If you’re one of the tens of millions of movie-lovers who watched the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, you heard plenty about the nominated films of the year. (And you also witnessed a huge moment in live television when La La Land was mistakenly announced as Best Picture!)
But the Oscars are about more than the best films of the year. They are also about perception and illusion and façade. Stars prep for hours for that one moment when they pose for the paparazzi on the red carpet. By the time they step out of the limo, the actors and actresses have been made up, dressed, polished, tweezed and coached. “Who are you wearing tonight?” they’re asked. Teams of PR reps and stylists have them ready to face the worldwide viewing audience looking their absolute best. Catch them two days later, though, and they probably won’t look – or act – so perfect.
Something similar happens with leaders in the business world. There is often a big difference between who a leader wants to be – and others need them to be – and the way that behave consistently, day in and day out.
THREE RED CARPET SCENARIOS, BUSINESS VERSION
Here are three “red carpet” behaviors we see with leaders at all levels. All of these get in the way of individual and, ultimately, organizational performance.
#1 All Dressed Up and No Place (Productive) to Go
Most of us have seen this one play out. The team has been prepping for months for the “big meeting.” They’re doing their red carpet prep equivalent: build the beautiful PowerPoint presentation, buy a new suit, put in plenty of rehearsal time with pre-meeting after pre-meeting (after pre-meeting). They’re as ready as they’ll ever be. And the senior execs are playing their roles. At least it looks like it: they’re suited up, looking interested, asking questions. But the meeting stays superficial because no one wants to raise the real problems in the room. So nothing gets decided, and nothing concrete gets done. The real conversation happens after the meeting, without the benefit of engagement from all of the players.
The result? The team’s left feeling that all their hard work was just for show. Hours of time were wasted. (One team I worked with estimated that they collectively spent over 200 hours on just the PowerPoint presentation!) The senior execs miss out on the benefit of diverse inputs and full collaboration with their teams, who are closer to what’s really going on with their customers, rank and file employees, and the competition. The work doesn’t move forward, or if it does, it’s doomed to fail.
Solution: Don’t get sucked into that red carpet “special occasion” culture. Meetings shouldn’t just be for show. The people with a stake in the outcomes need to be part of the conversation. The reason there is a meeting to begin with is so key stakeholders can stay ahead of tomorrow’s problems. Expect – and ask for – differing opinions. Listen carefully for pseudo-agreement and polite ‘yessing’ in the room. Chances are if there isn’t enough discourse or difference in the room, it will show up (unproductively) in IMs, hallway conversations, or emails. We can’t solve problems if we don’t talk directly to the parties involved. It always pays to be open and honest in your communications.
#2 Quickly Forgetting What the Critics Have to Say
A leader has their performance review. They hear from their boss and, in a 360° organization, from their peers and direct reports as well. When they’re told what behaviors they need to improve, leaders will smile, nod, agree, and leave the conversation with the best of intentions. For a while, they’ll be their best red carpet self – demonstrating strong leadership, communicating effectively, acknowledging problems and opportunities, and saying, “thank you for bringing this to my attention.” Yet three weeks later, they get busy and stressed. They ditch the new and improved persona and revert back to their bad habits.
The result? The same issues will keep coming up, and the next performance discussion will be a retread of the last one. The individual misses out on an opportunity for personal development, and the organization loses out on the benefits of better leadership. The latest research says that 60% to 70% of employees are working at less than full capacity.
Solution: If you want consistent performance and behaviors, you need to consistently coach and develop your people. Coaching should be one of your top strategic priorities – and it should happen formally, informally, or whenever is needed. When you address performance issues, go beyond just talking about problems. You need to plan ahead and incorporate steps for reinforcement of the new and improved behaviors long after the performance review has wrapped.
#3 Playing to the Audience (but Only Selectively)
Many leaders pay close attention to who’s watching. And whether they’re “on camera” affects how they treat their teams. Is a more senior exec around? These leaders will listen attentively to their team members. They’re supportive, polite, and productive. But when that exec walks away and there’s no one of importance watching, these leaders take advantage of their power, reverting to those old-school command-and-control behaviors. They may yell, interrupt, or clam up entirely. They may start fire drills or push meaningless busy work.
The result? The team doesn’t ever know what to expect from their manager. Over time, as they see all this effort going into managing up, and no interest in supporting the team, employees lose trust in their leaders. Research shows consistently that the most common reason people leave a job is being unhappy with their manager.
Solution: For senior leaders, don’t judge the performance of your direct reports based on first impressions. Make sure that you see them in action under many different circumstances, and get feedback on their performance from more than one angle. Find opportunities to learn how your managers behave when the audience is their team, not you.
Leaders Need to Take a Different Path to Stardom
Just like the Hollywood stars, we all want to look good in front of our audience, even if that means our peers, our bosses, our teams – rather than millions of fans. But real life isn’t Hollywood, and at the end of the day, what we want and need from our leaders isn’t the same as what we want from the stars.
What we look to our leaders for is trust, authenticity, openness, consistency, and transparency. Leaders don’t have to be perfect. But we can’t let our leaders get sucked into that red carpet, “special occasion” culture. If what they’re doing on the red carpet is their best behavior – and if it’s the type of behavior we value and need – then they need to be made aware that this is the way they should be acting all the time, not just when they’re in the spotlight. And if their red carpet behavior is phony and staged, then they need to be reminded that what people are looking for in their leaders is their authentic self.
Stacey Shively manages the delivery of leadership development programs to Cambridge clients. Stacey’s background includes roles as a research associate at Harvard Business School and as a lecturer of leadership and organizational learning at Columbia University and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Her perspective is global and informed by extensive, hands-on experience working with global leaders and her doctoral work in leadership and adult development from Columbia University.