Boss Lesson #3: Don't Get Emotional
This is my site Written by Alora on December 22, 2008 – 2:05 pm

One of the biggest lessons I learned from working for Dave wasn’t just what I learned from him, but that I came to understand the importance of timing because of him: there were so many things I learned from Dave only because I was at a point in my life where I was open to those lessons. At previous points in time, I was interested in or focused on other things, and those lessons would have been wasted on me. So, in my plethora of Dave-related lessons, one of the big ones transcends any teacher: you can only learn a lesson once you’re ready for it. A good lesson is wasted on a closed mind.

Happily, despite a slightly rocky start, the timing was ideal for me to learn a laundry list of things from Dave. And, much like Robert, a great deal of the most valuable lessons I learned from Dave were actually a result of observation more than direct interaction. Unlike Robert, it was not due to any lack of access, but rather the fact that as a team, Dave’s direct reports were all close enough that we could see the way in which he interacted with each of us differently, unique to our roles and personalities, strengths and weaknesses. It made for some great insights about managing different people, of different ages and backgrounds, all at different points in their career and with different needs from a boss.

Dave came to the organization during a very high-profile, challenged, and (in many ways) doomed project. His goal was to make it work, or at the very least, make sure that we conducted sufficient due diligence to provide us with some political cover in case it didn’t work. What Dave walked into, though, was a maelstrom of emotionally-driven political infighting. And since I had been living with it for several months at that point, I had let myself get sucked into the abyss more than was helpful. Dave quickly found himself trying to drive change while being sandwiched between two warring factions: the entrepreneurial founders of the organization and the process-centric professionals who were trying to run a mature organization. The problem was that, as an organization, we were somewhere in between, and suffering the down-sides of both.

Dave was constantly confronted by people who would react very emotionally to rational, necessary, business decisions. And it quickly became obvious that caused a domino effect all around the organization: one emotional reaction would spark another emotional reaction, and so on. Until, before we knew it, there wasn’t a level head anywhere on the project. Dave’s mantra became: “Take the emotions out of the equation. Keep it transactional.”

Of course, anyone who feels passionately about their work (and/or their employees) knows that is easier said than done, but what Dave successfully managed to do was to train his team to start recognizing when those around us were getting worked up about something and to take a step back. He also taught us how to help build some insulation around a project to help protect against the emotional whims of different stakeholders. Naturally, you can’t always avoid getting emotional, but to this day, when I start feeling my blood pressure rise, I hear Dave in my head: “Don’t get emotional. Keep it transactional.”

A second very valuable lesson I learned from Dave was actually the final touches of one I learned from Robert, and that was not to “jump to a solution.” I described how, when Robert first joined the organization, he was very thorough in his evaluation of what areas of change were most desperately needed. He did not “jump to a solution” ten minutes after walking in the door, because he recognized that what he was hearing from different people was colored by their role within the organization, and the only way to get a complete picture was to talk to people across the business and then to piece the puzzle together himself once he had all of the components.

Robert was doing this on an organizational level, but Dave’s words of wisdom applied at every level — starting with projects. I can’t count how many times a business stakeholder would bring an idea to us and say, “I want this implemented” without first exploring what problem they were trying to solve. And more often than not, their solution addressed symptoms of a problem and not the root cause. So “jumping to a solution” became another cautionary tale that we all learned to recognize and do our best to find a “Pause” button so that we could try to do some analysis before committing resources to something that might not ultimately provide the best bottom line results.

When I compare notes with my other former team members who worked for Dave, we all (of course) have different key memories, but his key phrases “Don’t get emotional. Keep it transactional.” and “Don’t jump to a solution.” always stick out for each of us and are the embodiment of Noel Tichy‘s point about having a teachable point of view. Fortunately, just like with John, Dave’s commitment to growing his people made those lessons very easy to absorb. It also made it hard each time any of us had to give him up as a boss because it was time for us to move on.