I once managed a young woman who was enamored with playing Scrabble. Amelia's love for the game didn't surprise me given her sharp mind and passion for words. What did come as a major surprise and ultimately proved beneficial to my company was the initiative she took, and the leadership and ingenuity embedded in her efforts to fulfill her unwavering desire to play a game that requires at least two, but preferably three or four players.
Amelia was an introvert at work. She was always kind to her colleagues and had a professional demeanor with her clients, but when given the choice she opted to remain in her office and keep to herself. Her writing, research and analytical skills, all essential for her job, were stellar, so she was one of my prized employees despite her quiet and somewhat anti-social manner.
I never even considered the idea that she might have what it takes to manage staff and generate new business for us. I never thought of her as one we should consider promoting to Vice President and perhaps at some point a Partner like me.
I shudder to think how much the company would have missed out if I had never looked at Amelia from outside the office window.
It was just on a whim that I decided to stop by Amelia's office on a random Friday afternoon and ask her if she had any fun plans for the weekend. I knew that poking my head in was probably the last thing she wanted, but I decided to do it anyway. She looked up, smiled kindly as she always did when we spoke, and casually said, "Oh, I'm having one of my typical 'Amelia Scrabble Blasters' tonight."
"Your what?" I said, not even trying to mask my look and tone of shock.
We talked for more than 20 minutes, a record for the 3 years we had been working together. She began by telling me that more than 5 years ago she reached a peak of frustration about never being able to find able Scrabble partners. While smart and bookish like her, Amelia's friends did not share her passion for the game, nor did they enjoy being defeated by her every time. "It was time to do something bold," she said, and something bold she did indeed.
I had branded Amelia a lifelong introvert, an employee with many strengths but without the necessary personality traits and leadership potential necessary to manage other staff and help us grow our business.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Amelia not only took the initiative to find an ongoing corps of Scrabble partners but she also strategically created a pitch that made existing Scrabble-lovers feel "cool" and piqued the curiosity of those who had never entertained the idea of Scrabble as a fun option for a Friday night. She created an Everything Scrabble blog, and also established a Scrabble Meet-Up Group on the MeetUp.com website. In her forever-humble way, she told me that within only a few days she had more than 50 people signed up.
Little did I know that what I saw everyday was only the "Office Amelia," not to be confused with the assertive, industrious and, yes, very social Amelia that all of her friends and family knew. Indeed, outside of the office, Amelia was the go-to person among her friends for fun gatherings that often, but not always, involved a game of Scrabble.
By looking at Amelia from outside the office window, I was able to identify her:
- Willingness to take risks and capacity to tolerate failure.
- Comfort and demonstrated success in initiating relationships and garnering respect from people of all ages and backgrounds.
- Strong social intelligence.
- Ability to identify the most likely target audience among a relatively small pool.
- Awareness of the need and ability to design a strong customized pitch that resonates with the particular style, preferences, idiosyncrasies, etc., of her target audience.
- Understanding of the need and her ability to tap the knowledge and skills of others to achieve her goal.
- Capacity to keep people engaged and give people a sense of ownership
- Ability to derive gratification and pride through doing rather than through direct praise.
Understandably, Amelia needed some hands-on coaching and support to help her learn how to apply her "outside" skills and traits, and to build greater confidence in her professional persona. But, with a relatively modest investment of time on my part (or we certainly would have been willing to pay for an external coach), within a year of that conversation, Amelia was promoted to Assistant Vice President and eventually to a Vice President. She successfully managed several staff for us, many of whom have also been promoted, and she also acquired many clients for us that I truly believe we would not have secured without her.
Does your company look at its employees from outside the office window? Do you do so with those you manage?
Dara Goldberg, President of Mindsets, Inc., works with individuals and teams of all types to ensure they perform and achieve to their maximum potential. Her services include custom-tailored workshops; small-group intensives for teams; individually designed speaking engagements; and writing blog posts, articles and more.
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