beer and politicsIt doesn’t seem like the most critical question to ask yourself when you are thinking about your career success. But what the question is really getting at – is how likeable are you? As another presidential campaign heats up in the USA, the beer question always seems to resurface. Maureen Dowd, a writer for the NYTimes Sunday editorials, wrote an article titled (NYTimes, Sunday August 12, 2012) “Likeability Index.” The main point of the editorial was that voter polls by USA Today/Gallup, show that Barack Obama is able to convey an impression of likeability to voters even though Mitt Romney has received higher marks on fixing the problems of the moment such as the deficit and jobs. Dowd goes so far as to say that once a candidate gains the advantage of “who do you want to have a beer with?” even if they don’t drink beer, it is hard to reverse!

The beer question hit me as right on the mark as it relates to my work as an executive coach because many of the people I work with are exceedingly smart. Their high intelligence has plummeted them to be very successful – to a point. In my practice as an executive coach for the past ten years, only three clients or less than 10% have sought out coaching because they are too nice. In contrast, most of my clients are working on how they can be more likeable.

I was brought up in a household that valued smarts over being nice. I have always struggled with finding that balance between being likeable and tough and demanding. So, this leads me to the question – How can you be a leader who is both well liked and tough and demanding? I want to explore this question and look forward to your views.

I recently saw the Pulitzer Prize winning comedy, Harvey. The play is about a very smart affable man, Elwood, who claims to have an unseen (and presumably imaginary) friend Harvey — whom Elwood describes as a six-foot, one-and-one-half-inch tall pooka resembling an anthropomorphic rabbit. My favorite line from this play which was written in 1944 is when Elwood says, “I have been smart but I prefer to be pleasant.” Elwood is a kind, very sincere, childlike man who introduces Harvey to everyone he meets. Elwood lives his life in a carefree and earnest manner asking people to come over for dinner at 3:00 pm in the afternoon even though he doesn’t cook and hasn’t a clue how to make that happen.

Elwood strikes me as what ambitious leaders are afraid will happen to them if they let down their guard and be too nice. I will become a pathetic, powerless, buffoon, who people laugh at! Based on my experience of working with successful leaders, I think there is a new type of leader that can find the right balance of nice/toughness and is able to get results. Let’s explore what simple steps leaders can take to find that balance without losing their competitive edge.

I was running a leadership seminar recently and a woman participant stood up who we will Joan and said, “My boss complains because I use big words that he doesn’t understand and he feels that it is difficult to work with me.” So, she asked me – “Does this mean I have to dumb myself down for him?” I can’t help it I am so smart!

As we talked, I realized that Joan doesn’t listen. I made this observation and Joan seemed somewhat surprised. I asked Joan if I could offer her some advice and she said yes. I suggested that adopt the simple listening behaviors of summarizing before responding along with checking in to ensure he/she understands. She agreed to try these new behaviors over the next month. I saw her a month later and she shared how she has been summarizing what people have said and she is finding that she is able to connect with people more readily. Listening is one of the most underrated leadership skills. If you read this month’s recommended reading: What Got you Here, Won’t Get you There by Marshall Goldsmith, it describes many key skills that successful people need to adapt to continue to succeed. Listening is at the top of the list.

women drinking beer Joan has a lot of potential and is very ambitious. My assessment of Joan based on her observable behavior is that she prefers to be viewed as smart and tough versus well-liked. This gets us back to the beer issue  – would I or her boss want to have a beer with Joan?  What this question is getting at is that if you want to advance within an organization of talented and ambitious people it usually means that some senior leaders need to like and trust you to promote you.

As I shared, my family values smarts/hard work over likeability. My story was something like, “If you don’t work really hard, show people that you are smart by always offering your contrary views and/or challenging others ideas, then you will not be respected or liked.” I have had to rewrite my story to something like this, “Being a leader is about having a point of view, respecting others, and staying curious.” This new point of view has led me to listen more, be more inclusive of others ideas, and stand tough on my views – and most importantly in an authentic manner.  In other words, more people enjoy having a beer with me.

This likeability question is not black or white. You don’t have to opt out as Elwood did and become a fool or a competent jerk – which is more common. In contrast, what successful leaders need to do is to take time to reflect and chose what does being likeable mean to them? What is their story? Is your story or point of view working for you? Like in Joan’s case, I don’t think her view of the world is serving her quest to be perceived as a more senior and influential leader. This self-discovery process is about reprogramming your brain as the recent research in neuroscience tells us – the brain doesn’t know the difference – it just follows what you are thinking. I changed my story and it has led to me becoming a more likeable and respected leader.

Where are you on scale of others wanting to have a beer with you? Ask a peer, co-worker, direct report, or significant other and then decide is it time for a beer makeover?

Welcome your thoughts and challenges. I am off to find someone to have a beer with!


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