by Whitney Johnson
First Published on HBR.ORG
With nervous, but mostly eager, anticipation I walked up to the C-suite floor to meet with a senior manager at Merrill Lynch. When I’d initially met him two years earlier, he’d seemed quite supportive of my career as a sell-side analyst. And now that I was Institutional Investor double-ranked, I decided to reach out to him, and confide in him my long-term dream of moving into senior management. I hoped he would offer to sponsor me on my five-to-ten year quest.
The conversation didn’t go well. He was dismissive, and the message pretty clear: any plans I had to go into senior management would have to happen somewhere other than Merrill. There are many possible reasons why this manager responded as he did, but the one immutable fact is this: I walked into his office animated, full of confidence that I could be more. I walked out with my dream deflated. As Mike Tyson famously said, “everybody has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.”
In his 1931 book The Epic of America, historian James Truslow Adams coined the term the “American Dream” to describe a “social order in which each man and each woman shall…attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable…regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” For many, both working and unemployed, the vicissitudes of the present economy have quashed their belief that the American dream can be their dream. This pessimism, which has crept into American culture, needs to be countered. As business leaders, how do we keep the ethos of the American dream alive? More specifically, how do we help our employees live out their own dreams? Here are two suggestions, so that no employee has to leave your office feeling like they just lost a boxing match:
Honor the aspiration: In my Merrill experience, that senior manager didn’t see me being able to do what I thought I could. He may have been right. Or not. But paraphrasing Chris Brogan, “even though the customer may not always right, he still deserves to be heard.” This applies to employees as well. Encouraging the impulse to do or become more is critical to keeping employees engaged, happy and productive, especially when they’ve earned the right to aim higher. And regardless of whether what they desire is possible, when an employee shares with us a career goal or an innovative idea, their ambition itself should be honored. Because, as someone once said, “our aspirations are our possibilities.”
Look hard for the yes: Many managers cling to the “no” as if every “yes” to an employee means “no” to the company. This is a zero-sum view of the world, one in which the size of the pie is fixed. The bigger your piece of the pie, the smaller mine is. When we look for the “yes,” an employee asking to do more becomes a catalyst for growing the pie, for creating value. And we needn’t necessarily come up with how to bake a bigger pie on our own. Why not ask the person seeking advancement to come up with a plan, one that benefits all stakeholders — employee, line manager, and the company? This approach not only allows you to be responsive, it gives the employee an opportunity to think strategically and to demonstrate he or she is a team player, further underscoring their value to the firm.
Even when we are predisposed to say yes, sometimes seeing our employees in the role they envision for themselves can be difficult. If it weren’t, we probably would have promoted them already. In this instance, consider replacing what I’ll call the American Idol paradigm with The Voice mindset. In American Idol, a contestant’s physical presence is often the subject of much discussion. The best singers can be literally overlooked. To correct for that, on The Voice, the first auditions are blind — the contestants make it through based solely on their voice, regardless of the rest of the so-called “package.” If the star quality of our employees isn’t immediately apparent, disaggregate their package into component skills until you find the disruptive skill that can make them a star performer, and deploy him/her accordingly. We each yearn for that kind of “yes.”
“Great leaders,” wrote Marcus Buckingham after surveying 80,000 managers in a Gallup poll, “discover what is unique about each person and capitalize on it.” This creates a positive feedback loop. Valued employees engage, and engaged employees are more likely to innovate and to propel a company forward, according to another Gallup study.
It’s not always convenient to mine for our employees’ potential greatness, but R&D is never cheap. One of the best ways to invest in the people who work for us and with us is to give them an opportunity to attain their fullest stature. This is what sets leaders apart from managers.
Whitney Johnson is a founding partner of ROSE PARK ADVISORS, Clayton M. Christensen’s investment firm. Previously, she was a double-ranked Institutional Investor analyst at Merrill Lynch covering telecom and media in emerging markets. Follow Whitney on Twitter @JOHNSONWHITNEY.