In my earlier post, The Most Unquintessential Leader in My Experience, I reviewed in summary form, the characteristics that made this person the antithesis of a quintessential leader. In today’s post, I will review the characteristics of the most quintessential leader I’ve had in my career. Much of what he taught me by example went over my head at the time – I encountered him on my second fulltime job out of college – but as time has passed, I find myself reflecting more and more on the invaluable lessons of quintessential leadership that he used and modeled for me and have tried to incorporate those in my own quintessential leadership.

Unlike the last post in which the unquintessential leader was nameless, I will name this person. He was Wayne Grovenburg. He died in a motorcycle accident in Oklahoma in 2000, so I’ve never gotten a chance to thank him personally for his great example, so this is my overdue tribute to his legacy as a quintessential leader.

I was hired by Wayne and another technical manager as a technical writer for a little – but growing – software company that had spun off from a larger long-established electrical components distribution company. The software had been developed in-house to handle the unique business cycle of a distribution company, but the executives of the existing company saw the potential of the need for this product by other distribution companies.

About half the employees were legacy employees with the parent company and about half had been hired when the new company started up. The person who had been writing the user documentation for the software was a legacy employee who was old compared to most of the other employees and had a quasi-marketing background. She wrote most of the marketing literature for the company and was involved in doing trade shows early on, but was phased out as the company looked for a more professional image.

The quasi-marketing person was my supervisor, but I reported ultimately to Wayne. The age difference between the quasi-marketing person and me was at least 30 years, so that alone set up the scenario for inevitable clashes. We were also both very intransigent when we believed we were right, so this added to the inevitability of butting heads. A lot. I was very young, very brash, and very confident in my knowledge and abilities. She was an aging employee who was, in the end, trying to keep a paycheck until she could retire and pursue her real interests, which were nebulous and ethereal. Her real interests were reflected in her writing style which didn’t sit well with my logical, down-to-earth, let’s-get-it done mentality. Another potential for conflict. She had no knowledge about technical writing; I had helped one of my college professors write a technical writing textbook while I was finishing up college, and I’d had about a year’s worth of experience working with real technical writers at a large software/hardware company, so I knew what I was doing.

Another technical writer was hired at the same time I was. She was a good bit older than me as well, but she had military technical writing experience, so we were okay together professionally.

My first day at work quasi-marketing person handed me one of the user manuals she had written and asked me to edit it. It was bad. I read the first of what we later covertly called “the Tony stories” and it was neither technical nor instructive. In fact, it was insulting from the perspective of the user because it basically explained the process of his or her job to them instead of showing how to use the software to do a job he or she already knew inside and out.

I grabbed one of the red pens I had gotten from the administrative assistants up front and got to work. When I handed the manual back to quasi-marketing person two hours later, she opened it up and immediately burst into tears seeing that most of the pages were bleeding with red ink. I had not expected an emotional response, but before I could even address that, she had run off to find Wayne.

Before she found him, though, she had tried to trash me, in hysterical tears by then, to almost everyone else in the company. Ironically, her first stop had been at the administrative assistants’ area. When I had met them all that morning, I made a point of noting their surroundings to see what was important to them, and had engaged in a little getting-to-know you conversation with each of them based on what I saw in their work areas. I knew, intuitively, that this group of people could make my time at this company pleasant or hell, and since I genuinely liked them, based on my brief interactions with them, I decided it was going to be as pleasant as I could make it.

Quasi-marketing person was also a bit of an elitist, so she talked down to the administrative assistants and also spent a good bit of time berating them. The only time she talked to them was when she had to, and there was no love lost between them and her (I got all of this in my introductions to them that morning). They, though, were the eyes and ears of the executives in the company, so I have no doubt the executives knew what quasi-marketing person was up to. Other than the president of the company, none of the rest of them had much use for her.

She finally found Wayne and went behind closed doors with him. I got a call from the administrative assistant to the president and she asked me to come up front (this began the pattern of how we would communicate when she was watching my back). When I got there, she and the other administrative assistants told me what happened and then said “Don’t worry. No one takes her seriously.”

After a couple more hours, Wayne came to my cube and asked me to go to lunch. We went and he gave me one of the most meaningful conversations and some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten professionally.

He wasn’t angry or upset with me. He wasn’t angry or upset with quasi-marketing person. But he realized that if the two of us could not figure how to tolerate each other without these flashfires – from her – every day, we’d get nothing done and he’d be spending all his time trying to referee between her and me, which meant he wouldn’t be getting his work done either.

He intuitively understood how to communicate with people and he was very effective in making his points without being critical or destructive to anyone. He also had that rare knack for knowing how to effectively communicate with each of his team members in spite of the diversity of our backgrounds and temperaments. And, of all the people I’ve worked for along the way, I never felt like I needed to put body armor on, even if the conversation was serious and I needed to make some changes for the good of the team and the company.

He made a very wise decision in putting the responsibility to keeping the relationship with quasi-marketing person in my hands. He knew that she was not going to change and that talking with her to help her see her deficits was an exercise in futility. So, in that lunch meeting, we had a heart-to-heart and he reminded me to stay focused on the company mission and on the big picture. He advised me to find less in-your-face ways of making changes – after all, that garbage that I’d read was exactly why he and the other technical manager hired me and he reminded me of that and the value they knew we were bringing to the company – and, if necessary, to go around her if I knew face-to-face could bring on an eruption (she was furious by the time she talked with him). He finished by reassuring me that I had his support and all of us, except her, were on the same page, but she was there because the president felt obligated to her, so I’d have to find ways to live with that and live with that peacefully.

Several things stand out in my mind to this day about that conversation. The first thing that Wayne did was refocus me on the big picture: the goal. Since I’m a goal-oriented person, this was the best approach he could have taken at the outset of the conversation.

The second thing was the balanced and gentle way Wayne discussed both my strengths and my weaknesses. Not once did I hear “you were wrong” come out of his mouth, but by the end of the conversation, I knew what I had done wrong and I knew what I needed to change.

The third thing that Wayne did was to engage me a participatory way in the process of keeping the peace while the necessary transition of redoing the documentation happened. By making me responsible for watching myself and giving me advice on what to do to help keep the peace, he made me his partner that day and it made a huge difference. I wasn’t just the new kid on the block, the youngest person in the company, but instead I was a full-fledged participant in the company and the team.

The fourth thing that Wayne did that made a deep impression on me was that he didn’t take sides. Not once did he bad-mouth quasi-marketing person to me, even though I suspect, looking back, that she was a thorn in his side, since she certainly was to almost every other person in the company. Whatever he felt personally about her, he kept to himself. And he made it clear that he would not put up with anyone disrespecting her. That was an ethical standard that I try to remember in my leadership today, because it can be a very hard thing to separate personal feelings from professional obligations.

The last thing he did was to end the conversation positively, making sure that I didn’t walk away from the conversation and lunch believing I was the worst person on the planet. He brought up some of the things that I could have done better or differently, which was exactly how he phrased it, and then gave me practical ways on how to do it better or differently – in effect, giving me tangible parameters within which to work that were acceptable to him and to the company to get the job done -, without attacking me or tearing me down. And in the end, he let me know that I had his support and everything was okay between us.

Unfortunately, that was not the last conflict quasi-marketing person and I had, but I took the wise and generous mentoring of the most quintessential leader I’ve experienced in my career, did my best to implement it and build his belief and trust in me, since he had already demonstrated that he had belief and trust in me, and eventually she was moved out of the department and out of the team.

Wayne’s gone now, but his lessons and his example resonate with me to this day. So I’m a bit late, my friend, but thank you!


Comments
  1. John says:

    I knew Wayne very well. He was an awesome guy. He was always going out of his way to help people

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