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  • Writer's pictureSETH MCCOLLEY

Leaning In: A Lesson in Leadership

This is a post about leaning in. Not the Cheryl Sandberg-type of leaning in or a post about women in leadership positions in the workplace. This is a post about actually, physically "leaning in". Leaning in to listen, leaning in to understand and leaning in to learn.

Several years ago, I was doing some HR consulting work for one of the largest pizza chains in the United States. I spent six months working on a number of different HR initiatives such as incentive compensation, performance management and process improvement. Most of my time, however, was spent recruiting, specifically Operations leaders and key corporate positions. Over the course of this contract assignment, and regular trips to their corporate office, I was able to spend quite a bit of time with the CEO and his senior leadership team. There are a number of great lessons and things I took away from this experience, but there is one moment that stands out more than others.

We were looking for a Division Vice President to fill one of the vacant leadership positions in Restaurant Operations. After dozens of phone screens and a handful of phone interviews with senior leaders we whittled the candidate pool down to three final, lead candidates that we brought into the corporate office for in-person interviews with the CEO and the senior leadership team. Over the course of a few days, the three candidates came in, put their best foot forward and made their case for the job. I was on point for facilitating the debrief session. I collected feedback from all of the interviewers, created an agenda for the meeting and was prepared to lead the discussion and land on our final, lead candidate. The stage was set.  As we started the debrief session, I noticed that the CEO was asking us for our feedback on each candidate, before providing any feedback of his own. This was intentional and he eventually shared with us that he preferred to hear what we had to say about each candidate first before providing his input, as he felt that his leading the conversation sometimes skews the conversation, one way or another. Self awareness...I like it. Reminded me of the some of the leadership lessons found in, "It's Your Ship" by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff. As we continued the debrief meeting, we came to one of the candidates and I'll never forget the CEO sharing this insight. He said, "I found him (candidate) to be a very easy guy to talk to. He's affable. He's the kind of guy that I would love to have a beer with or talk to at a dinner party. But, I just didn't find myself leaning in and thinking, 'What can I learn from him? or 'How can he help me see things differently?'. Now with this other guy (other candidate), I found myself hanging on his every word. I was leaning in and thinking, 'This guy's got some incredible experiences that I can learn from. What can I take away from this conversation to make my business better? How can he help me be a better leader?'"


I walked away from that conversation thinking two things. First, this is the kind of leader I'd like to work for. Neither his title or his position have gotten in the way of him realizing that everyone has a story to tell and we can all learn something from everyone we come in contact with, even candidates. Second, I now have this real-life sound bite in my mind of "leaning in" and the kind of impact it can have, regardless of which side of the conversation you're on. (For the record, we did extend an offer to the candidate that the CEO was leaning in to and he's still in place today.)

Here's my challenge for the senior leaders reading this post - are you taking the time and energy to set your position, title and ego aside to really listen, and learn, from others? 

Here's my challenge for the HR pros reading this post - when you have leaders that display these kinds of qualities, be sure to embrace, recognize and reinforce them. On the flip side, use this as a guidepost when you're coaching your managers and employees around making a more meaningful impact on the organization and earning the trust and respect from their leaders. 

Here's my challenge for the candidates reading this post - are you telling your story in a way that engages others? In my opinion, the best candidates are oftentimes the best storytellers in that they have found a way to share their experiences and their talents in a way that is engaging, informative and dare I say it, captivating. When you think about your career and the professional journey that you're on, are you able to make others lean in

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