By Chris McKittrick, CPA, CGMA, MBA, CFE
One of the things I’ve learned is not to be surprised at the source and timing of life lessons, especially leadership lessons. I was recently caught off-guard when a conversation with my 3-year-old granddaughter smacked me upside the head with a leadership insight. It’s hard to admit in your 60s that a 3-year-old would provide such an experience.
First, some background for my leadership “aha” moment. When looking back on all the leaders I have worked with or for over my lifetime, I see a long list of the types of traditional leaders one encounters in working life (e.g. CEOs, CFOs, VPs, managers, and supervisors). The list also includes teachers, coaches, peers, and people who stepped into some leadership role based upon the situation or circumstances that confronted them. I also reflect on my own leadership style from 30+ years of business experience and from my role for the last six years—teaching over 1,300 college students each year at North Carolina State University and also leading CPE events for CPAs and others.
Not surprisingly, each leader I’ve known brought personal perspective into his or her leadership role. As with most everyone, I have experienced some really terrific leaders who were able to motivate and inspire people in their realm of influence; and yes, some other leaders who made me think, “How did they manage to get to be a leader?” or “How do they manage to KEEP their leadership role?” With my breadth of experience, I could not have imagined that my 3-year-old granddaughter would give me new leadership insight. I should have known better.
On a recent trip to Texas to celebrate her birthday, I decided I wanted to get to know my granddaughter, Blythe, a little better by just asking her a few simple questions. Here’s that conversation:
Me: “Blythe, Poppy is curious. What is your favorite thing to eat for dinner?”
Blythe: “Pizza, Poppy.”
Me: “Okay, that sounds yummy. So what is your favorite thing to eat for breakfast?”
Blythe: “Pancakes, Poppy, with syrup!”
Me: “Well, that sounds good too. Pancakes are nice. So what is your favorite thing to eat for lunch?”
Blythe: “Butterfly sandwiches!”
Me: “Butterfly sandwiches? Now Blythe, you know you can’t eat butterflies!”
Blythe: “Yes you can, Poppy!”
Me: “Blythe, I have been around a while, and I know you really are not supposed to eat butterflies.”
Blythe: “But I do, Poppy!”
Me: “Okay Blythe, if you say so. [Time to change the topic] How about you tell me your favorite flavor?”
Blythe: “Pink, Poppy!”
Me: [Now I am starting to think that I got myself in over my head] “Okay, now I am really confused, Blythe. Pink is NOT a flavor. It IS a COLOR!”
Blythe: “Pink is a flavor Poppy!!”
Me: [Poppy does not give up easily. Going to give it one more try.] “Blythe. I am pretty sure pink is a color and NOT a flavor.”
Blythe: “Pink IS a flavor, Poppy!
Me: [Now realizing it is time to extract myself] “Okay Blythe, if you say so!”
She went merrily on her way, and I was left to think, “Well, that was interesting!”
A few minutes later (after my mind settled down a little) I decided to relay the conversation to Blythe’s mom (my daughter-in-law). She straightened me out pretty quickly. You see, you CAN eat butterfly sandwiches IF they are created by taking a butterfly cookie-cutter to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! And pink, after all, IS the flavor of strawberry yogurt! Well, duh! Lesson learned by Poppy!
What does this have to do with leadership? In my humble opinion…everything. It’s a reminder that the people you are leading always have their own perspectives on the world. Part of the responsibility of leadership is to never forget that you need to consider your team members’ perspectives. In fact, their perspectives are typically among the most important things for a leader to comprehend, understand, and respect. This often requires getting beyond just the words people say (or don’t say) to get a better understanding of the perspective and meaning of the person who’s speaking. In so doing, you improve your odds of being a more effective leader, especially in your ability to ensure that your team members feel heard.
When I reflect on my experiences with a couple of people I consider to be truly poor leaders in my own career, I can tell you they rarely took the time to get to know the people they led, let alone to understand the perspectives those people brought to the team. And vice versa—the best leaders understood how to figure out the various perspectives and strengths that people brought to their team, and they utilized those skills to help the total effort, which improved outcomes and impact. While I would like to say I always understood this, I’m sure there were times when I didn’t get it too!
So what about your leadership and your team? Who on your team eats butterfly sandwiches (or whose favorite flavor is pink) that you’ve not heard or judged to be wrong? More importantly, are you willing to embrace the possibility of butterfly sandwiches and the flavor of pink? After all, that’s what leaders do—embrace the possibilities and listen to others with an open mind and heart. Imagine such a powerful lesson from my 3-year-old granddaughter!
Chris McKittrick is currently a full-time lecturer in the Department of Accounting at the Poole College of Management at North Carolina State University. He has taught classes on financial and managerial accounting, planning and budgeting, and internal controls. He also offers CPE sessions and other services through Perspective Business Advisors LLC.
Chris has 35 years of business experience in leadership positions in audit, financial management, and information systems in a broad range of industries. His roles have included vice president/chief financial officer, internal audit director, information systems director, re-engineering team leader, and corporate/division controller.
Chris formerly served as Director of Members in Business, Industry, and Government for the AICPA.
He obtained both his bachelor’s degree and MBA from Drexel University in Philadelphia.