(Originally published May 4, 2012, in Capital, here.)
Sixteen years ago, while making an eye-opening transition from reporting about banks to working inside one, I was rushing to the CEO’s office to deliver a speech when my boss stopped me in the hallway. Had I remembered to bring that second document also?
No, I had not – and the “f-word” erupted from my mouth like a well-practiced sneeze that echoed down the hall. After many years in newsrooms, that four-letter word was more familiar to me (and more often said) than “hello” and “goodbye.”
Before I realized, my new boss leaned forward, looked me in the eye, and in a whisper, said very directly: “Peter, we don’t use that word here.” And with just that one simple message, I learned one of the clearest lessons of all. Because sure enough, he was right. Over the next 12 years, I never did hear that word used inside the bank.
Consider it coaching. Or mentoring. Or teaching. Or leading. They are each different in practice, but they also share a basic truth about human beings. We learn by example. We emulate by watching. And we respond to expectations.
It seems so simple. Behave the way we want others to behave. It sounds naïve. But think for a minute about your entire company filled with people who act like you.. Think about your entire family filled with people who act like you. You start to get the idea.
This is not about morality. It is about good business. Because good behavior at the top leads to good productivity by workers, good service, good customers, good sales, good profit. CEOs who behave badly can indeed be overcome. But those who inspire remove most of the hurdles on the path to success.
I’ve sadly watched a gentle senior manager transform into his petulant boss, picking up his bad temper, even his words and expressions. I’ve seen a kind young woman given someone to manage, then copy her boss, barking out orders and raising her voice to demonstrate authority.
Too often, it seems, bosses fail to see the connection. Many insecurely believe bad behavior shows strength. In my experience, real strength is not demonstrated by this, but by being an expert in the business, a perfectionist in practice, and extremely demanding with employees – while being temperate, well-reasoned, on time, and composed.
“But this is Romania,” I’ve been told. Well, the issue is not cultural. Being Romanian does not change things. I’ve seen workers here inspired by watching good management. And I’ve heard numerous complaints about the lack of strong role models. So there is the ability here and there is the need.
The fact is you don’t need a special program to start acting as a mentor. You don’t need teachers or trainers to coach others toward success.
It’s something we all know about raising children. It’s our behavior that most shapes them, not what we say. Of course, our employees are not children (though it seems our bosses can be). Still, the lesson is the same. For it is not childish to need examples to learn. It is human. And there is no cultural difference in human nature.