Lessons from Executive Crazy Talk

During my young and impressionable days, I took special note of any insights from senior leaders. I was fortunate to be in sessions with some smart, successful executives, and many times benefited from their experience. But every once in awhile, what I heard sounded like crazy talk.

Years later, I came to appreciate the true wisdom in what confounded me earlier. Here are a few of my favorite quotes, which provide food for thought for today’s talent manager.

Don’t confuse me with the facts: Bobby was always the smartest person in the room, and as the head of engineering could hold his own with any debate subject. Having a masterful grasp of the facts, it was stunning to hear this retort to end a heated exchange. “Don’t confuse me with the facts” reset the debate.

Translation: Sometimes the right thinking isn’t guided by the numbers or a select set of objective data, which may obscure the correct strategic perspective.

Application: As we try to beef up talent management with more analytics and data-driven work, be aware of the limits of relying only on the facts as a guide. Judgment, credibility and strategic perspective are often supported with hard data, but hard data — even in ever-increasing quantity — hardly stands alone.

Why did you listen to me? Jack’s high standards and sense of accountability were great to have around, until something didn’t turn out well. As a subordinate was trying to explain a failing effort, he reminded the leader that what wasn’t working was Jack’s original idea. His retort of “Why did you listen to me in the first place?” seemed like a trap to the subordinate trying to explain the shortcoming. There was no winning this debate.

Translation: In the end, leaders are responsible for their actions, somewhat independent of hierarchy. There are moments of leadership where doing the right thing requires professional judgment and personal courage, which may contradict the boss in the short run but turn out better in the long run.

Application: As leaders with unique knowledge and value-add competence, we need to stand ready not to please a client, but rather to have the courage to advocate for the right choice for superior results.

Nothing is so practical as a good theory: Consultant Jo quoted the late psychologist Kurt Lewin for this gem. The setting was a passionate argument on the merits of showing a theoretical change model while selling line management on a new development initiative. Wanting to be seen as a hard-nosed, no-nonsense business leader, I feared the use of an abstract model in the pitch would come across as soft, HR-speak. Jo’s advice that “nothing is so practical as a good theory” at first sounded quite academic.

Translation: Bring a framework and broader perspective to your work. Before you travel anywhere, have a good map of the journey you are taking.

Application: There are well thought through talent management models with successful track records of application. We shouldn’t shy away from providing a theoretical-sounding roadmap to our work to guide us even as we avoid incorporating frameworks when selling to line leaders.

The best move now is to wait: Working for Margaret was a daily exercise in stamina. With more energy and drive than anyone else in the building, every meeting with her was an exercise in taking an initiative or problem-solving effort and being challenged to do it bigger, better, bolder and always faster. Until the day she stopped us with that line of “the best move now is to wait.”

Translation: Sometimes a good idea has to wait for the right time, or sometimes waiting will open up new options and better ideas.

Application: Patience is rarely taught as a leadership instinct with today’s always-on talent management world. Savvy talent management pros know when to pause.

The best talent managers I know are usually very sane. On the job they can be fact-based, responsive, practical and fast moving. But every once in awhile, they act slow, trump facts with better judgment, advocate for good theory and stand up with courage. Let’s save room for some craziness.