Just because everyone always agrees with you, does not mean that you are always right.
After a decade as an insurance agent and agency manager, I was ready (at least I thought so) to take on the corporate world. My first corporate job, at age 32, was in the exalted position of second vice-president of marketing support for a large New England life insurance company. One of the status-perks of being a second VP for this company was to be grouped with other senior executives in the physical center of the headquarters building. This melting pot of corporate power came to be known as “the core.” If you had made it into “the core,” you had made it, and there were those whose singular career ambition was to gain an office in “the core.” Likewise, if one were ever to be removed from the core it was tough to decide which was considered worse: the humiliation or the end of your career.
Being new to the company and as a neophyte (naïve) corporate power player, having an office in the core meant nothing to me other than the inconvenience of having to walk to the far end of the building to meet with those who were in my department. (Regular workers were never allowed in the core, except by special dispensation.) But the politics of “the core” taught me a great lesson in leadership and management.
As the head of marketing support it was necessary for me to lead various inter-department meetings designed to coordinate new marketing programs. These meetings generally went as well as corporate meetings can go, but as time went on I noticed there was one participant (he did not work in my department) who always seemed to disagree – or at least resist – almost anything being proposed. It seemed that no matter how patient I was or how hard I worked at it, I could never make much headway with him. Due to his penchant for challenging my ideas, I began to refer to him as “Doctor No.” Still, I had to admit that this guy would often raise some good points that caused me to make some adjustments to my thinking and plans.
Let’s Settle This Matter
Frustrated at the end of one rather contentious meeting I invited this provocateur to come by my office later that day. The thought was that one-on-one it would be easier to explain my position and resolve the issues. I gave him my office address (I told you this was a big company) and set the meeting time. Right on time he appeared at my office door and as I invited him to sit down, the very first words out of his mouth were, “I didn’t realize you were in the core.” It was a strange statement, I thought, and it didn’t mean much to me at the time. But surprise! Surprise! From that time forward, until the day I left the company, this guy never ever disagreed with me on any issue.
At first I wanted to believe that this sudden conversion was due to my charismatic personality and the potent power of my ideas. But, of course, I soon recognized that his transformation from challenger to sycophant had nothing to do with my power of persuasion, but was due to the intimidation of corporate political power. Once he discovered that I was in “the core,” he was too intimidated to be honest with me. While it became easier for me to get my ideas accepted, I no longer had the value of someone who would question and challenge these ideas. And, while I may have not recognized it at the time, I soon came to understand that this was a big loss – for me.
Moving on to other jobs and up the corporate ladder I discovered there were fewer and fewer individuals who were willing to offer anything other than hosannas to the greatness of my leadership. (At least to my face.) This may have been soothing to the ego, but it contributed nothing to strategic planning and decision making. If the only ideas and words that echo off others are yours, it’s pretty easy to think you are pretty smart. But it is a trap.
There is a progression in leadership that if not forcefully resisted, can result in the failure of even the strongest leaders. Early in the tenure of leadership there is a willingness to be open to a wide range of ideas and even constructive criticism. But as experience is gained, especially if that experience includes success, there is a tendency for the leader and the system to narrow the opening that allows divergent ideas to get into the mix. The attitude that creeps into the thinking of the leader is that he has been there before and knows more than any adviser. This attitude seems to increase in direct proportion to success that has been achieved, and one doesn’t have to become a “Queen of Mean” like New York hotelier Leona Helmsley to demonstrate how this leadership shortfall grows. The disconnect begins small but becomes compounded by the fact that, as the power of the leader increases, there are fewer and fewer people willing into offer unembellished opinions to the leader. So either because they have succumbed to their own feeling of invincibility or the power structure has choked off divergent ideas, the leader becomes more and more isolated with his own thoughts. Experience and success can tempt the leader to believe they have all the answers, but succumbing to that temptation is the ultimate death knell of effective leadership.
The way to avoid falling prey to the false invincibility of “knowing it all” is to make sure that you always have your very own “Doctor No” to keep that bur under you saddle. It was fortunate for me to gain this valuable insight in my very first corporate job. From that time forward I made it a point to have at least one Doctor No among the group of people who worked with me. I used to say to people, “Look I know I’m good. You don’t have to tell me that. What I need from you is to tell me when I am off base.” There is no telling how many bad decisions were avoided, but I do know that having to deal with a Doctor No helped make all the decisions better.
It is important to understand that a true Doctor No is not simply a malcontent or complainer. To the contrary, while the Doctor No may not have ideas of their own – indeed, it works best if there is no personal axe to grind – the effective Doctor No is just as desirous as you to see the project be successful. The value of the Doctor No is to come at the issue from a different perspective and to question and constructively challenge what has been proposed. This forces the leader to consider other approaches and options. At the same time, this allows the leader to see how defensible their own ideas and plans are.
One of the interesting additional benefits gained from being open to a Doctor No is that when others come to understand that the leader is different from others, in that he is open to challenge and criticism, then a real bond of appreciation and loyalty is built. The Doctor No appreciates the opportunity to have their viewpoint heard – without recrimination – and to be seen as offering value in the process. Invariably this creates a loyalty to the leader and a sincere desire to help the leader be successful.
And the Moral of the Story …
The aura of authority and the typical corporate structure creates a “core of power” that by its nature suppresses diversity of ideas, challenge and criticism. Unless the leaders of the organization always know it all – as they often want us to believe – this is a recipe for bureaucracy, stagnation and ultimate failure.
The existence of a Doctor No may at times be frustrating and an irritant by always questioning and challenging the proposals of the leader, but they perform a very important function. You will never know how many bad decisions they will prevent, but they will make all decisions better.
If a leader wants to increase their chances of success, they will embrace and always say yes to having their very own Doctor No.