People’s Parties

The Golden Gate Bridge as seen from Fort Point...

Fog drifts through the Golden Gate Bridge

It should have been a fun dinner party; lots of people I liked from the parent’s cohort from my son’s grade school, great food, generous hosts, and a drop dead view of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge in front of us. So why did it feel like leadership teams I know which are “OK” but never really click; a little foggy (like that white stuff coming through the Golden Gate) and not fully crisp?

And why does it feel awkward to write about it?

Great chemistry – that sweet elixir that enables leadership teams (and sporting teams) to “click” and perform at a level well beyond the sum of their parts – is one of those qualities that you recognize when you see it and if you’ve lived it,  know when it’s missing. It also seems impossible to manufacture, one of the qualities that makes it hard to fake.

While an memorable adult dinner party  should never be confused with a great leadership team, it has one or two common elements; two of these are comfort and trust.

People experience chemistry with people with whom they connect – people they trust – and trust has three elements; competence, motive, and reliability. Nail all three and you have trust. Lack one or two (think of driving a car with a tire you think may blow out at any moment) and you hesitate, stay a little tense, and never really relax. You never become – like a pair of favorite shoes – comfortable.

First as a qualifier, I do earnest like fish swim in water. It’s my default state; people periodically remark that it’s surprising to find someone who says what he means, and who does what they say they’re going to do. So comfort for me is – no big surprise –  with people who share some of the similar quality. And to couple earnest with another of my traits, I’m easily capable of taking things personally; as in “Don’t take it personally – they are rude to everyone.” I’m the guy who usually takes it personally.

And the dinner party? What was causing my tinged discomfort?

In the group of 16 or so were one or two folks I have learned not to trust. It’s not Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy but, as the saying goes, they are folks who are not my cup of tea.

While the statement sounds harsher than it’s meant to be, I have a long fuse – people have to rub me the proverbial wrong way for an extended period to push me to doubt them. And at the party was a couple that I know from my days taking my dog Roady to the local park – a couple that always initiated ideas about having lunch or getting together but never seemed to answer the email or phone call taking them up on the offer. When lunch did get scheduled it got blown off.

So reliability – the ability to count on people for what they do, and what they say they’ll do – is lacking for me with these folks. I find that I put a filter on what they say, never quite sure if they really mean it – the fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me sort of filter.

Just like we can’t always pick the people you work with, you can’t always pick the parents of the kids your child goes to school with or the people at a dinner party. So while I enjoyed seeing the people I really liked at the party – which were most everyone – I also had a background sense of never feeling fully comfortable. And while I wish I was like Abraham Lincoln (“I don’t like that man; I must get to know him better“) I’m not.

You see the same dynamics in business corporations all the time; when Sallie Krawcheck was forced out recently from her executive role at Bank of America by current CEO Brian Moyihan it wasn’t because she didn’t perform – her business unit clearly performed well. As the New York Times reportsMr. Moynihan and Ms. Krawcheck were never close — she was hired by Mr. Lewis” (Moynihan’s predessor). When you don’t connect or feel close with people in the exec suite they become people with whom you’re polite, and keep some distance.

Leadership teams can choose to work to reduce this sort discomfort and increase the trust through a business-focused programs like the one I facilitate called Road Trip – and it’s frankly less painful than most people anticipate. You can increase rapport by connecting what you’re striving for in terms of business goals by aligning the specific roles people play, and the ways folks agree to work with each other. It’s a straightforward way of establishing, for example, that you’ll do what you say you’ll do or its alternative; sometimes you might, and sometimes you might not. At least what is expected in terms of reliability (and trust) can move from implicit to explicit.

An dinner parties?

Hunch is that those “not my cup of tea” feelings aren’t likely to shift. And while it does feel petty (probably because it is petty) to experience that slight discomfort and to even write about it, it’s a real feeling. And in the C-Suite it’s the type of thing that can make the difference between staying, or never making it there.

As as I reflected on the dinner party after a night’s rest I realized it was just a dinner party; probably no need for me to take it personally.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

Enhanced by Zemanta