place if we keep chewing through leaders. Besides, I find myself craving a certain amount of structure and predictability.”

Eli works at a boutique professional services firm that provides consulting to educational institutions. He was hired by the founder of the firm ten years ago when she was building out the practice. Over the years Eli has become a highly sought after consultant and has grown the business in significant ways. The founder has steadily added staff and been very intentional about mentoring each consultant. She is particularly focused on a unique approach to the work that she calls “compassionate, inclusive, forward momentum”. Eli has been consistently coached in this methodology and describes growing in skills, confidence and satisfaction.

He asked to talk to me because he was feeling a need to break away. He loves his job, the clients, his colleagues and his boss. He feels that the mentoring has been invaluable and he sees the positive impact of their methodology. But Eli wondered aloud, “Maybe it’s time for me to explore new opportunities where I can learn other methods or work with different industries. Sometimes I don’t feel enough individuality because we work so collaboratively. It’s not that I don’t express my opinions or that I get shot down for them. I am able to shape the discussion. I just feel like a change of environment will challenge me in new ways.”

Eli wanted my encouragement to find out if the grass was greener someplace else. Instead I urged him to think about how he could demonstrate greater separateness at this firm. He ended up having several interesting discussions with his peers and he discovered that others were feeling too much togetherness was stifling for them too. They decided to approach the founder to explore how to better balance individual and team needs. She was initially taken aback but then very receptive. She listened to the concerns and realized that her compassionate, inclusive, forward momentum approach erred on the side of being too collective. She worried that the clients felt some of the same things the staff did. Eli’s question opened up new dialogue and possibilities at the firm.

Both Lila and Eli like their jobs and have been given some envious opportunities. Lila’s development happened haphazardly while Eli’s was planned. Both feel valued and respected by their companies and like their bosses. Lila doesn’t trust the leadership of her company while Eli worries that his firm is too dogmatic.

What did they do next? Lila is still with her company but is lightly exploring other options. Eli is still at his firm but is now leading an internal effort to expand or rethink the methodology. He wants to see how this plays out before making any decisions.

Which setting would you prefer? Which boss would you choose? Would you stay or would you leave?

There are no right answers here. But there are a couple things we know for sure about what high performers want from their jobs. They want opportunities to grow, just enough structure to make things sane, meaningful relationships with peers, trustworthy leaders and recognition for a job well done. Leaders take heed! These are the things you must provide for your Lila’s and Eli’s or else they will leave.

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