Tracy Cocivera's picture Submitted by Tracy Cocivera August 13, 2018 - 2:23pm

So much of what we say, do and understand comes not from the reality at the heart of things, but from the perception of them.

Especially the perceptions of people. It’s called reputation and it’s a precious commodity. If protected and nurtured, it can ensure your success, but if disregarded and squandered, it can seal your failure. Reputation is the cornerstone of power. Maintaining a good reputation is hard work, but losing one is all too easy.

Building and maintaining your great reputation means being a paragon of civility, unselfish in allowing others to shine, and never soiling your hands with nasty deeds. Protecting that reputation means staying alert to potential attacks and always doing what’s right, and never taking the bait or sinking to another’s level.

A recent case in point: Michelle, the EVP of Global Product Development has two managers, Taylor and Siobhan. Taylor has been with the pharmaceutical company since inception and has been aggressively lobbying to head up the product development division. He has worked his way up the ladder with his elbows. Historically, as soon as he takes the lead in a group, many of the team leave because his reputation for selfishness, dishonesty and blind ambition precedes him. For example, he takes credit for others’ efforts, wins and claims national product competitions on the backs of his peers and colleagues (who get no credit), and siphons resources to his pet projects. No wonder he has a dismal reputation; he’s earned it.

Michelle is aware of Taylor’s reputation and is reluctant to give him the role he desires. Instead, she brings in a new person with deep expertise in the industry and an international reputation as a product development leader. Siobhan is to split the role with Taylor, perhaps not the best choice Michelle could have made, but there it is.

Naturally, Taylor immediately complains to Michelle, but she stands her ground, insisting he work together with Siobhan as they will both be held accountable for new product innovation. Instead, Taylor tries everything to tank Siobhan, going behind her back, trying to turn her team against her, rejecting all of her ideas, and withholding information.

For her part, Siobhan slowly becomes aware of the sabotage. Her immediate impulse is to turn the tables and go behind his back in order to give him a taste of his own poison. It takes some time and effort to struggle with the choice of stooping to his level or maintaining her integrity and reputation. Ultimately, she decides to take the high road, but also to confront him on his behavior directly rather than gossiping about him to her team and other stakeholders.

Siobhan comes out ahead, having banked on her team appreciating her honesty, her reputation and her willingness to share credit. She fosters trusted allies who helped her stay abreast of Taylor’s escalating campaign to destroy her.

She did let Michelle know what was going on and assured her she was trying to work with Taylor to solve problems. The proof, as they say, was in the product and as the months went on, and she continued to defend herself, Siobhan’s results kept improving and Taylor’s went flat. But the fight was taking its toll on her. She gave herself nine months before she’d have to leave this toxic environment.

At month eight, Taylor was fired. His boss had given him the test of leadership and he had failed. Not only was Siobhan relieved, she had a much keener appreciation for Michelle’s leadership in giving Taylor clear expectations and chances to become a true leader. She too was exhausted by the process.

Even though Siobhan didn’t gossip or reveal Taylor’s treachery to his team, his reputation continued to deteriorate through his own actions and his previous record. Siobhan continued to grow as she created authentic followership.

Ultimately, if your reputation truly precedes you, what does it tell people to expect when you come around the corner? Are they dreading your brand of leadership or are they already on board with you, sight unseen, because they’ve heard what a phenomenal, generous, trustworthy leader you are?