I had a best friend at work well before it became a question asked in engagement surveys – Do You have a Best Friend at Work? Until I was asked that question, I hadn’t ever thought about the concept, but once it was there…it stuck.
There are articles, publications and – likely as not – PhD theses about this question, the intent, the capitals, the specifics of every word. But in my mind it only ever just came down to the fact that a best friend at work would help me, care about me, laugh with (and at) me, and above all would be there for me. Against that backdrop the question immediately made sense – if I could answer with a yes…then I would be in a better place.
I first met one of my best friends at work when she interviewed me for my first global leadership role. I knew of her, but we had never really talked. I recognised quickly in our discussion that we had similar philosophies and beliefs. I enjoyed that interview more than any I had before…or have had since.
The new role I was applying for was specified as having zero direct reports. Whoever was appointed would operate and succeed ‘in the matrix’. Hence the question I found myself being asked…how would I operate and succeed without any direct reports?
I knew this was a likely question, but even so my answer surprised me – ‘I have never thought about it’. Which induced the obvious ‘response…‘really – it seems like it will be key to your success?’ At which point we proceeded to have a great discussion about leadership and supervision…and our friendship was born.
My point really was that I have never believed we should expect anyone to do what we say, suggest or ask just because we are their line supervisor. Most of us try it once in our careers…at which point we rapidly discover that it either doesn’t work at all or that if it just about works once…it never works again!
My follow on was that I believe I have to be able to influence what people do based on the quality of my suggestions and on my ability to communicate. And that if this was true, then – by definition – it does not matter whether an individual reports to me or not. A good idea is just that – a good idea -irrespective of who it comes from. And the same applies to a not so good idea.
If I resort to simply telling someone what to do ‘because I am their boss’ then it’s not at all likely that individual will understand my logic let alone my intent. And it’s inconceivable they will take any useful learning from that moment.
Conversely, if I can understand what they want to do and why, then not only will that help me decide if my suggestion is still valid, but that understanding will also help me if I then decide how, or even whether, I try to influence any actions.
I quickly realised in my interview that that my new best friend at work had a very similar – albeit better articulated – philosophy over leadership. I guess it is often the case that we find ourselves sharing beliefs with our best friends.
In the end, I was appointed into that matrix role and the ‘zero direct reports’ lasted about four weeks – if memory serves – but that was a delightful month. I listened lots and tried to influence…
I haven’t worked with my interviewer best friend for nearly six years…but she still makes me smile and still makes me feel good.