What role are you playing?
Miranda was a well-known creative artist when a global entertainment company hired her as a creative director. Her transition from artist to executive had been received with warm, if not full-throated, reviews.
Her team was doing all right, but it could have been better. Her pitches to the division head were good, they could have been better. Her recruitment of creative talent was fair to middling, it certainly could have been better. Collaboration with her peers was okay, could have been better.
She said, “I think sometimes they blow me off a little, that they see me as the crazy artist.”
“Is that the role you’re in here?” I asked. “Crazy artist?”
“Do you mean do they cast me in that role? Or do I cast myself in that role?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered with a smile.
“Of course!” she laughed. “OK. So do they cast me there? Sometimes, I think, yes. Do I cast myself? Every now and then I turn it on. But most of the time, no, I’m not playing the crazy artist.”
“So what are you playing?”
“Golly, I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it like a role I’m playing.” She cocked her head and looked at me. “Is this a thing?”
“It is for me,” I said. “It’s a thing I call ‘Acting on the Corporate Stage’.”
She laughed. “Of course with you it’d be acting.” We’d traded histories.
I said, “Acting on the corporate stage starts with this: behavior counts. It matters. We feel each other’s behavior all day long. And it matters. But people forget that. They forget their behavior is on display. They forget they’ve taken on a role and that role is being played out in public.”
“And you’re not talking about a role, like a position, like my role here is vice-president and creative director.”
“Not necessarily, no,” I said.
“It could be a role like crazy artist, right?”
“Could be,” I said.
“Or what else?”
“What other roles are there?” I mused. “The eager young assistant. Brilliant, hard-working, willing, self-promotional. Or the world-weary, seen-it-all-twice-before subject matter expert.”
She laughed. “Like character descriptions in a script.”
“’Acting on the corporate stage’,” I nodded.
“And do we know we’re playing those character descriptions on a corporate stage?”
“Some people do,” I said.
“But the role is there whether we know it or not,” she said with the hint of a question.
The role is happening
“Because behavior matters,” I affirmed.
She nodded, saying, “You know those words that kept repeating themselves in my 360?”
Before our coaching started, I’d created a 360-degree feedback report about Miranda. Page after page after page had verbatim comments from her respondents. Over the course of pages, three words repeated themselves.
“Creative, strong and visionary,” I answered her, listing the words.
“It’s interesting to think that my behaviors summoned up those words – but I didn’t know I was doing it. It’s like I was doing automatic writing.” She mimed her arm taking on a life of its own, scrolling through the air.
“It is interesting,” I agreed. “You know how those three words cropped up all through your report? Well, that’s the norm, Miranda. I see dozens of those 360 reports every year. And in the vast majority of them, words get repeated. And we have, what, close to two hundred thousand words in English? When a single descriptor word starts getting repeated, it’s noteworthy. That person has crafted a role for herself.”
“Whether she knows it or not.” Then, “And I bet they’re not always the nicest words, are they?”
“Not always,” I said. “People write themselves all sorts of roles.”
“So if I wanted to go from automatic, unconscious writing of my role, and wanted to start writing my role consciously, with intention, how would I start?”
“Well, one way I like to start is with a name. So this role you’re playing, what’s her name?”
Start with a name
“Isn’t it Miranda?” she asked.
“If she’s named Miranda, you’ll have a hard time distinguishing her from all the other Mirandas running around inside you.”
“Like Mom Miranda, Wife Miranda, is that what you mean?” she said.
“Then her name’s got to be Andie,” she said with a fond smile. “I made up this little girl Andie when I was at camp one year. It was the year everyone was jumping from high places. And I hated it. But I didn’t want to stay on the ground either, so I did it. And when I did it, I imagined I was this girl I made up named Andie. She could jump out of the barn. I couldn’t.”
“Andie sounds brave!”
“Oh, she was.” Then she barked with a laugh. “She is! Sounds like we’re bringing the role named Andie back to life, right?”
“Sure! So talk to me about Andie, who used to jump out of barns and is now a creative director. What’s she like these days?”
“She’s creative and strong and visionary. We know that about her already,” she said. Then, with a regretful shake of her head, she said, “Well, I can tell you what she’s not. She’s not shooting sparks like a superstar. She’s not lighting the world on fire.”
“And you’d like her to be?”
“So what would Andie be like if she were shooting sparks and setting the world on fire?”
“She’d be faster and crisper and a lot more efficient.”
“OK,” I said. “So Andie is creative, strong, visionary. And fast, crisp and efficient. Now let’s imagine something.” I took a breath. So did she. Then she closed her eyes.
“Picture yourself driving into the parking lot tomorrow morning. You put the car in park. You turn off the car. You gather everything up and open the door. But who gets out isn’t you. It’s Andie. How would that be different?”
Imagine showing up
Her eyes still closed, she smiled at the image. Warmly she said, “I don’t know exactly how it’s different, but it is. She’s more energetic, I think. More pumped.”
“So now picture energetic Andie walking in. Saying hi. Doing all those morning rituals. All those little conversations. How is Andie different from you?”
“She’s calmer. She’s not so frantic. There’s a lot of intention there.” She stopped speaking. So did I.
After a moment, she opened her eyes. “That was powerful.”
I stayed silent.
She said, “It’s a bit chicken and egg, isn’t it?”
“How so?” I asked.
“Does Andie’s behavior come first, and that creates the calmer, intentional role? Or, since I’m intentionally imagining this calmer role, does that create the behavior?”
“Does it matter?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe, if I ever want to do this again.”
“Well, you can always repeat what we just did,” I said.
“First, you name the role. Then, you imagine the role – what do you want the role to be? What do you not want the role to be? Then, you imagine what it would look like. And that comes out as behavior.”
“And feelings, too. There were strong feelings with it.”
Changing tone, I said, “I see why you might call it the chicken and egg argument. It’s a bit like an old argument actors have among themselves. Do you build a character from the inside out or the outside in?”
“And which is which?”
Outside-in or inside-out?
“So imagine we were talking about Andie. You say she’s brave. ‘Brave’ starts on the inside, because ‘brave’ is not an action. You can’t act ‘brave.’ So it has to be on the inside. The inside-out theory says that if you can truly put ‘brave’ on your inside, it will ultimately change your outside – how you walk into a meeting, how often you speak up, how fast you talk. Words like ‘brave’ work from the inside out.”
She held up a finger. “Suppose I want to add new words. Words like energetic and crisp. Are those inside or outside?”
“Both those words could be outside words, because they can be actions. You can act energetic. You can act crisp. So you could start with them on your outside, as behavior. ”
“With the intention of making them second nature some day, right?”
“You know this could be completely crazy-making,” she said.
“In what way?” I asked.
“You’re telling me I need to be conscious of being Andie on a corporate stage from the time I get out of my car until I get back in at the end of the day. I don’t know if I can be Andie all day long. Not that it wouldn’t be great. It would! I just don’t think I can do it.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” I said. “No one can. Not at first. That’s why it’s helpful to have a name as a trigger. When you suddenly remember you’re on stage, having a name to summon up can snap you back in.”
She was quiet, considering, eyes down. Then she said, “I’d like to do this. I’d like to take on the role of Andie. Be aware of myself on the corporate stage.”
I stayed silent.
She looked up and said, “Before, I asked you if people know they’re taking on a role. You said some do. Who are you talking about? Who knows they’re taking on a role?”
Sensing she was going to join these ranks, I looked at her and said, “People who are behaving consciously. People who take responsibility for their actions, whether those actions were intentional or not.”
She took in a breath and smiled. “I like the sound of that. Let’s give it a shot.”
Miranda discovered that acting on the corporate stage consciously, with intention, cuts an accelerated path to The Look & Sound of Leadership.
- You are already an actor on the corporate stage.
- You have been crafting your role for some time now.
- Your role may be your title (vice-president, creative director)
- Your role may be attributes (creative, visionary)
- Consciously taking on your role allows you to write the role, with intention.
- You are an actor on the corporate stage.