What Real Leadership Looks Like

The operative part of management is “manage”: To handle or direct with a degree of skill.

Welcome to Mark’s Masterclass

When I walked into Bank of America in September 2001, I was about to face a turning point of paramount importance. It was still early in my career, but with a lot of hard work and help, I was coming along in my skills. This job would not only test my technical abilities, but it would also set the gold standard of leadership.

As the project was months behind before I arrived — my manager, Ryan, was under a lot of pressure to turn it around.

From the get-go, I saw he was a micromanager and short with people. That got on my nerves and impeded my progress, so I spoke to one of my colleagues about it. He said, “That’s just the way he is with everyone.”

I thought to myself, “We’ll see”

Had Ryan’s curtness been the only issue, I would have let it go, but the micromanagement was really getting in the way. Clearly, he wanted to be sure that I was capable of getting the project back on track, so some of that initial hovering was understandable.

I just needed a little time to get acclimated and everything would be fine, but I wasn’t getting any breathing room.

His style even bordered on paranoia.

One morning I called him and he just happened to walk in right as I was hanging up. I told him I just rang, but he was suspicious because I had my agency’s business card in my hand (which had his number on the back). He checked the call history to verify it (I acted like I didn’t notice).

No big deal — but it sets the atmosphere for just far and how fast we turned this relationship around.

One thing led to another in those first few weeks, and I did not see how I could succeed under these worsening conditions. I had to find a way to resolve this problem so we could get the project moving along. The only option left was to go above his head — a risky move at any time, but off the charts when you’re a temporary resource who just got there.

Contractors can be treated like commodities and tossed aside on a whim, so it was a huge gamble.

When I sat down to talk with his manager, Mark, right away I felt comfortable explaining the situation.

And that right there tells you something about him.

He did not see me as some “contractor” complaining about his manager — he saw me as a sincere person who needed help in trying to solve a problem. Whether I was contractor or employee was irrelevant to him.

He was going to weigh my concerns with prudence and respond accordingly.

Not only was he receptive — he was impressed.

He even inquired if I had any interest in coming on board full-time at some point. Dictionary.com defines “insight” as:

Penetrating mental vision or discernment; faculty of seeing into inner character or underlying truth

Mark is a model of such intuition and desire to understand.

He saw everything exactly as it was, and set up a meeting with the three of us to talk it over. Inside of 30 minutes and in the most professional manner imaginable:

Problem Solved

To be sure, it wasn’t smooth sailing immediately (nor would I expect it to be). But we were in a groove within a week. Before long, I loved working with Ryan. He was exceptional in his attention to detail and help with requirements. We got into a rhythm and everything started to click.

We delivered on that project in every way possible, and it’s one of the finest experiences of my career.

It would not be the last time that I would work with them. Six months later I was just finishing up another contract, and they called TEK Systems specifically asking for me — for a project that they needed done yesterday. I was thrilled to return, and when I walked in on the first day, everyone was waiting for me in a conference room.

We didn’t miss a beat — and it’s a good thing, because we had no time to waste.

It was a unique project that required both Microsoft Access and Excel — both of which were my bread and butter in those days. After I took some time to plan out how I would go about it, we got things rolling.

In our rush to crank this thing out though, I missed something that was key to tying our data together. It was my responsibility and I should not have missed it, but Ryan’s only concern was how to solve the problem.

Later, he made a great Office Space joke about my mistake:

Um, yeah . . . I’m gonna need you to not do that next time.

It’s all the more special because he introduced me to that movie on the first project. And it speaks volumes about his leadership, as he took something hilarious and made an important point at the same time.

Subtlety is mighty powerful in the minds of those who listen.

We ended up working well into the the wee hours of the morning trying to get this thing resolved. I’ll never forget how much fun it was eating pizza for our problem-solving sustenance that night. I went home around 3:00 or 4:00 AM, not knowing that Ryan was going to stick around. I got a call from him Saturday morning to let me know that he had figured it out, so I immediately headed back into the office to implement his fix.

As much as I felt bad for making the mistake and keeping him up all night, it’s hard to regret it when considering what a wonderful experience it was.

When I finished up the contract and was on my way out, he shook my hand and said, “Rick . . . what you did with Excel!” — and just shook his head.

He was referring to the OLE Automation I did to dynamically create hundreds of polished reports in a back and forth bi-directional data exchange between Access and Excel (with Oracle in the mix). There were a lot of complexities to the project — with business requirements driven by practical realities rather than programmatic ideals.

Such necessities require ingenuity and genuine collaboration, and Ryan’s leadership cultivated exactly what was needed. Without the willingness of everyone to truly work together, especially in the face of difficulty, you will never know what you are capable of accomplishing.