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Women at conference deskI hadn’t planned on being so direct, but it felt right in the moment so I went with it. I had been hired as the Interim Chief Executive Officer. There was a line of business that the board was particularly concerned about and my job was to help them figure out how to better manage that line of business while they hired a long term CEO.

I spent the first few weeks taking in the data: people, structure, money and  the extent to which each of them aligned with the mission of the organization. The staff were appreciative of my genuine concern and authentic presence- at least that was what they said.  I asked a lot of questions, listened for the gaps, and was gentle in my poking at assumptions. I was equal parts impressed and curious.

But there was no more time for that. There were major liabilities that the board seemed completely unaware of.  So when they asked about my initial findings, I answered, “YOU’RE BROKE!”

That one statement catapulted us into parallel universes. They were shocked, and momentarily frozen. I sensed a surge of freedom. At the moment things had become crystal clear for me, things got really muddy for them.

I had stated from the beginning that I was leaving in six months no matter what. Yet I didn’t realize what that would mean for how I lead. I mean, imagine if you knew that you only had six months to love someone. Wouldn’t you do it more courageously? Wouldn’t you tell them sooner, remind them often, forgive them quickly, touch them more often, linger in their presence longer?  Having an end-date ups the ante.

Without the weight of organizational politics and appraisal anxiety bearing down on my ego, there was freedom to be genuinely “in service” of the mission. There was a flow.

This is “pre-fired”.  As it turns out, it’s a great way to lead.  There is an urgency, clarity and efficiency in knowing that you have a limited amount of time to build something significant that will outlast you.  Being pre-fired is not about having to leave place before we are ready to go. It is an acknowledgement that we will all leave every place at some point. Ready or not, we will go. However, the question is “What of me do I want to remain in this place after I am gone?”  It’s a great relationship question, a great parenting question, and a great leadership question. Really, it’s a great life question.

So, let me share three things that being a pre-fired leader taught me.

  1. If you listen well, you’ll lead well.
    Unless you are the founder of the organization, from the moment that you walk in the door everyone knows more about the organization than you do. Go with that. Rather than trying to prove that you deserve to be there by constantly spouting off what you know, earn the trust of those that you lead by being an extraordinary listener. Chasing your curiosity, even about things that seem relatively trivial, can provide a world of perspective. “So this company’s brand color is really unique. How was that decided?” Would it matter that it was the color of the former leader’s first car? OR that the company had spent $50,000 on brand research before deciding on the color? OR that there was a company-sponsored volleyball tournament and the winning team got to decide the new brand colors? I certainly think so.If you only have a little bit of time to make a big difference, you need all of the information channels that you can get. The C-suite, the receptionist, security, maintenance, food service, customers/ clients, board members, donors- all of it. You won’t be able to get all of the information at the same time, but you will create an environment in which information sharing is normal and safe. You will be less likely to find yourself blindsided at critical junctures. Because you have listened well, you will be able to lead well.
  2. If you focus on what you can invest in people, you will get more out of them AND the organization will continue to benefit long after you depart.
    One of my leadership mottos is, “My job is to work myself out of a job”- and I mean that. A scarcity mindset says, “there is only a little, therefore I have to get what is mine and protect it”. An abundance mindset says “there is more than enough, therefore, nothing is lost when I invest in someone else.” Most people want an opportunity to grow (which does not always mean a promotion). Finding out what they are passionate about and helping them grow towards their passion, changes staff into stakeholders. Plus, it is kind of nice to still get “thank you” calls years after leaving an organization.
  3. Hard truth beats soft lies every single time.
    Seriously, the truth can be downright terrifying and the temptation to ‘finesse the truth’ in order to look like a competent leader is real. But if your stakeholders don’t know what is, they can’t adequately respond to it and if they can’t trust your words, why are you even in position? Listening well will enable you to share hard truth in a way that your team can best hear it. Investing in people will ensure that they see themselves as a vital part of the solution. Telling the truth can round up energy exerted on disillusionment and supposition and redirect it towards creativity and collaboration.

So, “pre-fired leader”, what do you want your legacy to be?

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