What happens when a simple “hello” becomes complicated: lessons in leadership

Hoping he’d notice me, I turned my chair so I faced the hallway that he walked many times a day. I had heard his voice a few feet away in the reception area as he chatted with a couple people on his way in. The rhythm of his distinctive, vigorous stride vibrated through the berber carpeting as he approached the doorway. Rounding the corner, I was in his line of sight, smiling, my open body language and upturned face an invitation to stop a moment and say hi.

He kept walking without any acknowledgement that I was sitting there – or that he’d even noticed me. I turned slowly back to my desk and made a note in my calendar: Day 100. I’d been working at the company for 100 days and the CEO had never initiated a single conversation with me.

imagesMy desk was less than 30 feet from his office and in the normal course of a day, he’d pass by my workstation a half dozen times. As he’d stroll by, I’d look up from what I was doing to smile and engage in a benign pleasantry. He never said hello, never asked me how my day was going, never inquired about my weekend. Once I had the disquieting realization that he had never made an effort to reach out to connect with me in any way since I’d begun working for the company, I had started to keep track. I admit I became slightly obsessed, and starting thinking of it as a bit of a game. A game where I hoped I didn’t score 100, but a couple weeks into this unofficial workplace experiment, I was pretty sure that if this was Monopoly, I’d own 12 hotels on Park Place before the CEO passed “Go”.

I became increasingly more brazen in my attempt to elicit any form of acknowledgement from His Nibs: as I anticipated his approach, I’d stand up or roll on chair casters closer to the hallway so he’d practically have to trip over me to get by. Once when he almost stumbled over my feet, he let go an irritated huff. I enjoyed a short-lived moment of perverse pleasure that, like a naughty child, at least I’d been noticed.

His behaviour disappointed me enormously. This was a few years back: it was a small company with fewer than 80 employees. I had a middle management job – not that my position should have made any difference whether or not he noticed me – but relevant only because I had more occasion than some of my colleagues to attend meetings with him and get face-time. He chatted amiably with most of the other staff. I wouldn’t characterize him as a raging extrovert, but I’d observed him many times engaged in spontaneous hallway chats with my colleagues and sharing a few laughs. At risk of sounding spiteful, he often flirted with the younger female staff. I was invisible on his flirt radar screen. For that I was grateful.

imagesLest I come across as downplaying its deleterious effect by characterizing it as a “game”, I was wounded by his indifference. I’d never experienced anything like this in my career. When he didn’t ping back with reciprocity, it started to mess with my sense of self worth and value. I’ve always had a pretty full cup when it comes to feeling good about myself (thanks to wonderful parents and friends), but even so, I knew my cup was leaking. I had the good sense –and fortunately, the option – to leave the toxic situation once I fully grasped the implications to my mental health. Long before Day 200 could become a milestone, I quit and never looked back.

As a communications professional, I have been fortunate in my career – lo, these many years – to sample many different organizational cultures. No matter what the industry – and whether I occupied a brightly lit office with a view or a beige cubbyhole – I have always been surrounded by bright, fascinating people. That’s the thing of it, isn’t it? Most of us remember the people we worked with not the minutiae of the daily grind. Sure, there were days rife with hair-pulling frustration and annoyances, but on balance, I have few complaints. I chose a great career (or it chose me) and I’ve had the privilege of working alongside many spectacular, supportive managers – some of whom were and continue to be mentors. They regularly let me know that my contributions mattered and were appreciated.

And while I didn’t necessarily engage in daily, chummy chats with senior management in every organization I worked in, when I did encounter them, I was always afforded common courtesies. At the very least I was seen, often heard, and as a result, felt I had value.

So, there I was reading the newspaper a few days ago, when I stumbled across a newspaper article in which that loathsome CEO was quoted. Naturally, it triggered a flashback to the gloomy blip in my otherwise sanguine communications career. With the benefit of hindsight and the unwavering belief that our failures deliver important life lessons (and make better stories!), I realized that I am actually grateful for the experience of being on the receiving end of his regular snubs.

imagesIt has deepened my belief that soft skills really are the “hard stuff”. Too often, people in positional authority don’t fully appreciate that their personal power is tied less to their academic qualifications and technical expertise, and more to their ability to build and nurture relationships with others. People want to follow leaders who demonstrate they care about them because after all, it’s through people that the work gets done. Relationship management includes a raft of communication skills including active listening, seeking feedback, expressing curiosity and openness to new ideas, and letting people know their work is noticed and appreciated. And so much more – like simply saying “hello.”  I need my leaders and managers to lead by example and put people first. Good leaders know that employees pay attention to their behaviour, that we’re always tuned in, intently observing.

I joined a company eager to do my best work. I believed in the company’s mission. I had the tools and processes I needed and the necessary knowledge and other supports that should have pointed to a successful work experience. Instead, none of that mattered when I found myself questioning whether I was welcome, whether I was appreciated. I was not prepared to settle for less than I deserved. I know many people do – perhaps due to limited options, fear or a belief that their situation will improve. But at the point where I was resorting to the equivalent of a two year old’s temper tantrum, rolling my chair into the aisle in hopes of tripping the CEO, it was obvious that this wasn’t a workplace where I’d thrive. When I could no longer wait for a “hello”, I said “goodbye.”


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