With Martin G. Moore

Episode #110

Getting in the Arena: At least have a go

We all get busy doing the things we do in life, and sometimes we don’t really think about what we’re actually achieving. Some people love to be in the thick of things, happy to risk success or failure. Others appear to be much more comfortable watching from the sidelines, at a safe distance.

Unless you learn how to put yourself “in the arena”, you’ll struggle to find success and satisfaction in your career, whether you’re running a start-up business, or a major global multinational.

The episode unpicks some of the natural impediments to getting in the arena, and offers a suggestion to help you overcome whatever is holding you back!

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Episode #110 Getting in the Arena: At least have a go

Hey there, and welcome to Episode 110 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode, Getting in the Arena: At least have a go. Now of course, we all get busy doing the things we do. Sometimes we don’t really think about what we’re actually achieving. Over my corporate career, I came to realise that there are some people who love to be in the fight, giving everything they have to deliver outcomes and being happy to risk success or failure as a result. There are others who are much more comfortable watching from the sidelines, at a safe distance. Now I believe that getting in the arena is an essential prerequisite to having a successful and satisfying career. And this is whether you’re running a startup business or a major global multinational. But there are some natural impediments to us actually getting in the arena, and sometimes our biggest enemy exists in the six inches between our ears. Today I hope to unpick some of that for you so that you better understand where you currently are and how you might change things if you chose to do so. We’ll start with a look at why it’s easier to just throw rocks. I’ll then explore the cultural barriers for what we call staff roles. We’ll discuss why it can be a little more difficult for lower level leaders to get in the arena. And I’ll finish with a simple but powerful suggestion to help you get in the arena no matter where you are now. So let’s get into it.

The world is full of armchair quarterbacks, and this is one of my favourite expressions because it covers the concept so beautifully. Armchair quarterbacks are the people who sit on the couch on a Sunday afternoon, watching the football game. When someone on the field makes a mistake, they throw empty beer cans at the TV screen and hurl abuse: “You idiot! Why would you do that?” Now we’ve all been guilty of that at some stage I’m sure. When a quarterback throws an interception, that’s the cue for the armchair quarterback to spring into action, giving his guidance on how the play should have gone down. My favourite is when a specialist kicker misses an easy field goal. Invariably, the first words out of my mouth are “One job, you’ve got one job!” I got to tell you, it’s always a lot easier from the sidelines. There’s no pressure on you at all, except maybe timing your breaks to go to the bathroom and get another beer so that you don’t miss any plays. But being a critic from the comfort of your own lounge room, while some of the best athletes in the world challenge themselves against each other, both physically and mentally, has a massive appeal.

The players on the field are being paid millions of dollars every year to do what they do, while the armchair quarterback is trying to decide which case of beer to buy, depending on what’s on special this week. I’ve seen a lot of armchair quarterbacks throughout my corporate career, and apart from the very odd exception, they tend to not go too far. At some point, you’ve got to forget about what everyone else is doing and deliver some results yourself. Many leaders feel that spending their time playing politics and trying to outfox their competition for the next promotion, is the best use of their time and energy. But I could barely hide my disdain for these individuals, particularly the ones who were expert at sucking up to the boss to win favour and influence. The purpose of this episode is to look at a few situations where you may hesitate to get into the arena and give you some ideas for overcoming this hesitation.

Before that, though, I should probably explain the concept of the arena a little bit better. It comes from an excerpt from a famous speech given over a hundred years ago by former US President, Theodore Roosevelt, and I know many of you will have heard this. It perfectly captures the contrast between those who are in the arena, so to speak, and those who aren’t. Now given the fact that it was delivered in 1910, you’ll have to forgive the obvious gender bias in the language, but it goes like this.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there’s no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Sometimes there are barriers to get in the arena that are both cultural and structural. Now organisations have two basic types of role, line roles and staff roles. Staff roles are also sometimes called functional roles. I spent the majority of my career in staff roles, they’re supporting roles like IT, strategy and finance. It wasn’t until my first sales and marketing role, with P&L accountability, that I had a line role. And then as CEO, I obviously oversaw the whole shooting match. But in case you haven’t heard the line vs staff terminology before, I’ll give you a quick rundown. It originated in the military, and line roles are those roles that contribute directly to the core activities undertaken in a business that relate to the design, manufacturing, marketing, and sales of the company’s products and services. This includes any customer facing roles and for a car manufacturer, for example, it would be all roles that contribute to the value chain of producing and selling a car.

So the original design, production planning, material logistics, manufacturing, supply chain, marketing, and eventually sales. Line roles are those that directly contribute to the monetization of the product or service, earning revenue for the business. Staff roles, on the other hand, are designed to support the line and bring expertise that the line doesn’t necessarily have. So this would be things like human resources, IT, legal services and a governance and risk function. They’re not directly involved in the productional sales of goods and services, but they’re nonetheless critical in supporting those people in line roles that do. Now there’s a natural tension here that could be extremely beneficial for any organisation. Line leaders are hell bent on delivery, but they can tend to take shortcuts. They’re focused on maximising the profit of their business unit, which is fantastic, but they can sometimes try to cut corners to improve results by not spending money.

The functional leaders are there to keep them in check to ensure the line areas perform as they should and that the risk of operations isn’t excessive. So HR, legal, and risk management are areas that have a particularly important role to play. They dictate policies. They provide expertise and tools, and they keep an eye on how the operations perform in relation to their specific functional area. Finance people tell you the scoreboard of financial performance of the business and act as an independent arbiter of results for the company stakeholders. Now, the dynamic can sometimes become a little unhealthy. Line leaders have the ascendancy in most organisations. There’s a level of power and autonomy that goes with these line roles because of their criticality in delivering the core business outcomes. Often, line leaders don’t feel obligated to follow the guidance of the functional leaders when they’re asked to comply with certain standards and directives. And remember, the eight most hated words a line leader can ever hear are “I’m from corporate and I’m here to help.”

Functional leaders become upset or frustrated that they’re being ignored and can often turn into armchair quarterbacks. They spend their time sniping about what the line leaders are doing or not doing and why it’s not the way to do business. Between the two an unhealthy culture can begin to emerge where there is distrust, lack of respect and trench warfare. It’s very easy for a functional leader to forget that the line people are in the arena and the functional teams are there to provide support to them. Now this is not to say, that functional leaders can’t be in the arena because they absolutely can, but understanding their role profoundly how they serve the business and what they can do to generate the best value for the organisation is where that has to start. Now, I’m not going to go into that too much in this episode, but I do want to tell you one example.

I once worked with a colleague in a financial role, who was extremely bright, but very outspoken. And it seemed that every time he opened his mouth in a meeting, he was criticising the performance of the line leaders. His intent was good. He wanted to fearlessly address performance issues in the business by bringing the facts and figures to life and challenging those who would otherwise hide behind excuses. Unfortunately, what actually happened was that he became typecast as a bully, who wasn’t getting anything done himself, but he was quite happy to throw rocks at others for what he considered to be their underperformance. Bottom line is, it can be difficult to not fall into the armchair quarterback pattern, if you’re a senior functional leader whose job is to ensure that the line leaders observe the standards of the function that you’re there to protect. But more on this shortly.

Now that we’ve spoken about why it’s sometimes hard for functional leaders to get in the arena, and those issues can be both structural and cultural, it’s worth looking at why lower level leaders in any role can find it hard to get in the game, irrespective of whether they are line or staff. How does this manifest itself? Well most commonly, it’s the tendency to stand back passively and just follow the directions from above, without ever challenging, pushing back or bringing your own thought leadership to the table. This can simply be a function of a lack of confidence.

So what I really want you to take away from this episode is that if you want to distinguish yourself as a leader who is strong, capable, and results oriented, you can’t just stand back and hope things work out. You have to make the choice to get in the arena, and it is a choice. What does that actually mean? Well for a start, you have to risk speaking out when you don’t agree with something. This creates potential conflict and it puts you squarely in the arena. Interestingly, the majority of people are so afraid to do this, it’s not funny. You have to make your own assessment of a situation and be prepared to put that forward calmly, but passionately, in order to make a difference. You have to be willing to step up when something needs to be done and to take accountability for it. You have to put aside your fear of failure and realise that making mistakes is inevitable. And it’s a psychological barrier that we all need to overcome. Most importantly, you need to have a mindset of taking on the toughest challenges and just giving them your best shot.

So what are the three main things that are going to hold low level leaders back? Well, the first thing is giving too much deference to authority. And sure you need to respect your bosses position and their experience, and you need to follow their direction. They have a better perspective than you do simply by definition. They get to see more from a higher level, but it doesn’t mean they’re always right. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you should take their direction on face value without challenging them. So you need to be prepared to challenge your boss. And you’ve got to learn to do this in a respectful way, if you want to be effective. We sometimes think that we’ll fall out of favour with our boss, if we challenge her. And particularly, if it’s the type of boss that likes to surround themselves with yes men and women. These are surprisingly common in the corporate world, and I know that you have seen it in the past.

The second thing is that sometimes we’re too timid to take on risk even when we know it’s our job. Being prepared to take on the big challenges is what differentiates the men and women in the arena from the spectators. There’s a certain magic to nailing your colours to the mast and saying, “I will take accountability for delivering this thing, despite the fact that it’s tough; despite the fact that it’s uncertain and treacherous; despite the fact that I’m going to look like a complete goose, if I fail, because it’s such a central part of what we’re trying to achieve, and I’m the person in the spotlight. It creates value for the organisation, so I will overcome whatever obstacles I need to to get it done.” Now this is super powerful stuff, but to do it, it carries a level of risk. It’s so much easier to let others do the heavy lifting and not take on the risk yourself.

The third thing is not having the courage to speak out, particularly when you know it doesn’t accord with the views of more senior people. I think the expression they use these days is speaking truth to power. When you speak up about the things that you don’t agree with, there’s a fine line between being constructive, and being destructive, as we’ve just seen. So it does require some nuance. We may have the best intentions, but fear that we’ll be seen by others as just being contrary or recalcitrant. I worked for one organisation where the Chief Executive was incredibly intelligent and experienced, but deeply insecure. And I don’t think he really knew what to do with me. I was always challenging and quite vocal about getting what I believe to be the right result for the business. But I wouldn’t just fall into line and agree with whatever he said, whereas many other executives, were quite happy to do so. As result of this, over time, I heard whispers from the corridors of HR where the power brokers really lie, that I had been tagged as having behavioural problems. I shit, you not. When it came to the line executives that mattered, I’d won their respect because I wasn’t just an armchair quarterback like most others. I was prepared to have a go. And I was, actually in the arena, and I wouldn’t have traded that for the world.

Let’s finish with some ideas for getting into the arena. Well, I actually just want to give you one idea. And here it is – don’t ever love your job more than you love yourself, and let me explain this. Getting in the arena demands that you overcome many fears and psychological barriers that may be holding you back. Ultimately, most of these fears stem from our need for security, and this is pretty fundamental in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What if I make a mistake? What if I piss my boss off? What if I fail at delivering this major piece of work? What if I look like I don’t know what I’m doing? Bottom line, will any of this threaten my job security? Now, if you’re actually having a go, all of these things will happen. And in my career, I managed to do all of them a lot more than once, but I made sure I was in the arena right from the get go. I had one really important principle that I cottoned onto early in my adult life, fortunately. No job, is that important to me, that I will just sit on the sidelines for fear of losing it. If I’m giving my very best and the company doesn’t want that from me, for whatever reason, then it’s not a company I should be working for. If a company wants me to compromise the things that are most important to me, my values, my drive for impact and achievement, my search for personal challenge and excellence, then it’s not a company I should be working for anyway.

And if I do fall out of any job for any reason, it’s only because there’s a much better opportunity for me, that’s waiting for me to jump into it. Now this is completely liberating. It shifts your focus from worrying about the possible consequences of getting in the arena to worrying about what might happen if you don’t. Instead of being fearful of losing your job, you know that freeing yourself up to perform at your best is, paradoxically, the thing that will make you the most valuable. And if whoever you work for now, doesn’t appreciate that, then that’s not the right arena for you to be in.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of Episode 110. Thanks so much for joining us. And remember at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please take a few moments to either rate and review this or share it with your leadership network. This is what gets us to reach even more leaders. I look forward to next week’s episode, The Leadership Meeting Cadence.


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