“Do you want to be right or keep your job?”

Written by Sherri Petro on . Posted in VPI Blog

image001Guest Post by: Scott Suckow

Part of our “March Mentoring Madness” Series 

Can you always be right?

The best advice came in the form of a question from a professional coach. I was the CEO of a non-profit that had a great deal of success and growth. We were going through a transition with a new board chair and it was not going well. As the CEO, I was the chief staff person. As the board chair, she was the chief volunteer. I saw our different, yet complementary, roles very clearly. Our governance model had been working successfully up to this point.

As a former CEO of a large hospital, she saw her role as more active in day-to-day operations, regardless of the current governance model. (Executive Directors/CEO’s reading this probably just had a few light bulbs go on.) I tried “gentle redirection”, “training” and then moved to “direct and honest”. None worked. We both wanted organizational success. We disagreed about our roles in getting us there. Our conflict had reached a point that was threatening that goal.

We both agreed that being on the same page was instrumental for the organization to fulfill its mission. Honestly, I assumed that she would get on my page, and she assumed I would get on hers.

With the support of the leadership of the board, I enrolled the support of a professional coach to help mentor me through the transition. The board chair declined the opportunity.  At the beginning of my first session with the coach, she shared with me that in order to provide me with coaching that best supported my goals, she had to ask one question.  “Great,” I thought, “I’ll tell her the situation and she’ll understand it as clearly as I, then we’d be off and running and I could get back to my work running the organization.” The question she asked was “Do you want to be right or keep your job?”

Of course, I thought I was right and that I would keep my job. It was my board chair that was wrong. I just wanted help to make her understand how right I was. My coach explained that there may be a point where I would not be able to be right and keep my job. That simple question really pulled out the complexities of the ego, and whether as CEO I would be able to put mine aside for the greater good. It was clear that the chair was deeply rooted in her approach. If change was going to happen it would be me adapting. Although this felt incredibly unfair, it was the reality of the situation.

My coach explained the belief that each of us give 50% and meet in the middle put half the responsibility on the other person. That the half that we have no control over. Rather, if I was committed to success, why not do everything I could to ensure it, even giving 100%. This seems like such a simple observation, but I was rooted in my belief of being right, my ego did not allow me to see how much power I actually had. What resulted was a power struggle that led to my frustration and disappointment with the board leadership unable to correct the behavior of the board chair.

Eventually I left the organization and a year later the board chair rotated off the board as well. Neither of us won. The organization lost a great CEO and committed board chair.  Looking back, this question was the best advice I had ever received, although at the time I was not yet ready to hear it. To this day, when I find my ego keeping me from exploring new ways of doing things, I nudge myself along by asking this very question.

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