Does Your Team Succeed Because Of Your Leadership – Or In Spite Of It?

“My bosses never presumed to know better than I did about what I needed in order to do my job.”

Is that a scenario you can imagine, or does that sound like something out of a fantasy?

In your role as boss, do you tend to think you know more than those you lead about what will make them successful? In your role as employee, has your boss ever trusted you in that way?

That opening line is actually a quote from actress Michelle Williams, in her speech accepting the Emmy for best actress in a limited series or TV movie, for her role as the Broadway dancer and actress Gwen Verdon in FX’s “Fosse/Verdon.”

That quote, and her entire speech, gives us a great description and demonstration of leading in the age of personalization.

I talk about the difference between standardization and personalization a lot, and people sometimes jump from one extreme to the other – thinking I’m advocating some form of chaos where everyone just does what they want.

In the age of standardization, we were told what to do inside the box we were given. That doesn’t work anymore in our new age of personalization, where people want to influence the business by contributing at their fullest capacity. Does that have to lead to chaos? No. But it does have to lead to listening to people, getting to know them as individuals, and letting them influence the business in ways that only they can.

In her acceptance speech, Williams paints us a picture of what this can look like:

“I see this as an acknowledgment of what is possible when a woman is trusted to discern her own needs, feels safe enough to voice them, and respected enough that they’ll be heard.”

“When I asked for more dance classes, I heard yes. More voice lessons, yes. A different wig, a pair of fake teeth not made out of rubber, yes. And all of these things, they require effort and they cost more money, but my bosses never presumed to know better than I did about what I needed in order to do my job and honor Gwen Verdon.”

“And so I want to say thank you so much to FX and to Fox 21 Studios for supporting me completely and for paying me equally, because they understood that when you put value into a person, it empowers that person to get in touch with their own inherent value, and then where do they put that value? They put it into their work.”

“And so the next time a woman — and especially a woman of color, because she stands to make 52 cents on the dollar compared to her white, male counterpart — tells you what she needs in order to do her job, listen to her. Believe her. Because one day she might stand in front of you and say thank you for allowing her to succeed because of her workplace environment and not in spite of it.

BECAUSE OF her workplace and not in spite of it.

How many of us can say that? Most of us achieve success in spite of our workplaces. We are forced to work against old standards that are no longer relevant. We are forced to follow these steps to achieve those results, the same way that everyone else in the organization does it.

But if you’re not going to build a system that not only allows but also actively enables people to exert their individual influence – what’s the point of hiring for particular expertise?

Standardization is a framework with no freedom.

Standardization does not trust people to use their capacity and capabilities to deliver results that lead to significance – for themselves and the organization as a whole.

To try to soften their standardization, many companies now use intranets for employee feedback and to understand best practices and ideas the same way they use the internet for customer feedback.

But what questions are being asked? Are they standardization questions like “What are we doing right? What could we do better?” Or are they personalization questions: “How can we allow your methods to better influence the direction of the organization? What methods or systems of ours stifle your ability to self-direct?” Do people see how their comments are being addressed?

Is there room for leaders to listen to what people say in person? And do those people feel safe enough to speak up without fear of being judged and fear of retribution? If not, then the leaders and organization are trapped in standardization and unable to deliver on the promise of feedback. They are measuring success by the number of responses, not the methods for addressing them.

So how would a results-driven organization evolve its need for results to lead in the age of personalization? By seeing it through the lens of methods first. By putting in place processes that lead to something greater than just numbers.

Instead of touting your results, remember what you did in math and science classes in school and show your work. Try this exercise.

  • Gather the team and tell them each to identify a big result they want to achieve. Say you will meet back a week later.
  • Encourage collaboration across the team and outside it, but don’t mandate it.
  • During the week, set up a meeting with each team member specifically and completely devoted to asking and answering questions, brainstorming approaches, and coaching them on strategies.
  • In the meeting a week later, have everyone share the methods they used to identify what they wanted.


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