How To Be A World-Class Coach

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Photo: Pixabay/rawpixel

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: Hey everyone. Kevin Kruse here. Welcome to the LEADx Leadership Show. Welcome back to the LEADx Leadership Show. We are once again going to help you get a little bit better. We're going to help you be viewed as a hypo, not a hippo, a hypo. A high potential of course.

In just a minute, you'll hear a great conversation about how to coach others and other topics, from someone who created the leadership development program at Microsoft and he personally worked with Bill Gates. First, I hope you'll remember, if you want to master the two R's of management. I call it the two R's, results and retention, you need to get those hard business results and you need to retain your great talented team members. Just check out the LEADx Academy at leadx.org.

Our quote of the day is from the Dalai Lama. My go-to. “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them.” I actually think about that quote quite a bit. It's like you know what, like, try to help everyone. If you don't want to help anyone or you can't help anyone, just don't get in their way. Just don't hurt them.

Now our guest today brings a rich background to the challenge of coaching senior executives. After earning his Ph.D. in differential psychology in 1979 at the University of Minnesota, he plunged into a career of teaching, researching, consulting, but then 1993 he left tenure and joined the Microsoft Corporation as general manager corporate HR. That was back when they were still fairly small and then just took off with explosive growth.

From '93 to 2001, he was the architect of Microsoft's executive and leadership development efforts. During that time he had the opportunity to coach many of the companies most senior leaders and fast-rising stars. His leadership course designed to resonate with the pace and pressure of Microsoft's culture, has been delivered to Microsoft leaders around the world.

Currently, my guest is president of the Oceanside Institute. My guest is Dr. Douglas McKenna. Doug, welcome to the show.

Photo courtesy of Doug McKenna

Douglas McKenna: Thank you, Kevin. I'm glad to be here.

Kruse: Now, on the LEADx Show, I've got this funny tradition where it doesn't matter who the guest is, I always start with the same first question. I've got so many young leaders in the audience. So the question is, what leadership advice would you give to a first-time manager?

McKenna: You know it's funny, as I've thought about this question, I realized I have a soft spot in my heart for first-time managers, and for a variety of reasons, but primarily because I was a professor and consultant for 15 years in a business school before I actually decided to become a manager. So I went from managing this unmanageable one person to managing 300 people overnight. And the number of lessons that I was taught because of my deficiencies at Microsoft, it's too much to get into here, but there is a point behind it and maybe this will be my first bit of advice.

You really must, as a new manager, spend a significant portion of time investigating the context within which you're working. If you don't understand what your group, the group that you're going to lead is expected to deliver to the organization's mission, to its strategy and you don't know how business gets done, how work actually gets done in that particular organization, I think there are so many failures that I see because people just don't take time to learn and investigate the context within which they are working.

That said, let's see, if I were to give you one bit for a new leader, here's what it would be. Don't smile till Christmas.

Kruse: What does that mean?

McKenna: Well, elementary school teachers use this one. If you, for example, you're welcoming a group of first graders into your classroom for the first time and it's all hugs and love and fondness and affection and nurturing, when the first time comes where you have to correct that child, you've put yourself in a position where they are not expecting that. They are not expecting you to be focused on oh, you mean this is about reading or this is about arithmetic or you know. This is about what it is we're trying to produce. It's more about our feelings for each other. And I think first time leaders often confuse the absolute importance of building relationships with putting relationships first and results second.

We're in these leadership jobs to contribute to the organization and its mission and its strategy. That's why we're all here, so let's keep that in mind and let's not get caught up in a bunch of feeling-oriented stuff before we settle on the fact that this is our primary purpose, to produce these results for the organization.

Kruse: Yeah.

McKenna: So don't smile till Christmas means keep your feelings and your affection for people in check. That comes and it comes in a great rewarding way when you can accomplish something together.

Kruse: Right.

McKenna: So that would be one. Would like another?

Kruse: Please. Yeah. I'm all ears.

McKenna: Okay. I think it's absolutely critical for a new manager beyond getting clear about the results that you have to deliver and how those contribute to the organization's mission and strategy. I always ask my first-time leaders, I want you to create a map of the people that you're going to have to work with to deliver these results. There are a variety of categories that we could just immediately name, but one would be of course our boss. So the upward direction of relationships. The peer relationships which is what, man, really when I moved into my big management job it was peer relationships that turned out to be both most beneficial and most problematic.

Then you have the people that work for you, you have the groups that receive, that deliver work to you. You have groups that receive it from you. But a map Kevin, you know. With actual faces. People on it. Then you'll understand that organization … one thing we have to understand is that organizations get things done through people. I know you said this in one of your critiques of a variety of leadership definitions. If they leave out people, they leave out the essence of the organization.

So I always say to my first-time leaders, you have to know which relationships are key and you better get started in a very disciplined way, one on one, to work with those people and strengthen those relationships, for two purposes.

One is for the intelligence that you can gather from them. They have a different perspective than you do, whether it's up, down, sideways, inside out or outside. They have something you can't see. It's incredibly valuable to you in that way.

Secondly, when you go to them and need something, you're not just coming out of the … flying out of the blue. You've already built a relationship and the mutual expectation that we're going to support each other. So building this map out and it's really seeing, what is my people relationship system challenge here and how am I going to, in a disciplined way, get to each of these people and build and maintain a working relationship. Oh, that would be another one.

Kruse: What I really liked about this last part is the way you emphasized, like put some faces to it because there could be people listening to this being like well I just look at my org chart and I can see my map, right? That's the org chart. Well first of all most of us, we look at the org chart, we want to know who's above us and how big is our span of control? How powerful am I? What's my downline?

And you're talking about those peer relationships can be the most important to you in many ways, and then to not think about titles and boxes and lines but like these are faces. These are people. When it comes down it, you ain't getting nothing done unless you've got relationships built now and for when you need them in the future.

McKenna: That's so true. And I love the way you've picked out this faces thing. When I work with large groups, sometimes and we have them map out a particular situation. Individuals map out a particular situation that they are struggling with. They will often come back and say well we're having trouble with a marketing group or we're having trouble with finance. I say, who? Name them for yourself. Who is this person you're having problems with because we don't build relationships to groups, we build relationships to people.

Kruse: Love it.

McKenna: So that's why I'm pleased that you picked that face idea.

Kruse: And you've got another one, right?

McKenna: Yeah, I got another one.

Kruse: Alright. What's another one?

McKenna: This one is pretty simple. Make your boss successful. Make your peers successful. Make your direct reports successful and to the extent that you can, take yourself out of the equation. The main hindrances I find, the main speed bumps, the things that cause speed bumps and roadblocks for leaders is two things.

Self-protection and self-promotion. You know, I worked at Microsoft when we were very young. I started actually, my first contact with the company was when there was only 400 people there and I was a consultant then for seven years. By the time I left, oh boy, I joined after seven years and then spent almost another 10 … we were at 96,000 people.

Kruse: Oh my gosh.

McKenna: So it was a time in which we really, really had to build strength into every level of leadership in the company and that was the great fear was, this thing that was going … this juggernaut was going to collapse under its own weight with a bunch of 26-year-old managers who didn't know what they were doing. So our job was to come in and try to help them get both the strength, the flexibility, the alignment with the organization and the endurance to get through this thing.

Self-protection and self-promotion really got in the way of doing that, and emotion ran really high in that great startup. So a lot of times people would get nervous and they would start to get defensive about their positions and the minute they would pull back into that, their picture of the relationship system, of the mission strategy, everything shrinks down like this.

The only way to expand is to step back. Step back out of your own sort of self-reference. How do I see what's going on without constantly referring back to, “Well is this good for me?” Or “Do I really want to do this?” We're not in organizations to do the things we want to do. We're there to do the things that the organization needs. I think self-protection and self-promotion just get in the way of that every time.

Kruse: Yeah. Great advice. Now, Doug, I'm going to come back in a minute to your time at Microsoft, but I originally discovered your work and reached out to you as I was starting to do more homework and think a little bit more rigorously about coaching both how do the best executive coaches do it and related, how can effective manager, effective leaders, bring a coaching style into their daily management.

There's a kind of a classic definition of coaching from Sir John Whitmore, many people are familiar with. He said “coaching is unlocking people's potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than to teach them.” So how would you describe the difference between traditional training, I'm going to train people how to do things, versus how to coach them?

McKenna: Uh huh. We are doing training right now because what we're talking about are ideas. We're talking about trying to articulate what we know about leadership in a way that will be digestible and useful to a general audience of those who are in this kind of a challenge, a work challenge.

Coaching is about now. Training is about when. Doing press interviews was something I had to do a lot in my last job and I needed to know some general principles about how to do that and how to do that well. But with a media coach or a press coach, I would go to that person and say, here's the interview that's coming up. We're in the midst of this giant antitrust thing. What is the best approach here for me to take both in terms of what I'm going to say and how I'm going to answer questions which is content, but also how do I want to represent my company?

So coaching was about the situation whereas teaching is directed at teaching a specific knowledge that may come up at some point, is likely to come up in the future. I think training is incredibly valuable but what I love about coaching though is its customized to the situation and capabilities of the individual. So my approach to coaching gives primary respect to the circumstances or situations that a manager or a leader finds him or herself in. We start there.

So my coachees, for example. That's a funny word. The people I coach are asked to come to me when we meet, let's say we meet every week or we're meeting every two weeks on some sort of regular pulse-like schedule. That's quite important as it turns out. I ask them to bring something I learned from Gary Latham way back at the beginning called critical incidence.

I have people write down before they come to coaching, one or two situations that are keeping them up at night. And that's right where we start. We don't have some sort of abstract idealistic teaching that I'm trying to do or advice that I'm trying to give them. I want to know: What problems are they facing? How are they handling it now? How's it working out? And my job as a coach just as … I'm taking jazz piano as a beginner right now. I have a teacher and my teacher is so great because he comes in, each week I play and he isn't looking for … he'll say “Well that's good. You made progress there.” So he encourages me in that way. But his great value is in pinpointing those things that I'm doing that are limiting my performance at this point in time.

Whether they are kinesthetic, mental, even emotional. Am I afraid to play right now? As a leadership coach, my job is to listen to the theory of the situation. The theory of the situation is, your way, let's say I'm working with you, Kevin. It's your way of thinking about the problem you're in and what I bring is the ability to step back. I'm not emotionally involved in it, as you are. So I can see a little bit more and where can this insight that I might have on a pattern that you're missing, where can that come in and can I reveal that to you in a way that you say yeah, I haven't been looking at it that way or there is another, maybe there's another person through whom I could approach this difficult peer.

So you step back, you know. But I believe that coaching is primarily not about your strengths, which is a very popular way to go. Coaching and expertise. Coaching for … I believe for leadership expertise is primarily focused on performance limiters. Those things that are preventing you from going to the next level and I have to do that in a very tailored way with the individual, in their situation.

Now another thought just occurred to me about the difference between training and coaching which is that if you have a good training program, you have a curriculum that you're teaching to. The curriculum that we coach to are the natural situations that are occurring in the course of a job. We know that most learning occurs on the job but it doesn't happen automatically. We know from the research on expertise by great scientists like Andrews Erickson, we know that situations are your curriculum. They provide you with a real-time opportunity to figure out what it is you're not doing as well as you can possibly could and raising your level of performance. So it's very situational, the curriculum is what you're already dealing with.

I guess that's my thinking about the difference between coaching. Well, there is one more aspect of that. One thing I always do with my coachees. Let's say we're in an hour-long coaching session. We're at minute 45. What I'm thinking about is, I've got to help this person see what's coming up in the next week where they can take whatever it is, the weakness that we spotted in our conversation and practice a different approach. So we use … our curriculum, the curriculum of the situation not only tells us what we've got to work on, but it tells us where to go to practice. So if I'm working on trying to control my reactivity to a particular peer, I had several. My question as coach would be: Do you have a meeting coming up? Look at your calendar. So I have them get their calendar out and say when are you going to have an opportunity to practice this new way of thinking or this new way of acting within the curriculum of the situations that you're facing.

I had to tell some of my leaders, situations are sacred. Those are the key. That's where you're really going to learn about how to get better.

Kruse: So Doug, let me ask you, so you talk about in minute 45 I will look for what's coming up. We're getting into some process things, just tease up sort of the next question because …

McKenna: Ah yeah.

Kruse: In doing my research there are, again, classic very popular coaching models called four-step model called Grow. The G is goals, then there's resources, options, and then will or the way forward. It's funny. As I speak to a lot of people who have been coached, who have executive coaches. It's almost split. About half of the people I know, they've gotten a lot out of the experience. They've enjoyed having a coach.

But just as often, I will hear the feedback saying, it drives me crazy. All they do is ask me questions. I just want the answer. I just want to get better. As I talk to many executive coaches who follow the grow model, they are not saying hey what's keeping you up at night? What's bothering you? It's sort of like set your goal. I'm supposed to say … I want to be a better presenter. Then they'll make sure it's specific. By when do you want to become a better presenter? What will that look like? All these things.

When I get to my options there's the … and I do use this question myself in just conversation. And what else? You just keep getting them to dig deeper on their options. But these coaches tell me, you know it's all about just questioning. Everything comes from this question and it's guiding. You're suggesting something different. You're saying, look, we're not identifying strengths and coaching to their strength.

We're not saying hey, pick a goal, any goal, and I'll ask you a bunch of questions to help you come up with a plan. You're saying where are you going to derail? Or what's troubling you? Or where are you getting some feedback that we can explore together. So tell me what are your thoughts on this GROW model and what's more your traditional process?

McKenna: There are so many models out there that are useful. I certainly think goals, resources, options and will are way forward. By the way, the one part of that I like the best is the last one. Will or way forward. I like this model. Thinking back on your work and how you emphasize, if you leave out people, you say it's a process … leadership is a process of social influence and others are absolutely key in that. You know I look at goals, resources, options and way forward and I see a fairly mechanical … and I don't want to be critical because I'm sure it's very useful. But not all models and definitions of leadership are equal.

There's a lot of good ones. But some lack, they lack the connection to the actual problem. That can actually be helpful. You can think of the Grow model for example as four coat hooks in a closet, you know. As I'm thinking about my situation as a leader with my coach, maybe, first I can see, well what are my goals and I'll hang them on the first one. So it reminds me that I need goals. I need to be reminded that there are resources. So that's coat hook number two, number three and so on. So you go to options and will a way forward.

It's a way of organizing your thinking about the problem that you're in. I have a little different way of organizing that and I've called it the lead where you stand method and lead where you stand and once again Kevin, I know you've written about this, so I'm piggybacking on you, but lead where you stand tells us that leadership is not about title. Leadership is not about power. Leadership is now about experience or age. I think of leadership in general just defining it very broadly, a leader will provide a positive presence in the interest of progress, at work, at home, and in their community.

Kruse: Love it.

McKenna: So I'm not thinking about job titles certainly. Maybe I'm an 18-year-old who's mom and dad who have just divorced. Could I be a leader in this situation when mom and dad are at war with each other? That's the kind of situation that really calls to a person because they want to be better in situations they care about.

So lead where you stand is about … it's a process of social influence wherever you find yourself. Whatever organization, whether it's family, a community organization, or even at work. Of course at work.

But the way that I, after my years at Microsoft, actually in my early years at Microsoft, I discovered some things that called me to a—that said you got to have a different way of approaching this problem. One of the things that characterized our company early on was the intensity and passion and drive. I just read an interview with Bill Gates and Warren Buffet the other day and Bill said, “I was a zealot. I didn't believe in vacations. I didn't believe in weekends. I knew every employee's car license so I could tell who was still at the office and who was gone.” That's the environment that I went into.

I loved Microsoft people. I'm a psychologist. Not a technologist, but I loved those people. They were so smart. They were so driven and they were determined to make a difference in the world and clearly, those folks were able to do that. But with that intensity, came a level of emotional reactivity and anxiety and uncertainty that really triggered people's sort of instincts towards self-promotion and self-protection. So as a result, my first and when I first looked at this situation, I thought well maybe we can develop other big companies, IBM and so forth. Maybe we can just develop this giant training curriculum?

And I said no, how are we going to teach people to deal with the emotional pressure that they are under every day to perform? To be the smartest, to have good ideas, to finish things, get results and so on. So my first, the first step in the lead where you stand method that I created and we taught to probably 10,000 managers across the world at Microsoft.

The first thing you have to do as a leader, these are my four coat hooks.

Kruse: Yeah, right.

McKenna: Okay, summon your composure. In any situation in which you find yourself, you have to be able to call upon your own emotional equanimity. It's like in the airplane, you know, when they tell you to put on your own mask, oxygen mask first. Before you start trying to help the baby or the guy next to you.

Kruse: Right.

McKenna: Summon your composure. Calm down. And there's a variety of ways in which we do that but a lot of folks when they think about composure, think about calming the body down. The way I approach it is you can calm your mind down if you can step down out of your own little egocentric space and expand your view of what's actually going on. It's a way of stepping back intellectually and kind of like, let's say that you were at the right on field with our Seahawks or Eagles.

Kruse: Right. Right. Thank you.

McKenna: You're standing there right with Pete Carroll and being so engaged and so involved that you really can't see the bigger picture. Go to the press box. Get a different seat and you get a different view because that broader perspective will invariably calm you down. Einstein used to say, “Ask a good question.” And I would add to that, “Ask a good honest question.” Not a rhetorical question where you think you already know the answer.

But that allows you to step back. So the first step in that method is to summon your composure. The second one is we need to know what we are going to stand on. So lead where you stand, you've got to know what you're going to stand on which I think of as your convictions. So the first c-word is summon your composure. The second one is surface your convictions. Dig them out. Remember what you're here for and who you want to be as a leader. What kind of a leader do you want to be?

It's so easy to lose track of that when you're in a four o'clock meeting and you're tired and fatigued and you get into a debate about some kind of argument. Surface your convictions. Remembering your convictions. The third one is to strengthen your connections. I studied family systems theory for eight years. I continue to do it and my mentor there was a man named Murray Bowen and Murray Bowen was the pioneer and he actually was the first one to use the word family therapy.

Bowen used to say, fix the relationships and almost all the other problems will go away. I have a young client, a young coaching client who I've worked with now for 10 years and as I look back across, he's moved from a lab manager, all the way up to a general manager now. One of the things that I see that has made such a difference to him, is now he goes into every situation thinking about the relationship system. Who do I have a relationship with? Who do I not? And how am I connected? Who does this person have a relationship to? And how do I interact with that?

So strengthening your connections is the third step. Summon your composure. Surface your convictions. Strengthen your connections and then the fourth one is call on your courage. That's in the GROW model, isn't it? The will or way forward. But the unique thing about, I think I have learned about at Microsoft and through the course of my career is that courage is not a one-time thing. Courage is not an impulse. It's not a fly by. It's not a one-time thing. It's not a quick fix. It's committing yourself to a process of courageous steps and preserving with your mind open. This is the tricky part. You've got to keep your mind open so that your response to the situation as you're beginning to pull, move into action, is one where you can adjust and adapt as opposed to just bang through.

So those are the four.

Kruse: Let me ask some questions though. This is great stuff. So now I'm thinking about, like let's start with composure. As I think about many leaders I've worked with. Many managers I've worked with. I've reported to some leaders who were, I mean, they had ice water in their veins. I mean “Eh, can't make payroll in three days.” “This merger is blowing up.” Whatever it is. You couldn't tell if they were having a good day or a bad day. I mean it was just even keel. I've known others who were screaming red in the face who'd break down in tears. I mean very emotional. Part of me thinks okay, this is just personality. Negative emotion or neuroticism on the old five-factor personality scale. Some people are going to be more reactive to stress than others.

McKenna: Yeah yeah yeah. Absolutely.

Kruse: But then I will say that when I think about how I was as a boss in my 20s, versus how I am at the ripe old age of 50, I have learned and I have changed over the years where I'm less reactive. More composed. I used to be very … I didn't realize it was about self-preservation at the time but I was very reactive to what was going on to me. Now it's almost like I see a game or a puzzle. It's that higher than the press box. I'm in the blimp. So how much is personality? And how much can we change and learn to regather our composure especially during these stressful times?

McKenna: Let's start with the idea of personality or temperament. We know that a child, that developmental psychologists can actually discern differences between children in the hospital when they are… As soon as they are born in terms of their emotional reactivity. Temperament does set you up in a way to be more or less reactive.

The second thing that affects that level of reactivity that you're dealing with in yourself is the level of sort of emotional response, reactivity to use that, in your family of origin. If your family is constantly dealing with drama, you feel like you're more alive when there is more drama.

And then there are other folks, boy I think about a woman named Patty Stonesifer who was one of our great, great leaders. She's the president now of Martha's Table down in Washington D.C. feeding… She was CEO of the Gates Foundation for a while. She's just amazing. She grew up in a family of lawyers and they would sit at the dinner table and debate and she could do that under incredible harsh sort of interrogation. That's one of the reasons she did really well at Microsoft because Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer were masters at knocking you off your feet a little bit to make sure that you're ideas were sound.

That said, there are differences. There are absolutely differences in people sort of the level of emotion they experience day to day and how much they actually need to feel that tension and friction to feel like this is normal for me. This is okay.

But my experience has been that for the level that most of us are comfortable with, the level of emotional reaction that gets sparked in organizations around our own defensiveness. Defending our own ego, you know, thinking I've got to make a mark here. I've got to be the one to get ahead. I've got to get ahead. It's a competition. Those reactions, that drama, can be such a tremendous time and energy waster in organizations.

Kruse: Right.

McKenna: But you painted the picture too of two leaders, you know? One who is very calm, in the blimp up here, ice in his veins or her veins and the screamer.

Kruse: Right.

McKenna: I've worked with screamers and with those who seem to have ice in their veins. The question comes back to who is this person that's doing the screaming or this very, very calm, you know, detached analytical approach. A fellow at Microsoft named Dave Thompson who ran development used to say this great thing, he said, “I scream. I yell sometimes. But as long as people know that you're about results and not about trying to get ahead yourself, you can get away with that.” I think it's dangerous. I would have to have a little debate with my friend Dave because once you light up that emotion, the way the brain works, you light up the emotion and your ability to step out of that, becomes much more difficult and what happens is the emotions begin to … they take your big brain hostage and you start inventing reason, really rational and you deal with people who have IQs of 180 to 200. They can come up with some really good reasons for doing some really bad things.

Kruse: Right.

McKenna: That's the first half. The first half is there are individual differences that we come to this with. But I do believe that leaders have a responsibility to be steady. They have to steady things for other people. Otherwise the whole foundation on which we're working begins to shake and people get uncertain. When they get uncertain they get anxious. When they get anxious they get more emotionally reactive and their big brains start serving their emotions.

The second half of it though is can we learn? Can we do better around composure? And the answer is absolutely. But we have to do it in a way that most of us are not particularly comfortable with. You may remember, I don't know if you too piano as a kid, but practicing for that 30 minutes a day was a real pain. You know, because it kept me from getting outside and playing baseball or whatever.

We know that to get better at something as complicated as composure takes practice. That ability comes to us as we practice in an incremental and iterative way. It's like we have to learn… We have to practice and get feedback over and over and over and over again. Both organizations and people often lack the patience to work in the way. Stepping back, there's a great literature now on how elite performers develop their expertise and this is the way they do it. They do it through what's called deliberate practice. You don't have an experience and learn from it automatically. We have to reflect on it. We have to often have help and understanding which is where a coach can come in or a mentor.

We've got to get out and try again, over and over and over again. Regularity of practices is essential. So if I were working with you on composure, we'd be looking for a meeting this week or maybe tomorrow, where you've locked up perhaps with a peer. Or you know that you're going to get exercised about this particular policy issue and you're going to get into an argument about it and you're going to probably get hot.

What am I going to do when I feel that coming? When I know that that's a situation where I'm likely to go off emotionally? How am I going to hold my equanimity and my composure? What am I going to think differently? How am I going to recognize the feeling? And what will I do differently in that situation and I'll just try it. I may not be perfectly successful but if we're building in an incremental and iterative way I know I'm going to have another chance. But let's get started. Let's do it tomorrow.

Kruse: I love that. To think ahead, what will the triggering situation be and let's use that as practice. Let's talk it through, develop those strategies and then we're going to practice it when the time comes.

Doug, your talk about a couple times now about practicing piano and that example reminds me of my friend Robert who told me there is only two times that he ever made his mom cry and the first was when he told her as a kid that he wanted to quit piano and the second time was when he told her as an adult that he was going to become a professional pianist. So she cried both times.

McKenna: That's wonderful. That's a good one.

Kruse: So I've got one sort of just question, riffing off of what we said. I was thinking about your experience at Microsoft and your model and about composure. I have run into people when I talk about wholehearted leadership or compassionate leadership or servant leadership and they say, you know, who do we admire as the business leaders of recent time? Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. Balmer if you want to throw another Microsoft person in. Even more recently, as we're hearing stories about Bezos at Amazon. Musk isn't even necessarily the most warm and fuzzy person and they'll say, all those guys were jerks. They were mean to people. They were the screamers. They were totally unreasonable. All this kind of stuff.

Worked out well for them. Why do I need to be composed? Why do I need to think about other people's feelings. I'm curious. There is a part of me that thinks, well in my entrepreneurial days, I will say how you started which is it's about results and relationships but results do have to come first. So, if you're getting those results it can mask being bad at relationships.

Other times I think maybe they could have been even greater or succeeded faster if they had balanced with the relationship stuff. If they had been more composed in their approach. You know how would argue or what would you say to people who look at those role models and don't really see composure or the warm and fuzzy side?

McKenna: You know, it's so funny, I've been asked this question so many times because I did work with and for Bill. One of the things that and I know in Walter Isaacson's book on Steve Job's for example, the impact of Steve's personality and expression of that personality on people. Isaacson describes that pretty well. I can describe it personally because of the first hand, the times when I have had Bill Gates say to me as he said although in the beginning I didn't know this, that is the stupidest thing I've ever heard.

When you know you've got the guy who is building this marvelous company, my respect for his intelligence … he's so far beyond anything that I can think of. He was just intellectually so sharp and his intention was always to get the best idea out of his people, but to get the best idea I would have to say that Bill was harsh, bordering on brutal.

Kruse: Right.

McKenna: Here's how I reacted the first couple times that I was on the receiving end of that. I shut down. I was looking for an escape hatch and part of my challenge was I'd come out of an academic environment where you have different kinds of arguments …

Kruse: Right right.

McKenna: But they don't usually end up with people yelling at each other and the kind of passion where the stakes are immediate, you know? But I shut down, Kevin, in the back of my mind I knew my arguments for what it was I was proposing to do but he was so quick and undermined them. So my self-defense just rose right to the fore. To the extent, that's one thing.

The reaction of smart, capable people to your outbursts is not good usually. They are going to get fearful which means they are going to shrink back into themselves a bit. Their perspective is not going to be anywhere near as broad as yours. The best thing you can do at that point is just tell them, just do it, don't think about it. Just do it. That's a terrible thing to do to people I think.

So there's this immediate effect of this behavior on the person that you're trying to work with and motivate, which is negative. He just didn't have the patience in that point in time to sort of lean in gently and tease out what it was that you were thinking about. I know from watching him over the years now, over the years since I was there, he's learned a lot. He wasn't a dad when I was there.

He also has an amazing spouse. Melinda Gates was, I think perhaps one of our absolute best managers at Microsoft.

Kruse: Wow.

McKenna: She was great.

Kruse: And people have said similar things about Steve Jobs. Like he mellowed over time. When he came back to Apple he was a different leader than early and maybe some of the more horrific stories we hear out of Silicon Valley these days, a lot of these entrepreneurial founders are 20 something years old. Never managed anybody before and are making mistakes and maybe they'll mellow in the decades ahead as well.

McKenna: Yeah. You used the word mellow. I try to think really carefully about how does our experience affect our disposition. The sort of what we bring to a situation. Certainly, we can, we mellow with experience but the research is really, really clear. We don't necessarily get better just by having experiences.

Experiences have to be digested. An example would be the research that shows that surgeons right out of their residency, they get better for the first two years and then they plateau and then they begin to drop off. So for example, my mother had back surgery and they got a couple of opinions and I tried to prompt her with questions.

The one question I wanted her to ask her doctor, the potential surgeon was now I know you do eight of these a day and you've been doing them for 20 years but how do you go about making sure that you're learning from each one? Because we know the research. The research says that most surgeons don't get better. They think they're better. But they are not getting better because they are no reflecting and digesting and capturing the lessons of that experience.

So mellowing may happen but you maybe are just mellowing and not really getting better.

Kruse: Yeah, that makes sense. Doug, we could, I call myself a leadership geek, so don't take it the wrong way. I can see another leadership geek. We geek out on leadership. We could go on and on and I'm going to have to have you back so we can do more follow up things. But for now, tell our listeners how they can find out more about you and your work?

McKenna: We have a website. Oceansideinstitute.org. They can visit us there and there is contact information there and I welcome letters of inquiry from people. I love situations. I'm not particularly interested when somebody tells me hey how am I going to develop my composure? I'm more interested when they say I've got a peer who just soundproofed his office over the weekend on his own dime so that he could yell at his people in the office without anybody hearing. That's a real situation. That was a real situation. Okay? That's the kind of stuff I like to deal with.

Kruse: Doug, you said you weren't going to report my case to you on the air.

McKenna: That's right.

Kruse: That's crazy. People are actually … Let me just cover up that behavior. I just need more soundproofing. I don't need to change.

McKenna: Yeah, can you imagine. But I just love hearing about those situations. So if people are out there, your listeners and they want to inquire please just go to the website. I'm really working on this model right now and situations that people that come to the website have always strengthened my thinking about the model. So I would welcome their inquiries.

Kruse: I think that's great. A very generous offer as well. We'll make sure we put the link and the article and show notes everywhere that this goes. Doug, thanks again for coming onto the LEADx Show.

McKenna: Oh, thank you, Kevin. It's been a delight.

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Kevin Kruse
NY Times bestselling author, Inc 500 entrepreneur, and keynote speaker on Wholehearted Leadership and Extreme Productivity. Download 'How Millionaires Plan Their Day: A 1-Page Tool' at http://kevinkruse.leadpages.co/1page/