Think outside the (lunch) box


Image from here.

I had the opportunity to connect with the CEO of one of America’s largest manufacturer of medical devices. I asked  him that looking back at his long and successful career, what is the one thing that he wished he had done differently? The simplicity of his answer left me stunned.

He wished he had spent more time speaking with people he didn’t know so well at lunch hour. He was in the habit of reading a book over lunch and often lunched solo for that reason. Until he found there was more to learn by mingling with a diverse set of people at lunch. He has now made it a habit to find a seat at lunch hour with people he is less familiar with.

Turning point

Masha leaves after being passed over for promotion

Jay let go of an employee who had been with the team for over a decade. Masha was perceived as task-focused and transactional. So when a leadership opportunity opened up, Jay passed her over for a younger employee with the drive and passion for innovation. Masha felt that she was senior and should have had the position. She let her displeasure be known by putting in her resignation papers. Jay explained his decision and persuaded Masha to stay. She was adamant upon the promotion however and Jay reluctantly let her go.

Jay’s decision proves correct

Jay’s decision to promote Chit has proved to be the right decision. Chit has changed the game. His aggressive drive to automate routine work has freed up people to engage with their minds and hearts as well as their hands. He has speedily upgraded process, updated technology and upskilled the team.

A lunch conversation becomes suspect

At the time however, Jay’s decision to pass over Masha came under intense scrutiny from HR, senior executives and the CIO. The company values gender diversity. Masha’s leaving after being passed over for a leadership role raised a red flag. In her exit interview, Masha referred to a lunch discussion with Jay where she had brought up the issue of her promotion. She felt that the conversation did not go as intended.

“Might I enquire?” says the CIO

The CIO had a tough conversation with Jay about the case. He enquired about the lunch conversation between Masha and Jay. He wanted to know how frequently Jay met his people over lunch. He then asked about Jay’s office space. The office has an open layout with no cabins, save conferencing halls. The CIO enquired about Jay’s seating and his accessibility. “For a team of your size, Jay,” the CIO began ..

Jay wonders whether familiarity breeds contempt

Jay led a team of over a hundred people at the time. Until then, he had led smaller teams of under a dozen people. Those teams tended to be closely knit. Information flowed easily through formal and informal channels.

In his new role, Jay had direct reports who led teams. He had skip-level meetings for people in key roles. Jay wondered if he was making a mistake being just as accessible to a large team as in smaller teams, with many people he didn’t know well.

Should he worry that familiarity breeds contempt? Could easy access diminish the stature of a leader? There are plenty of leaders who carry an aura about them simply by applying the scarcity principle.

Jay almost completed the CIO’s sentence for him. “For a team of your size, Jay,” said the CIO,  “you need to watch who you speak with, what you talk about and how much you reveal.”

Jay turns a new leaf

“For a team of your size, Jay,” said the CIO,  “you need to make doubly sure you are available to your people.” Jay sat still in stunned silence. “The  better you can relate to the them, and they to you, the more effective you are as a team. It is very important that you know each and every employee as a person, beyond the work they do and how well they do it,” he counseled. “Think about moving your seat to a location where people can more easily see you and reach you,” the CIO concluded.

Jay felt a wave of relief. He always enjoyed connecting with people and building trusting relationships. Taking a personal interest in people is what had appealed to him about leadership roles Now he heard from the CIO that in a large team, this is what he needed to demonstrate even more of.

Jay has changed his habits. He gave up his desk-space. Now, he sits with a different team every day, immersed among them.

And he has set aside a day each week to lunch with people he doesn’t know. To enjoy the simple conversations that happen among ordinary people. And he has found, miraculously, that it has enriched life and produced success.

Much like the CEO of America’s biggest manufacturer  of medical devices did.



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