Personal Relationships with Direct Reports
Over the years, if there is one thing I have changed a lot on, it probably is this – how close I choose to become with my direct reports on the personal front. If you know me, you probably know that I am one of those gregarious persons who loves to talk and have been accused of fairly capable of listening to the interests of the other party. My personal Rolodex of about 10,000 people that I carry with me (about 2,000 of them get birthday wishes from me – handwritten emails – none of the automated ecards etc) is a reasonably good testimony to how quickly I can make friends.
For most of the early part of my career, I built great personal relationships with my direct reports. Our families would be close and we would share a lot of social events together. I have seen that model work for a lot of people too. In fact, I have observed how one of the CEOs that I admire a lot takes time over the weekend often to golf or hunt or what have you with his direct reports and sometimes with people deeper in the organization. I have no doubt in my mind that this has resulted in not only a great rapport but also a deep commitment from the people. In fact, most people that I know who still report to the CEO have the greatest loyalty.
However, for me, I had a change of heart probably sometime 7 or 8 years back. While it was great to know that we were a committed team, I started getting severe doubts on inherent human weakness of letting liking or not liking shrouding professional judgment of a person. I take great pride in my ability to differentiate these two. But I started reminding myself that I would be fooling myself if I thought I was above being human. I also started thinking hard about whether this style of leadership might give rise to too much of “conformance”. As a side story, I had an almost instinctive reaction to this from that time – anybody who has worked with me for the last 7-8 years will agree on one thing – I impulsively take the opposing view – regardless of what the arguer’s view is. (It has stood me in good stead – but that is a story of another day).
I remember having read a book around that time – cannot recollect the name – about true leaders looking for “performance, not conformance”.
And that is when I started the process of slowly weaning myself away from getting too close to my new direct reports on a personal front. It is very difficult for me to tell you – without running a control experiment whether I am better off or not. But I can tell you that I feel very comfortable that I have stonewalled some amount of the human fallacies. Of course, on the personal front, I missed getting to know some really great human beings closely. And as the 10,000 Rolodex entries shows you, personal relationships far outlive professional relationships.
Have you ever faced this conundrum? If so, what did you do? And why?