Q: I’m a 26-year old manager in a large company and am a member of a group that brings young professionals in our division together for training, philanthropy and networking. I am reading your book, The Advantage, where you argue that senior leadership, specifically the executive team, drives everything that goes on in the organization. While I understand that we aren’t going to change the company from where we are, the question I ask is this: because management isn’t driving the vision and long-term goals necessary for success, do I just stop trying to make the change I think is necessary?
A: Your question is one I hear, in one form or another, all the time. Essentially, it comes down to this: how can I help my organization if I’m not the CEO? I have two answers for you.
First, while you may not be the CEO and can’t change the company as a whole, keep in mind that you do have influence in your part of the organization. Stephen Covey calls that your circle of influence, something he contrasts with your circle of concern, which are those things that you care about, but which you can’t directly influence. If you can stay focused on how to impact your department, within your circle of influence, two things are going to happen: you’ll get a sense of peace as you see progress, and your circle of influence will begin to grow. Over time, people will start to wonder what you’re doing in your area, and they’ll ask you to help them. Many people who grow to be the leader of an organization spent years focusing on their circles of influence again and again, not letting themselves be discouraged by what they couldn’t change.
Having said all that, let’s talk about the second part of my answer. Don’t underestimate your circle of influence by failing to try to influence people one or two levels above you on the org chart. In my career, I learned that most executives are desperate for someone to tell them what I call the “kind truth” about how they can be better leaders and managers. The key is to combine those two words: kind and truth. If you can find the courage to tell a leader what he or she needs to hear, and you can do it with humility and respect, you’ll be shocked at how often those leaders appreciate and even listen to your advice. Sure, sometimes they’ll ignore what you have to say, but that’s no skin off your nose. And rarely will you suffer any negative repercussions for doing that; I don’t think it ever really hurt me in my career. And even if there were a cost for speaking the kind truth, you’re probably better off knowing that so you can think about finding a place to work where leaders reward people for having the courage to make them, and the organization better.