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  • Writer's pictureMichael Padilla-Pagan Pay

Difficult Customer: Turn the Rocks Over or Run

While in the Army I had the privilege of attending some great courses. One I remember was a story about leadership. A leader is walking through the jungle. While walking along the path, he comes across a large rock. The rock is moving, he smells a foul odor coming from underneath the rock, and knows something is wrong. The leader has two choices. He can either choose to walk past the rock and ignore it or he can turn the rock over. This continues and so by turning the rock over, he must confront what is underneath the rock, deal with it and move on. Then he picks up his pace and keeps moving. This is something I tell my teams and office: If you want to be a leader in my organization, you have to be willing to turn the rocks over.’ If you are not willing to ‘turn the rocks over’ you are not a leader in our company.”

This very simple but profound story has guided me for the rest of my career. The lessons of this article surpass beyond the military. Almost every day, leaders face challenges, problems, and issues. Every day leaders must decide what they are willing to act on. When a leader fails to confront challenges or deal with problems in the organization, he or she weakens credibility and trust with junior leaders.

In my experience, elite, high-performing organizations like ours all have one common characteristic: a high degree of ‘esprit de corps'. Although esprit de corps may be defined in many ways, in our view we offer the following definition of esprit de corps: the common spirit existing in the members of a group and inspiring enthusiasm, devotion, and strong regard for the honor of the whole group.

The competence side of esprit de corps is straightforward, but sometimes misunderstood as the sole requirement between individuals and teams. Although critical for success, it is insufficient when a team requires frequent collaboration and information sharing. A competent colleague is of little use if he or she has no grasp of team members’ strengths and weaknesses due to lack of esprit de corps. Similarly, a functionally excellent team is of little use if counterparts will not share information. This climate leads to good performance in silos, but failure at the interfaces between business units.

Effective leaders model addresses this side of trust by teaching individuals, teams, and organizations which behaviors build and break down trust. They focus on the role of credibility, transparency, and vulnerability in building trusting relationships.

Effective leaders clearly, concisely, and frequently communicate their standards and expectations to their organizations. However, the most powerful form of communication is action. What a leader does versus what a leader says is much more impactful. Ducking responsibility or avoiding confrontation sends a clear message to the rest of the organization — this pattern of behavior will be replicated throughout other teams, permeating the entire culture. When the senior leader says he or she will do something, the rest of the organization does not have faith that action will actually be taken.

In contrast, when an organization exhibits a high degree of trust, a strong foundation is set for individual and organizational accountability. When all leaders hold both themselves and each other accountable to high standards, expectations, and following through, the organization will likely be a high performing, effective unit marked by both competence and benevolence based trust.

In short, leaders in our company are unafraid to “turn the rocks over,” they confront challenges and issues, teaching and mentoring subordinates through action, not just words. Our leaders aspire to be a highly effective leader in our group of companies and they must strive to always “turn the rocks over,” setting the right example for our team and our customers.  

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