Railroad Design and the Leadership Mirror

I was working with a business owner whose company designs complex railroad stuff.  He was completely burnt out.  Over the last couple years, his sales had been declining, he had the wrong people in the wrong seats, and he had a bunch of people problems.  In the middle of our very first session with his team it got raw, heated, and highly emotional—fresh scars, the whole deal.  It was a contentious day.  When I questioned him about his attitude towards his people, he was highly negative.  Here he was trying to turn around his company and at the same time being really disrespectful toward his people.  

I let him get it all out, and then I said, “Okay, listen, hypothetically speaking, fast-forward two months from now—your partner just bought you out, you’ve got a million dollars for conversation’s sake, what are you going to go do?”  

He replied, “I’d go design train stuff.” 

My reply was, “Well, isn’t that what you do now?  You already have market share.  Why would you want to start over on your own instead of making some people changes and bringing some happiness back into your life?  Because if you’re going to sell your business as a discount and then go back to doing exactly what you’re doing now, the problem is not about your passion for what you do.”  

That was a lightning bolt moment for him.  He had to admit it made no sense, and he came around.  I got him to see that he was unhappy with how things were running in his business, but not with the business itself.  Once we turned the mirror back on him, the rest of the afternoon had a completely different flavor.  

Once he understood the problem wasn’t about his passion, that instead, it was about his “failure in leadership” (his words!), we were able to start exploring that attitude with the rest of his staff.  We were able to make the changes necessary to get everyone on the same track, in pursuit of the same shared vision.  The big lesson we all learned there was to stay connected with the passion and to make sure it was shared by everyone in the company.

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