A Leadership Relationship Story

At the beginning of the year, the Regional Director had asked me to stay behind at a meeting where I had been voicing my opinion about why a major learning project hadn’t delivered. He proceeded to give me and a colleague the task of getting the project back on track in the next 12 months.

I was delighted, I had worked well with my colleague in the past and we worked well together.  Our line manager was very supportive.  The Regional Director had already cleared our involvement with him.  We developed a programme, with clear deliverables.

During those 12 months, we worked hard, were a great team and loved every minute of it.  We were making a real difference, and we knew it.   At the end of the time, we almost skipped into the Regional Director’s office with the results which were impressive.  Of course, he already knew, the impact had been monitored with growing admiration.

It was a double celebration for me because not only had we delivered on a great project, my team I managed in my day job had risen from one of the worst performing to nearly one of the best in my region.

In those days, we were awarded performance pay. It wasn’t much, the award definitely wasn’t about money; it was about recognition.  My colleague with whom I had worked with equally on the project had already had his report from our line manager, and he had been awarded a small, but welcome bonus, his performance had been judged as “above average” because of the project.

So when I opened up my report, which was handed to me in advance of the appraisal, I was surprised and taken aback when not only had  I no bonus,  but my performance had been  marked as “average.”
I felt as if someone had slapped me.  Always self-reflective, I sat down and read the report in detail to try to get a feel for why all that effort had not been acknowledged as it had with my colleague.  The comments were great; the acknowledgement of my contribution was there, in words, just not in the final marking or bonus.

I began to feel inadequate, was I missing something?   I know I am one of my own best supporters, but equally I am my own worst critic.   Had I become carried away with my success to such an extent that I had forgotten to look in the mirror?  What did my line manager see which I couldn’t?  I had a lot of respect for my line manager; I valued his opinion, so there must be something!

I felt down, but went into the review, determined to listen intently. I listened, and he gave me great and positive feedback.

Perplexed I asked him why, if I had such a good year, with such great results, I didn’t warrant a higher marking.  I mentioned the bonus, although I really wasn’t bothered about that.  His response?  He said I didn’t have as much experience or seniority as my colleague, and that is why he had drawn a distinction. 

I was astounded, and this is what happened next.

He said he was sorry, he had given it some thought and felt almost obliged to mark my colleague up because he had some 15 years more experience than me.  When the report had gone to the Regional Director, his markings were queried, and the Regional Director had asked him to think again.  They agreed since I had seen the report, it would be discussed with me.  He humbly expressed his apology, he realised he had got it wrong, and he knew I deserved the higher marking, and he offered to change the marking there and then.

His honesty about his (rare) mistake both to his own boss, and to me was dignified.  His humble apology was one of my defining moments because what I witnessed was a great demonstration of someone “doing the right thing” and being prepared to put his hand up and say “I made a mistake.”

For me, I realised that relationships are more important than being right, and although I’ve not always resisted the need to be right, on occasions, when it’s mattered most, I’ve remembered and sometimes also “done the right thing.”

This incident happened over 2 decades ago, but it has stayed with me to this day.  If any of you leaders out there ever question the impact you make, remember, you never know what indelible imprint you are leaving on someone you are leading.