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When Mike Watson was a young manager, a box of doughnuts turned around his career.

At that time he was sinking, heading a transformation initiative at his mid-sized financial services company that six months into implementation seemed destined to become a spectacular disaster. It was, he wanted to believe, the fault of his recalcitrant colleagues, but in what he calls “a rare moment of humility” he asked someone he trusted what was going wrong.

“Mike, employees don’t like you,” she said. “You came in here like a bull in a china shop. You came in here telling people what to do. You have shown no interest in them as people, and you haven’t once asked for their input. You have been deeply disrespectful to them.”

Her advice called for more humility: Buy a box of doughnuts, bring it to one of their more troubled offices, and sit in the lunch room from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. He was to engage with each person entering the room, asking questions about them and talking about anything but work. Wrapped up in implementing his brilliant plan, he had lost his ability to connect with people.

He was shocked by how receptive people were to this gesture. They opened up about their families and interests, sharing hopes and dreams. Later, he brought his senior team together, ripped his beloved strategy in half before them, signalling it was of no value. But a reassuring voice came from the back of the room: “Mikey, Mikey. It’s not that bad. We just need to tweak it a little.” His team took ownership of the strategy that day.

The moral of the story, he says, is you can’t have success without trust – which in turn won’t come without engaging at an individual level. And for people to engage, they must be invited to share their beliefs.

As a leadership development consultant, he now encourages clients to adopt six habits: Trust, inquisitiveness, humility, optimism, courage and discipline. “Telling is not communicating,” he warns in Rise Up, co-written with Ali Grovue, a senior consultant at their Vancouver firm, Ignite Management Services.

Communication requires active listening and sharing. It builds trust.

Trust also comes from telling the truth. Be direct: It’s better to say the right thing in the wrong way than to say nothing at all. Always start a difficult conversation with the mindset that you care about the individual you are speaking with. Link your communications to the organizational vision whenever you can.

Inquisitiveness is vital because it’s impossible for leaders to know everything. But inquisitiveness can be difficult to achieve. “Many leaders fear that engaging others in decisions will slow them down,” Ms. Grovue notes in the book.

She also warns that curiosity is not inquisitiveness. Curiosity is a desire to understand, but inquisitiveness takes curiosity a step further by asking questions to learn. It’s curiosity in action, the drive to investigate and seek answers.

She recommends regularly asking “Why?” and “What if?” and “How might we” – and just as importantly, resisting the urge to fill any silence that might arise immediately afterward, instead letting others speak. Bring along some doughnuts, if need be.

Another vital behaviour for leaders they stress is discipline. Leaders must manage their health, time and energy. They also must be disciplined in how they manage their teams to pursue organizational results.

Jim Reid, former chief HR officer at Rogers Communications, says inner discipline keeps you from not getting thrown off course by outside forces. But he draws on the insights of management researcher and bestselling author Jim Collins to highlight three practical, disciplined courses of actions managers must follow:

  • If in doubt, do not hire. Knowledge and experience is important in a potential employee. But more important is the right fit, in particular enthusiasm for the organization’s purpose and values. Does the candidate care about people? Are they coachable? If you don’t feel comfortable those qualities are present, don’t hire.
  • Put your best people on your biggest opportunities, not your biggest problems. We tend to obsess over problems. But you will get further if you take your most creative and innovative managers and turn them toward following up on opportunities.
  • When you know you need to make a people change, act. “Take your time, and take as long as you need to, because you’re making a decision that’s going to affect people’s lives and going to affect the team. But once you’ve made your decision, act,” Mr. Reid writes in Leading to Greatness.

You need the discipline to not rush off to determine where you want your figurative bus to go, but to first decide who you want on the bus and what is the best role they can play. “It’s about being methodical and, above all, disciplined,” says Mr. Reid.

Ms. Grovue and Mr. Watson say they have not seen a leader who has not wobbled in their journey. The key is to hold yourself accountable, listen to others who point out where you may be struggling, and have the fortitude and tenacity and doughnuts to improve.


  • Studying the troubled world situation, McGill University management professor Henry Mintzberg asks whether leadership is the problem rather than the solution: “First, leaders generally attain power by conforming to some established set of norms, not bucking them. Why do we keep expecting established power to take us past established thinking? And second, when we say the word ‘leadership,’ we focus on an individual – not us, but him or her.”
  • The top intranet design teams took an average of about 22.7 months to create their winning designs in the past year. With hybrid offices becoming more common, the Nielsen Norman Group expects some designs will be more complicated and time increased.
  • Consultant Shaun Belding says just because something makes perfect sense to you when it leaves your mouth doesn’t mean it will make perfect sense to the person listening.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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