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Earlier this year, I had the great fortune to sit down with one of my long-time business partners, clients and friends, Michele Landess. We spoke about her experience with leading and managing teams in a large, complex financial services institution with challenging deadlines and a highly distributed workforce.  Now that Michele has retired (or “rewired” if you prefer), she was able to share many great insights and perspectives with the benefit of hindsight and introspection.

What follows are excerpts from our conversation.

Part 2: On Character & Authenticity

Q: I’ve always known you to be an excellent judge of character. To what do you attribute that ability to read people?

A: You know, my father was always really good at reading people.  I think I probably watched him, so there’s some intuitive ability there. An example could be in an interview – the candidate tells you who they are,  you listen and observe and see if what they are saying matches up with what they’ve told you.  I think you should give everybody the benefit of the doubt… until you don’t (laughs).  Listen to how they describe the people they have worked with and how they treat others – that really gives you insight into the person you’re interviewing.

Q: I couldn’t agree with you more. I always think it’s great to take somebody new that I’m starting to work with out on the golf course because you get to see the full spectrum of emotion there: how they deal with success, how they deal with failure, how they deal with being out of balance. So it sounds like that’s a lot of what it is for you as well.

Quick follow up: How do you tell when somebody is being inauthentic?

A: That is a very good question, John (laughs). I think you naturally form an opinion of a person’s character, and then if there’s something they do that just doesn’t fit with what you know, you think why is that off?  That feeling is just kind of a trigger to say something is not right here. So, I don’t know if that’s the right answer, but that’s what I think.

Q: So it’s almost like you have this innate ability to keep an inventory of traits and behaviors and attributes, and then when the behavior starts to change or you see something that they are doing doesn’t align with what you know is normal for them…

A: It’s like a flag goes off that this doesn’t feel authentic anymore. So, are you not that person? I don’t know!  It’s just a flag to take note of and follow-up on.

Q: What do you do when something like that happens?

A: It depends on what it is: is it something trivial, or is it something that is going to cause a real problem? If it’s the latter, then you need to have that conversation and say, “here’s what I’m seeing, help me understand why you’re reacting that way,” etc. And then you get to the real cause of the situation: did something bad happen? Or is this person just not the right fit for the job?

Q: Right, right. I’ve always known you to be someone who’s not afraid to have a conversation, whether it’s a good one, or one that has some critical overtones. I think being fearless in that regard and having that ability to blend the intellectual analysis with the emotional “field” of a person seems to be your key.

A: One of the things I’ve learned, that I wish I would have understood earlier in my management career, was that giving constructive feedback, or just feedback of any kind is a gift. If I knew that earlier in my career, I think I could have potentially helped some people more, because they could have made changes and maybe had a different type of career.

An example would be if  a team member had a meeting that didn’t go well, coach them by asking if they got what they wanted out of the meeting.  The answer is no, so then ask what could they have done differently to get what they needed.  People learn best if they can figure it out themselves.  Sometimes you have to give a clue or a nudge in the right direction.  I use the phrase, “Help me understand what happened…” a lot.

That knowledge didn’t come until a little later in my progression, and maybe fearlessness just comes with age!

Q: Well, I can’t image how fearless you are going to be in 40 years then!

A: Oh, you should have seen my grandmother, she was truly fearless! So if I’m anything like her, I’ll be thrilled.

Q: That’s great.  Well I think your point about constructive feedback will be very helpful to managers and leaders everywhere!

A: Absolutely. You know, constructive feedback is not easy to give. It’s hard because you don’t want people to not like you, or feel hurt, but I think if we can coach leaders early on how to provide constructive feedback, it could really make a big difference.

Q: Excellent point.

Come back tomorrow for Part 3: On Overcoming Challenges

Michele Landess recently retired from one of the nation’s largest financial services institutions as Senior Vice President in the Wealth Management Division. In her tenure, Michele lead several large initiatives including the industries largest ever bank trust integration and most recently running a program of large transformation initiatives for the bank. Michele has always been known as a great leader and business strategist who commands respect from everyone she comes into contact with and has encouraged and supported the leadership development of her team — all while managing huge initiatives in a large, complex, highly matrixed organization.