The Leadership Journey – 7. Earning Your Stripes

I thought that, having passed the liver test, my team would now accept me as the boss. Never was I so mistaken in my life. 

We now had a crisis on the field. A distributor, with the connivance of a sales rep, was selling stock below invoice price, using (misusing) the company’s promotional budget. Sales crashed, as news of the low price flashed across the market.

Now, earlier, when I had held my first meeting, I had declared my intention of working shoulder to shoulder with the team. One of them, when he heard this, leaned back and said, “Oh yeah? Lot’s of managers have said this to us. None of them ventured far from the office. Let’s see how you are different..” Nothing in my MBA education had ever prepared me for this.

And now, we had a crisis. I was expected to step in and solve this, and this was only my second month leading a team. In the first month I was the poster boy, and in the second month I was the gutter boy. Life was unfair, I thought.

I went off to the market, with the sales reps, and was stonewalled by the retail and wholesale traders. They probably thought I was a young pup; and, here I was, being confronted for the first time, by the power of the trade. 

A month passed by, and no solution was coming. I had my bosses breathing down my neck, I had distributors breathing fire, and I had the sales team mocking me. So here I was, a great young leader, with no freaking clue on how to handle the situation, or how to earn the respect of these guys. 

In the years since, I have read a lot of stuff on leadership. There are tomes and blogs and all sorts of scholarly literature on the various facets that leadership can and must contain. There are Global Leadership Models and Leadership Behavior programs that multi-national corporations roll out, but there is nothing that I have found that can guide a young pup during his or her first months as a leader.

So, there I was, feeling all alone!

The first thing that I did, was to put on a brave face. The front was critical, as I realized that any chinks would be pounced upon and widened as quickly as possible. 

The second thing that I did, was to work harder and longer than anyone in my team. I realized that, for me to gain anything from them, I would have to work shoulder to shoulder with them. This allowed me to set high standards, and to be ruthless in holding the team to these standards. 

Third, I also realized that hard work alone was not going to help me catch the culprit. I had to think ahead, think smart, and out-think everyone. I had to be on my toes, and I had to keep thinking. To do so, I had to be able to think like the trade, and then to be able to use their rules to my benefit. 

Fourth, I had to keep faith in myself. My confidence in myself ran deep, and so did my fierce desire to ensure that I came out on top. 

I finally did catch someone. This was not the original culprit, but another who decided to take advantage of the situation. I fired the rep, and terminated the distributor’s agreement with the country. I did this with as much respect for the individuals as I could muster, and with a lot of firmness. This chap was the first I had fired in my life, and my instinct (and, years of coaching from my parents) told me that you always need to treat people with respect – with genuine respect. Even when you fire them. You can never forget or allow yourself to forget that this person’s livelihood and self-respect will be affected. 

Toughness can be managed with dignity and respect. You can hold people to high standards, and do so with respect. 

I did gain the respect of the team. It took me six hard months, but boy, did it feel good when I held my next meeting and saw the team looking up to me as their boss! 

Yeah, you have to earn your stripes. There are no giveaways in life!

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