Why Great Leaders Don’t Make Waffles

The first meeting was over the phone, two weeks ago.

I was speaking to Bart, a Senior Marketing Manager at a Fortune 500 consumer products company.  Bart was my principal point of contact.  The purpose of our call was for Bart to prep me– provide relevant context and the desired outcomes for a leadership training I was going to come and deliver for the top 80 marketing leaders at the company.

I’ve had hundreds of these calls in my career.  The data I gather in these calls is what helps bring the day come to life, so rather than a generic “off the shelf” program, I can tailor and customize the day according to the client’s issues.I started by asking Bart what some of the biggest challenges for the marketing leaders are.

That…that probably depends on your role.  I’m really not sure how best to answer that.OK. Next question.  Let’s start with simple.I already knew that one of the desired goals for the training was to help marketing break down silos between functions.  I asked Bart if he could name all the functions that would be present on the day of the training.

I could tell you, but let’s hold off on the answer, because I wouldn’t want to miss anyone.   I’ll have to check and get back to you.

OK, I thought.   Let’s try this from another angle entirely.  I asked,

Bart, let’s start with the end in mind.  If we could wave a magic wand and all 80 leaders had the same simple message walking out of the room at the end of the day, what would you want that message to be?

You know, I’d really like to get Marisa (his boss) in a meeting and hear her opinion on this.

Bart was not a junior staffer.  He wasn’t a low-level administrator who was taking care of logistics–there was someone else doing that.

Bart was a Senior Manager.  But even more so, Bart was a waffle.  He refused to make up his mind and take a stand on anything.  His inability to make decisions was a huge problem.

Our call had produced zero value. I had to set up a second call with Marisa, and start over from scratch.

Bart gave me the direct line to Marisa’s office.When I dialed into Marisa’s office on the following Monday, she put me on speaker phone.  It turned out that Bart was there, too.

An interesting dynamic played out on the phone.  I could hear Marisa loud and clear. She was right next to the speakerphone.  But whenever Bart talked, he sounded like he was a half a mile away.  The combination of his low volume and energy made it very clear who was in charge in that office.Marisa had no problem answering my questions.  In fact, I was able to ask quite a few more.  One question turned out to be particularly interesting:

What behaviors have you noticed within marketing that have got in the way of the leaders really collaborating openly with each other?

You’ll appreciate the irony of Marisa’s answer:We are a very risk-averse company.  People are worried about getting dinged for screwing up.  Because of that, things move slowly around here–a lot of people feel very uncomfortable making decisions for themselves.I wanted to shout out, “Yes, like Bart in the corner of your office right now!”

Bart was a waffle.

Marisa was a waffle maker.

Marisa’s inability to recognize the dynamic that was going on with her and her own direct report (even though she could see the dynamic at large) was a giant obstacle to her leadership.

You can see the trail of waffle makers in many organizations.  Waffles leave clues:

  • Duplication of effort

  • Rework

  • Extra meetings

  • Meetings after meetings

  • An itchy “fwd” finger

  • Delegating and escalating up

You don’t get waffles without waffle makers. If you resemble a waffle maker, the first step is to be aware of how you condone and create waffle activities.Once you notice them, start thinking about what you can do to as a leader to create a culture where the only waffles you find are the ones at breakfast.

How have you overcome waffles and waffle makers in your career?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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