My friend Amy shared this story about her 8-year old son Aidan: Aidan woke me up early on the first day of summer vacation. He had jumped up on my bed to show me his foot. “Mom!! Isaac [older brother] wouldn’t wake up to sign me onto the computer. I got mad and kinda kicked the desk. Now I have a bump on my foot. See?” I was surprised to see his head bleeding and said, “Well, I’m more concerned about the blood dripping down your forehead than the small bump on your foot, Aidan!” Aidan walked away, shoulders slumped, and said, “I KNEW no one would CARE!!!!”
Many of us go through our day worried about a bump on the foot while at the same we have a bleeding head wound. It’s not surprising or unusual to have multiple hurts at the same time. What’s strange, though, is that we often ignore the more critical problems. Years ago, I had a client who invested huge sums of money into maintaining out-of-date and inefficient manufacturing equipment. While she attended to that bump on the foot, she did virtually nothing to address a bleeding head wound in the form of a dramatic shift in market preferences and massive loss of market share. The business was becoming more irrelevant by the day and she was investing in infrastructure to support the dying business model.
Bumps on the foot and head wounds are not limited to “external” business problems. Often (more often?) they are “internal” personal problems. In my coaching work, virtually everyone I work with eventually realizes that the foot bump they asked me to help with is insignificant compared to some other issue in life. It could be a character flaw, or a dysfunctional relationship, or a blind spot in self-awareness. One example is the business owners who asked me to help coach them through the process of preparing to pass their business on to the next generation. Eventually, they came to realize that was a bump on the foot compared to a lack of trust in the family and other dysfunctions.
Awareness is always the core issue in seeing “head wounds.” These bigger problems are there to see, but they go unaddressed because we’re not aware of them. When the issue is external to your own person—something in the business itself, the potential for seeing the problem is significantly greater than seeing your own head wound. (It’s not easy to see the back of your own head, is it?) In either case, though, the key is to raise awareness and the ability to see.
Learning how to “see,” how to become aware, is a rather involved topic, but all I want to focus on now is the importance of asking questions and listening to the answers. If you can learn to ask questions and really listen to the answers you will make tremendous progress in seeing your organization’s head wounds as well as your own.
Organizational Head Wounds
There is a principle to keep in mind when asking others to identify head wounds: Those closest to the problem and those farthest from the problem will be best able to identify the head wounds. That’s not contradictory. The point is that as a leader you are neither closest to the problem nor farthest from it. You are in the mucky middle where it is most difficult to see. Those closest to the issues are the people who deal with them hands-on, day after day. If you want to identify your organization’s head wounds, ask your warehouse team, your customer service team, your equipment operators, and even your customers. Tell them you want to know the truth and that there will be no repercussions for speaking honestly.
Those farthest from the problem, usually outsiders like consultants, attorneys, and financial advisors, are also able to identify head wounds because they have a relatively unbiased perspective. What they see is less filtered by organizational culture and taboos. As a consultant, I often remind my clients that they essentially pay me to be honest with them and to hold them accountable to the truth.
Personal Head Wounds
Aside from organizational head wounds, what about personal head wounds? What is the best way to develop awareness of your own critical issues? The principle of those who are closest and those who are farthest applies here, too. (However, you don’t count when it comes to selecting those who are closest.) A little discernment is needed when talking to those who are closest to you. There is a qualifier here: You need to get insight from those who are closest to you and will also be honest with you. This can be uncomfortable to do, but I’ve sat down with friends and asked them, “Be honest with me. I really need to understand my problem with X. What are your thoughts? What do you see?” After talking with two or three people, I begin to gain a better picture of my relationships and myself. The process and self-discovery is actually quite rewarding.
You also can hire coaches and assessment experts (MBTI, EQ-i, and others) to help you understand your existing and potential head wounds. In a sense, their greatest expertise is objectivity. They can give you insights into who you are that even your closest family and friends will not see. Because of this, my encouragement is to use both approaches.
Whatever your issues, I am confident in saying that you are not aware of some of the head wounds in your organization and in your life. Start asking questions. Tell people you need their honesty. Then listen.