Attila the Hun 1
Perhaps you’ve heard me tell this story before. I’ve used it several times in speeches. Yet it’s still vital because the episode marked a real and obvious turning point in my life as a leader, a manager, and even a parent.

Early in my Citicorp career, I was the Controller for a large subsidiary. During that time, I was invited to participate in a week-long course offered by Citicorp. It was entitled, “Managing People.” This course was essentially a rite of passage attended by all managers at Citicorp who had attained full VP status.

Before leaving for the course, each attendee, their supervisor, members of their staff, and several peers, were all asked to fill out a questionnaire on the attendee. This questionnaire covered the attendee’s management practices. It would be used in the training program to identify shortcomings as well as strengths as a manager.

The course I attended was held during the fall at a conference center in Westchester, New York. On Sunday, after a day of mostly travel, we had the opening dinner where they explained to us how the week was organized. Each day would start with breakfast after which each attendee would receive an envelope with approximately one-fifth of the questionnaire results. The training that day would be tied in to the feedback that we had received in the morning.

On Monday morning, as I finished my second helping from the breakfast buffet, my group’s facilitator handed each of us an envelope with the results of the survey that we and those who worked for and with us had completed.

The best way to describe the feedback I received from those questionnaires is that they started out really bad and got much worse as the week went on. By Thursday – after opening my results for the day’s topics – I sat frozen in my chair after eating very little breakfast. I was discouraged and frustrated.

Fortunately, one of the instructors of the program saw me sitting there and came over. In retrospect, I think he had been waiting all week to find a time to do an intervention with me. As he approached, he asked me if he could sit down.

I mentioned that I needed to get to the next training session and he said, “No, it is more important that you and I have a talk.”

He then asked me how I was doing. I responded, “How do you think I am doing? This survey stuff gets worse and worse.”

“Is it accurate? Does it reflect how you manage?”

Reluctantly, I responded, “Unfortunately it has a ring of truth about it.”

He paused a moment before saying, “You know, Attila the Hun is probably not the best model for being a good manager!”

After this comment, we launched into a discussion that lasted until lunch as we reviewed my results for the week, as well as Friday’s bad report. By the end of the morning, he helped me come up with a plan to change my management style to one which showed my interest in the lives of the people who worked for me as well as the people I worked with.

Some of the suggestions were extremely simple. For example, he encouraged me to identify one person on my staff each day and take the time to go to their office or cubicle and chat with them about what was going on in their life for 5-10 minutes.

He also encouraged me to begin meetings by asking questions and finding out the ideas that other people had. This was in strong contrast to the here-is-my-idea-that-we-are-going-to-do method that I used prior to this training.

When I returned to the work place the following Monday, I started implementing the plan that I had prepared with the instructor’s help at the conference center. My staff immediately questioned what was going on and how long it would last. But, although I had frequent relapses into bad habits early on, I had learned my lesson. I valued my coworkers and staff in a much stronger way for the rest of my management career. Ultimately I was able to develop a leadership style that was demanding but at the same time treated my employees with respect and concern.

I was reminded of the changes that I made after the “Managing People” conference when I came across a book that I had read several years ago entitled, Overcoming Your Strengths – Eight Reasons Why Successful People Derail and How to Get Back on Track.

One of the chapters in this book is titled “Overlooking the Importance of People.” This chapter described – clearly and in detail – the fallacy of my original management style and many of the steps that I took to change.

Here are a few of the suggestions that the author, Lois P. Frankel, makes at the end of this chapter:

  1. At least once a week have lunch with one or more coworkers.
  2. Drop into one person’s office per day for ten minutes of casual conversation. (Sound familiar?)
  3. Smile at people when you walk past them in the hall.
    1. I had a very talented person working for me at Citicorp who quit unexpectedly to take another job. When I asked him why he was leaving, he told me of encountering our CEO in the hallway on a number of occasions. Whenever the employee said, “Good morning,” the CEO responded, “That’s your opinion.” The employee told me he did not want to work for someone who had such a poor worldview.
  4. Have your desk situated so it faces the door.
  5. Keep your office door open as much as possible.
  6. When you talk to people, be interested in them.
    1. One of Ronald Reagan’s greatest traits was that he had the ability to make people feel like he gave them 100% attention when he talked to them. This showed that he valued the relationship with them. He lived in the moment with the person he was talking to.
  7. Disclose some personal information about yourself with people who work for you.
  8. Solicit input from knowledgeable coworkers. All good ideas do not come from you.
  9. Learn about coworkers’ families, their spouse and children’s names, birthdays, hobbies, etc.
  10. Say, “Thank you” and give complements when someone does something good.
    1. This habit alone will make you stand out as a great manager. So often all we hear from people in positions of authority is criticism without any compliments.
  11. When communicating with others, put yourself in their shoes. Try to see the issue from their perspective. This often helps you understand why they really feel like they do.

I encourage you to implement some of the items listed above. We can always get better even if we do many things which show our concern for other people. I also highly recommend the book I mentioned. I’m sure you will find something among the eight topics she discusses that may well change your life.