Early lessons in leadership – #4

One of the best dividends of my hospitality experience in the Midwest was that it brought me to San Francisco, where I was lucky enough to get in on the leading edge of the high-tech boom. That led to a job for a tech-media start-up in Japan, and several hard-earned lessons in leadership. Along the way, I went from being the 17th person hired to CEO — all in short order.

As with so many people, I learned the right way to do things by trying the wrong way first.  I was young and passionate about the business and our opportunity in Asia. The team didn’t seem to share my passion, and needed to elevate the level of their work. It hadn’t occurred to me that not every culture operated just as we did in the United States — or that there might be ways of motivating people that didn’t involve confrontation. In the middle of a difficult budget conversation with the executive managing that office, I raised my voice and I said that his effort simply wasn’t good enough. He stormed out of the room. I didn’t know what happened. I was just venting because I cared deeply and I wanted him to understand how important it was. But his second-in-command made it clear that I’d better go after him and apologize; I had made him lose face.

The fault, of course, was mine. I disrespected him. And I quickly learned that being a hot head — yelling about my expectations and demanding perfection — doesn’t work in Asia. To be honest, I don’t think it works anywhere. From that day forward, I worked hard to be more diplomatic and respectful, and that approach has served me well wherever I happen to be working. By the way, I still see that person, who became a close friend, whenever he is in California.

The lesson, of course, is that your own passion isn’t enough to motivate people. Leaders take the time to understand what motivates their people. They find a way to let individuals tap into their own passion. And they’re smart enough to know it’s not the same for everyone.