Leading from the Edge


How are staff evaluations like the Grand Canyon? They both become more inspiring when you dare to go to the edge. It takes risk to get involved in a process that can have the greatest impact. Here’s a real example of what it takes and how most don’t have the nerve to get “edgy” in their evaluations.

If you’ve ever seen it, you know the Grand Canyon is awe-inspiring. Flying over it, you can see just how big and vast it is. But it can seem remote if you view it from the sky and in a few minutes, it’s easy to forget.

However, when you go right up to the edge and look down, the size gets personal. For many, it is very scary to walk over to the rails. It can be unsettling when you put yourself right up against it and put yourself in the picture.

The same thing applies to leadership and the commitment to a vision. It’s one thing to look at opportunities when you are removed from them. It’s completely different when you get to the edge and deal with the implications close up. I’m finding that very few leaders are willing to take the risks of going to the edge and taking the steps that make the difference between running an organization and leading it to a new level.

Here’s an example. Recently, I was looking at a 360 evaluation used to rate employees. It was amazingly lame and safe. It didn’t evaluate people on the basis of their impact. The entire evaluation rated them on how well they simply fit in. They clearly did not want people who might rock the boat. The more inconspicuous you were, the better. Here are the actual questions (and these were asked about top level executives):

  • Does this person get along well and work effectively with others?
  • Is this person patient, responsive, competent and tactful?
  • Does this person complete work on time and take special care to prevent errors?
  • Does this person respond within 24 hours to emails, voice mail and phone messages?
  • Is this person positive and enthusiastic toward work responsibilities?
  • Is this person flexible with responsibilities and able to shift focus easily?
  • Is this person willing and eager to assist when needed?

That’s it. Basically, it evaluates how well someone simply fits in with the status quo. Five years from now, they’ll wonder why their marketing hasn’t grown their company, why their products lack innovation and probably why their best people have left.

Now consider the difference if these questions went to the edge. If they really evaluated and identified people who make a real difference. These questions might include:

  1. Does this person challenge others to rise up to new levels of performance for the company?
  2. Does this person put the customer first, even if it means rocking the boat sometimes?
  3. Does this person bring new, more effective ideas to the company?
  4. Does this person doggedly persist in the things that could make a real difference for our customers, their co-workers or our stakeholders?
  5. Does this person help create some constructive tension so we are evaluating options to the fullest?
  6. Does this person listen to the ideas of others, have faith in his/her own ideas, and meld both without pride of authorship?
  7. Does this person make you feel like trying something new?
  8. Does this person fight to put the success of others above themselves?

These are the questions of a company looking to hire and retain people who can make a difference. But this type of evaluation requires going to the edge and seeing how dangerous it is when you are ready to put your leadership on the line. It will rock a culture. It will challenge the status quo. It will require leaders to stand up and say, “I’m looking for people who bring value, not complacency.”

In Bill Pollard’s book, The Soul of the Firm, Pollard (the Chairman of ServiceMaster) references that the role of a leader is to view diverse and impactful talent from the perspective of “acceptance not assimilation.” Real leaders seize the diversity of new thinking and people who are ready to challenge the status quo. Not many leaders have that same nerve and commitment.

Vision from 20,000 feet provides a good view of what could be. But it can also be a passing fancy. Those with the guts to go the edge everyday and ensure real change is championed by true visionary leaders.

Want to rock the boat without getting fired?