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Showing Teeth

A dithering executive

Dena paused over her salad. We had known each other many years. As an HR leader, she had coordinated the coaching engagements I’d done in her division. She’d invited me to lunch to talk about an exec I’d heard a lot about but never met: Richard.

The word about Richard was that he dithered – not a good thing in a senior vice president. His dithering caused initiatives under his leadership to languish and the output from his group to lag.

Richard dithered when it came to people, too, so his team was full of struggling performers he never fired. During the years I’d coached there, people had talked to me about Richard – often at length! Even Dena and I had talked about Richard.

At the beginning of this lunch conversation, she’d said, “I’m trying to find a new way to talk with him about his dithering. He’s heard all the feedback. There’s nothing new to say. I just thought maybe I could frame it up differently.”

I laughed. “Instead of, ‘Hey! Stop dithering!’?”

She laughed, too. “I’ve never used that word to his face!”

“What about ‘showing teeth’?” I asked. “Does anyone use that phrase?”

“Showing teeth? Like grinning?”

“No, like a lion.”

“Fierceness?” she asked.

“Showing teeth” can be protective

“In a way,” I said. “I first saw the phrase in a research paper about executive presence,” I told her. “This was from the Center for Talent Innovation. Their research named ‘showing teeth’ as one of the core competencies of gravitas.”

That was when she paused over her salad. She considered the phrase ‘showing teeth.’

After a minute she said, “Maybe this explains why I got so angry with Richard last week.”

“Because he showed teeth?” I asked.

“No, because he didn’t,” she said with heat. “He called a meeting that didn’t need to happen. Then he forced one of his VPs to make the presentation. It was a disaster. The poor VP was going down in flames. And Richard just sat there. Never spoke up. Never tried to rescue the guy. It would’ve been a good time to show some teeth, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, it would’ve,” I said sympathetically.

“Step in front of the damned bus! Why should other people get run over when you’re the person in charge?”

“So you think of showing teeth as protecting your people,” I said.

“Isn’t it?” she answered. “Like a lion. The message is, ‘Don’t come near my cubs or I’ll rip your throat out!’ From where I sit, that’s a great message. I want my executives to protect their people. Don’t send ‘em out there if you aren’t going to stand up for ‘em.”

“Showing teeth” can be decisiveness

“I understand,” I said. “I heard a different example recently. I’m coaching a CIO at a company that just acquired one of their competitors. There’s a ton that needs doing but the CEO isn’t making decisions. Or when he does, people whisper in his ear and he changes his mind. No one can depend on him to stand his ground.”

“More dithering!” she said with a laugh. Then she asked, “Is that your version of not showing teeth?”

“Making tough decisions and standing your ground? Yes.”

She began turning over those two behaviors – making tough decisions and standing your ground.

She said, “I’m thinking of two people. One kind of does what you’re saying. The other definitely does.”

I leaned forward. Dena was always very insightful about people.

“First, Greg. He always makes the right decision. And he’ll stand his ground once he gets there. But, boy, it takes him one heck of a long time to make up his mind. He just can’t make a decision quickly.”

“Do you think that is or is not showing teeth?” I asked her.

“Not. He’s not decisive. That’s part of showing teeth, isn’t it?”

“I think it is,” I said.

“But then there’s Sally,” she said with a smile. “She’s the whole package. She’s amazingly decisive. And she doesn’t second-guess herself. She just moves forward. She listens to input and she’s thoughtful. She’s not frantic or impulsive. And,” she said with emphasis, “when she has to, she stands her ground. I’ve seen her. She’s impressive.”

“She isn’t seen as a bitch?” I asked.

“No,” said Dena, “because she’s so honest with everyone. She owns her agendas and tells people what she’s thinking.”

“Strong relationships?” I guessed.

“Very,” said Dena.

“I’m glad for her,” I said. “I think women do have to be a little careful when it comes to showing teeth. That was actually part of that study. There’s a difference in how men and women can show teeth and still be seen positively.”

“What’s the difference?” she asked.

“Men can be the last man standing – literally, I guess! – and be seen as a winner even though they’re all by themselves. Women are seen more positively when they’re surrounded by support.”

She nodded. “Men can win by knocking people out of the ring.”

“And women can win by bringing people into the ring,” I replied.

“Showing teeth” can be toughness

“Well, either way, you know what this is?” she asked. “It’s being tough. On the inside. It’s about standing up for yourself without feeling wounded that you have to.”

“Ooh, well said!” I admired. “I’m going to steal that!”

“But that’s the thing with Richard, right?” she said, bringing it back to our ditherer. “He’s not tough. Not about anything. And it’s not good for him. Or his people.”

“But Sally is?” I asked.

“Tough? Yes, she is.”

“But not all the time,” I suggested.

“No, right, not all the time.”

“See, I think that’s important, whether you’re a man or a woman. If you go around showing teeth all the time, every day, that’s not going to work for you, no matter who you are.”

“Oh, golly,” she said, “at my last company, they brought in a new president who was all teeth all the time. He ripped people in meetings and fired people and did nothing but teeth. That’s not what we’re talking about here.”

“Agreed. It is not. Showing teeth does not mean you go looking for fights. But, when you have to, you’ll defend yourself.”

“Or your flock,” she said.

“Showing teeth” can be unpopularity

“Or your flock,” I echoed. Then, “You know another way toughness shows up? I think you have to be able to tolerate people being angry with you. People who take initiative are bold. They’re often way ahead of their troops. So sometimes, the troops start shooting at them. You have to be tough When you step out in front of people like that, because sometimes people won’t like what you’re doing.”

“Richard really can’t tolerate upsetting people” she said. “That’s why he’s about two years late firing his marketing VP.”

“I’ve heard the VP isn’t the only one who may need to go,” I said.

“Too true! But he’s paralyzed because whatever he does will upset people. And you wouldn’t want anyone at work to be angry with you!” she said sarcastically.

“You remember Arturo, right? I thought he was great at taking the heat.”

“He was,” she said warmly, remembering a retired senior leader. “I remember when he decided to downsize. Talk about an unpopular decision! But he stepped right up and owned it. Those were some tough meetings. But he never flinched.”

“That’s the showing teeth part. ‘I’m going to make a tough decision and I’m going to live with it. And so are you.’ ”

She gave a half-laugh. “Could be inspiring. Or terrifying!”

“Either you’re showing teeth or a bully?” I asked.

“I don’t think it’s one or the other,” she said. “But between those two, there’s no doubt which is which. With a bully, people are afraid. With an executive who shows teeth, I think people feel protected.”

She was right. As with most executive behaviors, extremes usually have negative impact. Showing teeth was no different.

Balancing a VUCA world

Another idea occurred to me. I said, “You know why I think showing teeth has become important these days? Do you know the acronym ‘VUCA’?”

“Oh, yeah, uh… Volatility. Uncertainty…” she stalled.

“Complexity and ambiguity,” I finished.

“Right! It’s a military acronym, isn’t it?”

“Yes. VUCA refers to a situation that has all those unsettling elements. I think more and more business people feel that’s their norm these days. So when a leader shows teeth – is decisive, stands firm on tough decisions, protects people – it helps counteract all the anxiety that comes from living in a VUCA world.”

“I’d love a leader who shows teeth – there’s a ton of uncertainty in my world!” Then she wondered, “Do you think Richard could ever get coached to show teeth?”

“Not easily,” I said. “From everything I’ve heard, I don’t think Richard wants to be tough. And unless he wants it, then, no, coaching probably wouldn’t be effective.”

She nodded. I didn’t have to argue the point with her that if people don’t accept their development goals, change probably won’t happen.

She asked, “But do you think showing teeth can be learned?”

“Sure,” I said. “Being decisive. Standing your ground. Speaking up for your people. Those are behaviors people can learn.”

“But it’s partly an attitude, too, don’t you think? ‘Tough’ is an attitude. How do you coach ‘tough’?”

“If someone wants to become tougher—“

“—which Richard doesn’t—“

“—she’d work on it the same way she’d work on any goal – say, being more collaborative. She’d get good feedback, then manage her behaviors and her self-talk.”

“Developing unconscious competence,” she said, referring to a well-known model.

“Exactly,” I agreed.

“You wrote about unconscious competence in one of your Coaching Tips, didn’t you?” she asked, not knowing our conversation would become a Tip of its own. The topic felt too important to leave unexamined: showing teeth is a dynamic display of The Look & Sound of Leadership™.



Show Notes

For many businesses, uncertainty and ambiguity is their new norm. In such anxious times, people long for leaders who will make tough decisions, stand behind those decisions, and protect their people. In some circles, this is called “showing teeth.”

In this episode, I refer to The Center for Talent Innovation and their white paper on Executive Presence.

For more ideas about “Showing Teeth,” you might also check out all the episodes in the Assertiveness category of the Executive Coaching Tips archive. The Executive Coaching Tip that explains “unconscious competence” is Creating New Behaviors.


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