In this extract from his book Storeroom to Boardroom, Babs Omotowa talks about the importance of being reflective and empathetic.
With the start of a new regional organization in Europe in 2003, I was appointed a Manager in the United Kingdom. I also had a new boss, Carl, an intelligent, high-flying engineer. Carl and I had a challenging start.
On many occasions, he showed disdain for my work and made negative comments. I had not experienced this with previous bosses. The relationship deteriorated rapidly; it seemed the more effort I put into my role, the worse the assessment from Carl was.
Working became quite stressful. I felt I was being unnecessarily put down for reasons that I could not understand. It reminded me of the comments my mentor in Nigeria had made a few years ago. I questioned whether Carl was being discriminatory due to racial prejudice, as I noticed that he had a totally different disposition to my other Caucasian colleagues.
Arriving home from work one evening totally frustrated and disillusioned, I was convinced that I had reached my limit. I informed my wife that I was going to resign from the company the next day due to the continued stress arising from a poor working relationship with my boss.
I could not take it anymore. I went into the study and wrote my resignation. I thanked the company for the opportunities it had provided. I explained that the reasons for my resignation were personal and wished the company well. I addressed the envelope to the HR Manager and put it into my office bag. I felt relieved as if a burden had been lifted from my shoulders.
My wife watched silently. Over dinner, we discussed our younger son, Fiyin’s, kindergarten schooling. He had only just started and was still adjusting to the new experience. He was, however, making new friends and seemed to relish the experience. Just before we went to sleep, my wife said she had questions about my plan to resign. ‘Did you join the company because of Carl?’ She asked. I said no. ‘Why then do you want to resign because of him?’ I had no answer. She said, ‘I have nothing against you resigning, but it should be on your own terms. I can understand if you have a different aspiration and want to do something new.’
Her comments continued to play in my head throughout the night. By morning, I concluded that she was right. I retrieved the resignation letter and tore it up. Her subtle intervention was an example of how important family support is, especially during overseas assignments. Her presence as a partner, counsel and supporter during challenging times was immeasurable.
Being away from one’s country and local employing company subsidiary can sometimes feel lonely at work. The cultural differences and sometimes internal politics that play out in overseas subsidiaries or company headquarters are examples of why having a partner who understands one’s context and can take a more dispassionate view is so helpful.
Over the next few days, I reflected on possible reasons for my poor relationship with Carl. I remembered my father’s use of introspection when I scaled the fence one night, which made me look inward at myself deeply. I reasoned that I was the one who had to change the dynamics in the relationship with Carl.
It might be naïve to expect anything different from Carl without any change from my end. I guessed that I may have come across as crowding his space or hadn’t recognized him enough as the leader in the team, particularly as he had only just started work in the department whereas I had a few years of experience there. I recalled noticing a frown on his face during a meeting we attended where I had presented some new ideas. I may have surprised him.
I took the decision to change my approach. I was going to ensure that he received respect and recognition. In the past, I had tended to act unilaterally with an authority I was used to, so I started to check things with him before I took any action. I ensured it was Carl rather than me who informed other senior leaders of any new ideas and improvements. For meetings he attended, I provided adequate pre-reads for him on the historical context and possible options he could suggest.
Changing the way I related to Carl and the dynamics in the team led to changes in him. He became more relaxed, much more supportive, and started to coach me on my career. And he was a terrific coach! I had not realized that earlier. He gave me deeper insights into how I could be more effective. In areas where I was lacking, he sought to set up other coaches for me who were more versed in those areas. These were traits that I would never have known and benefited from had I not changed my own approach, or if I had resigned.
In one of our sessions, I reflected with Carl on how our relationship had turned for the better and he acknowledged that my change of approach and attitude was instrumental. I inquired why he had not raised his concerns directly with me rather than acting it out, and that his indirect approach had stressed me and almost led me to quit the organization.
He was surprised, as he had not realized this. He accepted that he could have handled it better but said he was still in the process of settling down in the department. He said he was thankful for my ‘upward coaching’.
I had learned that one cannot change others, but one can change oneself. That then improves the possibility that others may decide to change. Irrespective of the situation, viewing the other person as the issue is not always a helpful way to get a good outcome.
One should not spend an inordinate amount of time and energy getting upset, angry, or frustrated by other people’s thoughts and behaviours. Introspection is the first step on the way to a fruitful relationship. It is important to be reflective and stand in the other person’s shoes. It is also necessary to role model the behaviour one expects from others. If you don’t treat others well (supporting, respecting, and celebrating them), there should be no expectation that they will treat you well.