“A leader serves others and serves the mission.”
These eight words spoke so powerfully to Chris Hutchinson as an Air Force trainee that he knew leadership was his destiny. But little did he know leadership would take Chris far from the military base and into the corporate world.
Today, Chris is a leading executive coach dedicated to helping organizations achieve their full potential by empowering leaders and their teams. Since founding the Trebuchet Group in 2002, Chris has helped countless organizations—including New Belgium Brewing, Colorado State University, Call-Em-All and the National Park Service.
Chris is also the author of Ripple: A Field Manual for Leadership that Works. In addition, Trebuchet Group is a B Corp certified company showing its commitment to fostering better business practices.
So, how does Chris inspire leaders and their teams to accomplish greatness? Through clarity, vulnerability and proving each team member can influence their company’s success.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” —George Bernard Shaw
Even in dysfunctional workplaces, Chris believes most everyone performs with the best intentions. Leaders think they’re successfully guiding their employees toward the company’s vision. At the same time, their team dutifully plugs away to complete their own role in achieving that vision.
…or at least everyone thinks that’s what they’re doing.
In actuality, Chris often discovers that even organizations with seemingly healthy cultures suffer from severe miscommunication—especially when the messages come from the top down.
He compares this situation to a leader and his team steering a boat from opposite ends. Both sides think they’re heading towards the same destination. But without the ability to accurately communicate the best way to get there, miscommunication is inevitable.
Imagine an executive on one end thinking, “I have to row harder in my direction because I have to make up for [my team’s] interpretation or confusion,” says Chris. If that’s the case, chances are high the executive’s team is thinking the same thing—but about their leader.
Organizations often row for years in opposing directions before realizing this vision disparity has nothing to do with incompetent leadership or team members. Instead, it all leads back to poor communication.
In time, resentment builds and eventually leads to a fractured, frustrated workplace. Something that began as a mild misjudgment eventually evolves into a toxic work environment.
Thankfully, solving this prevalent problem is as simple as speaking up and getting comfortable with vulnerability. Company-wide vulnerability not only leads to better communication; it also builds trust within the organization as team members feel like they can speak as their authentic selves.
Making an Authentic Workplace
“Where are we trying to go—together?”
Vulnerability in business is important. It’s also really hard, especially as leaders. Many of us have actually been trained to do the exact opposite. There’s this mindset that great leaders should be tough, unwavering and flawless. However, Chris believes these hardened exteriors mask insecurities and omit the humanity needed for great leadership.
“If we don’t have vulnerability-based trust,” says Chris “It’s going to be really hard to have an effective conflict. People are going to feel like they have to protect themselves and operate with a lot of armor on.”
Whether that armor is worn due to fear, pride or something else entirely, refusing to be vulnerable creates communication boundaries. However, taking off that armor and speaking about your personal challenges, intentions, visions, etc. opens the organization up to healthy honesty and authenticity.
After challenging team members to open up, Chris recalls participants apologizing to each other say “I’m so sorry! I thought I was doing these things to help out the organization. Now, I can see I was probably driving you crazy.”
In a moment, years of pent up resentment dissolves away.
Making the Office More Human
“You don’t break people down into pieces. People are whole, and the way they work together is the system that influences where we’re going.”
We’re all human. Every person inside our organizations—from the C-Suite level CEO down to the fresh-faced intern—has their own unique stories, strengths, fears and triumphs. However, we often forget about the real individuals that make up our teams. Instead, we replace the actual person with their title.
Whether intentional or not, this creates “cold workplace cultures,” Chris says, “where people are encouraged to not be real.” Over time, people will confine themselves to these self-prescribed roles.
Over time, employees grow fearful of stepping outside their box. They become so-called “Yes People” who never ask questions, never disagree and never take the initiative to come up with solutions. This anxiety “holds people prisoner in their own little shells,” Chris says.
Then Chris comes in and encourages teams to speak authentically with each other—sometimes for the first time. Soon, he’s witnessing a team’s transformation as they finally open up.
“When we get a group together and they’re talking about what matters to them and the challenges they’ve gone through,” says Chris, “other people go, ‘Oh my God! You’re human. You have struggles too.
‘I’m not alone.’”
The Marble and the Skipping Stone
Chris Hutchinson has countless strengths as a communicator, but one that stands out is his ability to relate complex executive strategies through creative storytelling—like that of the marble and the skipping stone.
Chris envisions two kinds of leaders: One’s a marble. The other’s a skipping stone.
First, imagine a classic game of marbles. Every player has a shooter—the bigger marble—and a chance to hit the smaller marbles out of the circle. Once a smaller marble is knocked out by the shooter, it’s time to move on to the next.
“A lot of people conduct leadership that way,” says Chris. “I have the [big] tool. You’re the little marble…If I impact you correctly, you’re going to go to the place you’re supposed to be and if you’re good little marble, you’ll stay right there.”
That’s it. Each action focuses on a singular objective. Once that objective is complete, it’s onto to the next task. That small, smacked marble—or pawn-like team member—is all but forgotten.
Now, imagine a skipping stone. No one wants to skip their stone only once before watching it sink below the water’s surface. It’s all about how far that stone will go. If you do it just right, “to the point where the last one is almost just sitting on top of the water,” says Chris “and vibrating out before it sinks in—I think that’s really effective leadership.”
Unlike striking marbles out of a circle, beautifully skipping stones is a more nuanced, strategic process. How are you positioning yourself alongside the water’s edge? Maybe that’s you aligning with the core mission. That first hit could be how you interact with your co-workers while forwarding that mission.
“And if that goes really well,” says Chris “That stone—that effort—continues on and maybe it hits our systems. Then it continues on. It hits our customers positively. How far could that thing go out?
“The stone’s the thing I do—but the energy is in the ripples. Some come back to me. Some go forward. But that energy and that positive benefit dwindle over time…
I need to pick up another stone to do it again. It’s never done.”
Just like the ripple emanating from a skipping stone, the impact of great leadership never ends. Instead, it resonates.
Next time you make any leadership decision, stop and think: Am I a marble or a skipping stone? Is my choice for the sake of convenience—or even power—or does it have the potential to echo throughout our organization?
If you’re more of a marble, that’s ok. Change isn’t always easy, but it’s always possible. With intention and authenticity, you’ll soon be skipping stones while positively impacting everyone around you.
Or if you’re already there, don’t underestimate your energy’s significance—and keep on rippling.
By Rob Dube
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