Monday, September 07, 2020

No Time for Ambiguous Leadership

Source: Psychology Today

Adam Bryant writes terrific articles on leadership based on his interviews with leaders in a variety of industries.  Bryant used to write for the New York Times; his most recent article was published by Strategy + Business.   It's titled, "Ambiguous Times are no time for Ambiguous Leadership."  In that piece, Bryant tells a terrific story about Tom Lawson, CEO of FM Global.  

The commercial property insurance company is headquartered near our Bryant University campus.   The firm has a unique competitive positioning in the insurance business.   Most firms rely heavily on actuaries to evaluate risk.  FM Global relies on engineering and science to develop an in-depth understanding of the risk of various practices and systems. Then they apply their knowledge to help mitigate their clients' risk. As Jenny Chao, senior research scientist at the firm, told the New York Times several years ago: "I blow things up to try to predict and prevent explosions. I also test products designed to prevent explosions and make recommendations on how clients can avoid risks."

In Bryant's article, he explains CEO Lawson's philosophy about clarity of communication.  Lawson argues that employees will fill any vacuum with speculation and assumption.  Sometimes, leaders aren't aware of the subtle signals being interpreted and misinterpreted by employees.   Here's an excerpt from Bryant's article:

Tom Lawson, the chair and CEO of FM Global, a property insurance company headquartered in Johnston, R.I., shared a similar story. “As I was moving up through the different management positions, I learned the hard way about how people can interpret a message,” he told me. “I was running our research group, where we have a lot of science Ph.D.s. One morning, it was rainy and horrible as I drove to work. I got to the parking lot, which was full, so I had to park far from the building and walk through the pouring rain without an umbrella. I was drenched and running late for a conference call.

“So, I walked right past the receptionist, didn’t talk to anybody, went into my office, and shut the door. I did my conference call and then forgot to open my door when it was over. About three hours later, our head of research knocks on the door. He said, ‘Can I talk to you? We’ve got a problem. Everyone’s saying that the company’s in financial trouble and that our research is going to get outsourced.’ I said, ‘What?’ Then he said, ‘You walked right into the building on the day we released our financials, and you didn’t talk to anybody. You shut your door and you locked yourself in.’”

Lawson added: “In fact, our financials were fine, and I told him the story of what happened, and he started laughing. I spent the rest of the day walking around, telling people that everything was fine. But it was a great example of how your actions can be misinterpreted. If you don’t communicate, people will make up narratives themselves, and those narratives may be negative.”

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