We all have a favorite or two when it comes to interview questions. Mine is this: What is the failure that you most cherish?
As I attempt to ascertain how the people I'm considering hiring might fit into my organization, I am always interested in how people respond to the learning, vulnerability, self-awareness, and insight that can be harvested from setbacks and failure.
My second-favorite and equally telling interrogation is: If you could go back five, 10 or 15 years, what advice would you give your younger self? This question probes for what they wish they knew then. It's a tough one, and opens up a lot of conversation.
After almost 30 years of working with Fortune 500 CEOs and their teams, from companies like Harley Davidson, Textron, Petco, Pulte and Tsys, today I ponder: What do I wish I knew before going on the journey of helping CEOs create high performance teams to lead change?
The answer is immediate. I wish I knew the role adversity and conflict play in personal growth and high performance.
My early approach was to make the noise go away, to find a way for leaders to 'play nice'. It took a while for me to discover that harmony is not the same thing as high performance.
My thinking was often supported by a CEO that warned what would happen if we opened that can of worms. Whatever that was for that company. I found myself encouraging a CEO's plan to take an issue offline in order to limit group, team and their own angst.
But I see so clearly now that out of discomfort comes real change. From hurdles spring new opportunities. Here's what I wish I knew then, that can maybe help you now:
1. Don't shun adversity - embrace it!
I have witnessed many CEOs start with a well-intended desire to be liked, validated, and admired. They want to be perceived as a good leader in their people's eyes. The unfortunate result is that they don't want to hear bad news and avoid digging deep into conflict and adversity.
While there is nothing wrong with wanting the respect of your followers, wanting people to like you is ultimately just a selfish act of a leader. True growth and performance come from embracing conflict, not avoiding it. Adversity is the feedstock of high performance.
Candid conversations about the most critical questions for the future have to make it to the CEO's discussion table as soon as possible. The more open lines there are to that table, the better. No matter what real or imagined roadblocks may stand in the way.
2. Fight it out in public rather than offline
High performance CEOs and teams create transparency, candor and honesty in all interactions, and they do it publicly together.
Taking an issue ripe with conflict and discomfort offline gives birth to mistrust in the team. The very best CEOs actually create a fight club routine where they regularly expect team members to take the most contentious issues and literally put them in the ring to be battled to clarity, alignment and resolution.
These CEOs are always tough on the issues yet respectful of the people during the conversation. Unfortunately, in many organizations, CEOs end up doing the opposite and going soft on issues and harsh on people - and the most controversial conversation don't ever see the light of day.
3. Conflict-rich issues require accountability and the buddy system
Contentious issues are often high risk/high reward propositions. People want to know who's doing what and which piece they own.
But, the best way to succeed in fully resolving a tough issue is to develop a buddy system. Buddies make sure no one gets lost along the way, avoids the blame game, addresses any unexpected new problems, and helps transform an issue into stellar performance.
What do you do when you run into serious adversity? How has your reaction to it changed the way you work or the success you've realized?