It was 10 years ago, and I was about halfway through a job interview when I was thrown a bit of a curveball.
“What qualities do you value most in your team member?”
Not necessarily a strange question; in fact, I think it’s a great question to ask if you want to get to know someone. The strange part was that it was being asked by Jim, who I would report to if I got the job.
And so, the dilemma was this: how do I approach it?
It could be a trap question, like, ‘what are your weaknesses?’ which you’re supposed to spin into a positive by saying something like, ‘I’m too much of a perfectionist.’ (Translation: ‘I’ll only deliver quality work’).
The thing is, I hate canned answers. And even if I didn’t, I could never pull off the whole rehearsed response. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be too honest and say, “I don’t tend to work well with micromanagers.” (Translation: I’m a diva that prefers to work alone and I don’t believe I need anyone’s input.)
It’s not even true, except maybe the diva part.
“Okay,” said Jim. “Can you think of a specific situation in which someone did – or didn’t – do that?”
“Yes, and yes.”
I told him about Theo, a former editor of mine who made being even-keeled an art form. Although there were countless examples of his patience, one in particular stood out. A glaring error had made its way past several rounds of edits, only to be caught right before the publication went into production. For those who aren’t familiar with the editorial process, making any type of change that late in the game leads to additional costs and a whole lot of extra time and effort.
But despite all of this, Theo was calm, cool and collected, switching immediately into ‘fix it’ mode, and waiting until it was fixed to examine what went wrong and why. There was no finger-pointing, no threats. Just a desire to solve the problem. As one of the editors who overlooked the mistake, I was incredibly grateful.
Unfortunately, not all bosses are like Theo.
I’ve also worked for people who took the completely opposite approach, like Bill. With Bill, everything was a catastrophe. Every problem — minor or major — was met with the same level of panic. A contributed piece comes in later or under word count? An editor fails to land a big interview? Calamity. Someone dares call out sick on deadline day? Horror.
There were no storms; everything went right to category 5 hurricane status, and it was exhausting. And so eventually, those who worked for Bill started to wise up — instead of approaching him when an issue arose, we learned it was better to hide our mistakes. Sure, there was a chance we’d make things even worse, but there was also a chance things would turn out fine, and if it meant avoiding drama, it was a risk we were willing to take.
If you’re a leader, reading this should make you stop and think. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of trying to solve problems on your own, but this was something else entirely. This was the ultimate workaround, and that’s a strategy that never works.
Of course, not all of us are predetermined to remain composed upon hearing bad news, but in this age of innovation, it’s absolutely critical that people feel they can approach you, both with good news and bad news. And so, when a surprise tropical storm hits, resist the urge to hit the panic button, and instead focus on how to recover. (Translation: Keep calm and lead on.)