Last week I had an emotional reunion with my very first leader, David Costello (pictured right), whom I had the pleasure of working for as a young, green human resources manager more than 15 years ago, at North Sydney Leagues Club. I’d had managers before David but not leaders; David was my first and most significant. He was quietly inspiring, supportive, gentle and direct with his corrective feedback. He cultivated a supportive team that was focused on our goals. His leadership legacy still burns brightly within me.
When I first began as the human resources manager at Norths, it was a time when the club industries’ policies on workplace behaviour were immature and accepting of behaviours that I could not accept. With David’s guidance and support I went about a cultural change program, unearthing toxic behaviours that had been festering in our culture for many years, unchecked. Looking back, it was a difficult time for me especially after initiating workplace behaviour training which saw these unearthed behaviours developing into cases of bullying and sexual harassment.
During this period of change, I remember walking into the cellar one morning and finding a picture of a half naked woman, partially covered in a bra. The bra was meant to satisfy our requirements for a harassment free workplace! Unimpressed, the picture was promptly removed and my mandate for creating a culture free of harassment, bullying and unacceptable behaviour continued, totally supported by my leader David. This behaviour was morally unacceptable to him and through the difficult times of culture change, he was by my side supporting me and supporting organisational and cultural reform.
I’d like to say that unacceptable behaviours such as making sexually charged comments, shouting at people, making passive aggressive gestures, putting people down and extreme micro-management, are a thing of the past and that Australian workplaces have significantly progressed since then, but this would not be entirely true. I’m often having conversations about unacceptable workplace behaviour with managers and human resources professionals, who like me, find this behaviour unacceptable. These unacceptable behaviours clash with their personal ethics, cause direct and indirect costs to their organisations, diverts attention away from achieving organisational goals and makes them feel very uncomfortable!
Many feel powerless to stop people behaving in unacceptable ways because the culprits are often in very senior positions and are forgiven for their behaviour because of their technical genius and their ability to get the job done! During my leadership development programs I’ve heard many times comments such as; “He/she may be a nightmare to work for/with, but they get the job done!” My reply is always; “At what expense?” and “Wouldn’t a leader who can get the job done whilst behaving in a way that nurtures individual self esteem and teamwork achieve more of a commercial impact?” The light bulb moments are illuminating. We know deep down that great leaders get the job done whilst developing, not intimidating people and great leaders also find the courage to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations about unacceptable behaviours; up, down or sideways. This is sometimes made more difficult when our senior managers and organisational heads trivialise unacceptable behaviours, leaving our leaders to feel less like the ‘peacemakers’ they are and more like organisational ‘troublemakers’.
The strong message I’m delivering serves three audiences, unapologetically. Firstly, to our courageous ones, our leaders (with or without the title), who understand the commercial and mental health consequences of unacceptable behaviour; KEEP GOING! You are doing the right thing in putting your neck out and raising these issues and fighting for everyone in your organisation to be treated with dignity and respect. You are the custodians of your workplace behaviour policy regardless of where you are in the organisational hierarchy. I understand that you are risking your job security, but I also understand that by not addressing unacceptable behaviour you compromise your ethical standards, which may carry an even greater personal risk.
To the second audience, our junior to our most senior managers, who in principle also find this behaviour unacceptable but lack the courage to speak out against it. Find your inner strength and SPEAK OUT. When you take on a management position, you have a duty of care to everyone in your organisation to provide a workplace where the physical and emotional well being of your people is protected. Find the courage to say OUT LOUD that unacceptable behaviour will not be tolerated in your team and the consequences for it will be significant, up to and including dismissal. It really is a lot simpler than it appears once you make the choice; I know because I have been through it all myself and have experienced the many benefits of working in a culture free of unacceptable behaviours.
Finally, to the third audience, the badly behaved who have most likely gained your roles because of your technical genius and not your ability to capitalise on individual strengths, cultivate a strong team culture focused on the achievement of goals, whilst behaving in a respectful manner. You have two simple choices. GO BACK to your technical roles where you can add significant value to the business, or develop your leadership skills. Both choices involve behaving respectfully to everyone, regardless of position or your personal biases. If this is not possible, perhaps working with other people is not for you.
On a more personal note, after my emotional meeting with David where I warmly thanked him for the impact he has had on my life, I walked around the club filled with nostalgia. I was surprised by the warm greetings of several team members who worked at Norths when I was human resources manager. They generously reminded me of the impact my leadership had on their lives; my immaturity obviously forgiven.
Let us consider our leadership legacy and whether we want it to burn brightly within the people we lead long after they have left us or we have left them. Leaving a leadership legacy such as the one that burns brightly within me, as a result of being led by David, goes beyond developing individuals. It has vast commercial benefits that inevitably result in far better outcomes for organisations than would otherwise be the case. What will your leadership legacy be? How will you be remembered?