Leaders Get More Out of People When They Don’t Wear the Crown

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“She said to me… you might be president of PepsiCo, you might be on the Board of Directors, but when you enter this house you’re the wife, you’re the daughter, you’re the daughter-in-law, you’re the mother… so leave that damn crown in the garage.’

You have to admire the older generation. They will always speak their mind. When I read this, I thought of my parents and how their plain-spoken ability to cut through all the BS and hit the bullseye with their message.

The above statement was from Indra Nooyi’s mother in reaction to her daughter’s election to the Pepsi Board of Directors. The 58-year old Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo and mother of two daughters delivered some surprisingly frank and candid insights on work-life balance in an interview with David Bradley, owner of the Atlantic Media Company, at the Aspen Ideas Festival this week.

The anointment: You are now crowned

I have seen more careers than I can count ruined by the constant wearing and acknowledging of the “crown.” One VP, recently promoted, told me that he blocks one of his reports out since HE is the one that has the two initials at the back of his name. And from what I gathered, the direct report was just floating ideas to him. But because he had the “crown,” he was the determinant of all ideas.

This so-called “crown” that is bestowed upon us as our career progresses does not in any way denote superior intellect, smarts, job skills, or anything else. All it means is that someone (or a group) decided that, yes, you may have more to offer and we need to give more responsibility.

However, many times that anointing has not worked out because the ROI on this new leader stayed in the red and never progressed any further.

This annointing has given way to an environment in some organizations where leaders create a bubble around themselves. In their bubble, everything is cool with them and theirs. Even though some of their direct reports may mention flawed concepts, different approaches or ideas, they may begin to feel that they are the ones with all the gold-plated ideas since they have the title.

Or even worse, they steal the idea of their direct report and make it their own. Yes, it happens all the time.

Turning employees loose

Lots of times these leaders dismiss the value of a productive workforce because they feel that at their level, their job is to set strategy — and that will provide all the answers. That kind of thinking in itself is a flawed concept because nowhere is there a title that equates with superior thinking.

Our workforces have the ability to be a percolator of ideas and solutions if we would just turn the spigots on. Letting our employees know that we are dependent upon their ideas and thoughts has the potential for any organization to break out of the pack and shift power to the people who are closest to the issues.

It’s simple: Turn them loose, unleash their powers, and watch things happen.

We all want to think that we are smart, and that’s cool, but our level of smart may be somewhat less than what our thermometer is showing us. We may not really be the “golden child” that we have always been led to believe.

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There was a song a few years back called “Don’t Believe the Hype,” which is something I tell any and every newly minted leader.

Leaders today, with all their accompanying titles, are in a position to provide not only workplace guidance but also act as mentors, coaches, and even just friends. However, this can only be done by having the mindset that says, “I am dealing with an equal.”

Do your people feel comfortable with you?

This equal could be just as smart as you think you are. This equal could be the ticket to how your department, organization or team accelerates.

This holds true for seasoned veterans who have been at the leadership trough for years, as well as new people entering the workforce for the first time. When you find great companies you will also find great leaders who buy into this philosophy and treat their reports as equals even though they are the ones that are in charge.

How many of your employees would feel comfortable if the CEO stopped by their desk to chat? If your Senior VP or Executive VP of whatever invited one of their employees to lunch or dinner, would they feel overpowered just because of the title? In a lot of cases, they would be terrified.

Now, what if that same CEO, SVP or EVP were the type that was always around — stopping, chatting, or as we say sometimes, shooting the breeze? If that was the case, those invites from the senior leaders would be welcomed. Those employees would feel very comfortable in socializing because they would not view their leaders as an “imperial officer” of your organization.

So my advice to all leaders and aspiring one to think of what Indra Nooyi’s mom told her when she took over at Pepsi: “Leave the crown in the garage.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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