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Leadership at a Conference: New Story Shared with IE

April 6, 2022 by stampfe

Authored by a brave soul in the insurance industry

Culture

Take a moment to think about what leadership means to you. Now think about a time when you were personally impacted by leadership — positive or negative. How did you feel? How do you feel now reflecting on it?

While I could (and probably should) go on to share an inspiring story about how positive leadership impacted my life… I’m going to do the opposite. I’m going to share a story about poor leadership and how it’s still haunting me — what it’s done to my morale and motivation. Sadly I know I’m not alone in this experience and I’d like for us to be able to share these stories more openly. We can only begin to change culture if we accept and acknowledge our experiences.

Conference — Day 1

It’s Monday, which is day 1 of a 3 day conference I’m attending to learn more about the systems our agency uses along with networking, and meeting folks from our team for the first time in person. Now I’m a classic extrovert and if you’re familiar with DISC I’m a hard I — influencing, inspiring, impulsive, enthusiastic, optimistic, and talkative. As you could imagine I’m stoked to network and will talk to literally anyone!

While this all seems like the perfect situation for me it’ll help if I give you a bit more context. I’m representing a large agency that is in almost every state. When you work for an organization this large and you’re not part of the corporate/national team then your opinion doesn’t matter and ultimately you’re expected to be wallpaper — seen, but not heard. If you read the paragraph above that doesn’t jive with my personality one bit! I come prepared with a list of questions that our team back home wants answers to. We’ve felt a bit lost as a region and have found it difficult to get our questions answered, so why wouldn’t I be an advocate and go directly to the source — our vendor!

Again it’s Monday — day 1. I get there early with one of our local leaders and we’re planning what sessions will be the most impactful and who we need to talk to so we can get our questions answered. We start seeing people from our corporate/national team. They are happy to see us, but it feels off. We are the only regional people at this conference, but our boss encouraged us to attend.

Company Hierarchy

Enter a department head for our company — a direct, intense, and results-driven person. I’ve worked with them in the past on a few projects and know their default is interrogation and anger. They have an underlying current of negativity and firmly believe in structure and power. Basically all ego and no empathy. This, my friends, is one of the top leaders in our company. Does the way I described them scream impactful leader?

“I feel othered again — left out and not a part of the conversation.”

As you could imagine whenever they are present the mood shifts — it’s not just me feeling this — it’s the entire team that reports to them. Conversations were once light and filled with hope for how we can have a positive impact on the teams, then instantly dark and silent. I feel othered again — left out and not a part of the conversation. Conversation that I have no place in — only that I actually have to train people on the changes that the corporate/national team make. I have to back them up and pretend that every decision is the best decision even though I didn’t have a voice in making them #corporatelife. This isn’t new, I’m sure we’ve all felt something like this at some point.

The conference continues and whenever that person isn’t around I’m having an incredible time. Meeting new people, learning about how they’ve had a positive impact on the insurance community, and brainstorming what’s next.

Conference — Day 3

It’s now Wednesday and the conference is wrapping up. Literally the last session of the day before our big celebration. I’m waiting in line eagerly to ask one of our vendors a question about the layout of a recent program we launched. One of our teams provided feedback that they’d like to have a more customizable section in it.

Being the advocate and strong networker that I am, I decided I wanted to ask the source! Plus I get to meet someone new — my favorite thing! As I’m waiting in line the head of operations approaches me and asks why I’m waiting. I tell them exactly what I’ve described to you above. I pride myself on being transparent. They tell me we have internal people that can answer my question, which is great, but again I wanted to meet the vendor and I wanted to come back to my team and deliver information directly from the source.

Conflict

It’s been about 10 minutes, I get to meet the vendor, and while they aren’t able to answer my question they give me a couple contacts that will. Great! More people for me to meet. I head out of the room to find our corporate/national team in a circle talking about what all they’ve learned and when they’re heading to the celebration that evening. When I approach the circle the head of operations asks if I got my answer. I exclaimed, “Yes, well sort of. They gave me a couple contacts and I’m happy with that!” As I’m responding their body language and mood shifts — stiff frame, hands in fists, lips pursed, eyes narrowed — I’m now enemy #1. Uh oh! They say (in front of the group), “A word?”

We walk maybe 10 feet away from the group. Here it goes — I’m reprimanded like a little girl who spilled bleach on the carpet (real situation from my childhood). With the same body language, but now with a louder, more direct and angry tone I’m told, “It is inappropriate for you to talk to vendors. We have people that will answer your questions and you should not interact with our vendors. Am I clear?”

Connecting the dots

“I feel defeated, embarrassed, ashamed, angered, and unmotivated. I literally think about resigning.”

My natural response is don’t cry! Don’t let them see my pain. I’m standing just a few feet away from our colleagues and the top people in our company and here I am being yelled at for being curious and an advocate for our team. Holding back tears I say, “Yes I understand. Who do I need to connect with internally to find the answer?” They tell me who to ask, which they also happen to be at the conference. I walk back to the group, still visibly shaken, but strong. I whisper to the regional leader I came with that I need to leave and they follow me. On the way out I find the internal person who I was tasked with asking — they give me an answer — it’s an answer, but not a great one!

I feel defeated, embarrassed, ashamed, angered, and unmotivated. I literally think about resigning. If the head of operations for our entire company of thousands of people can’t have a professional conversation with me why would I stay? I now have zero respect for this person — they tore me down next to their team. It felt like I was made an example — you step out of line — you get reprimanded in front of your peers.

Call to Action

It’s now Sunday and I’m still dealing with the original feelings I felt at that moment. I’m trying to rationalize and make sense of the encounter. If I remove the way in which the message was delivered and tweak the language I can understand the message. What truly bothers me is that this person should be held to the highest standard of leadership. They should be an example of what good leadership is. They are not.

“Every time you call out poor leadership it brings it more into the light.”

Sadly my friends, I know this isn’t an isolated incident — I’ve seen this person attack others in a similar manner. I know this won’t be the last time someone feels their wrath. I also know most of you have felt the impacts of poor leadership. It can cut us down and make us feel worthless. While we are paid by the companies that these people represent, we do not need to put up with this behavior! It is gaslighting, abusive, and destructive. Not just something you leave at work — something you carry with you.

Closing

I’d like to end on a more positive note (that is my personality after all!). We can make a difference and we will make a difference. Every time you call out poor leadership it brings it more into the light — we need a big ol’ light shining on it! Please share your stories in any way that feels right to you. Maybe you confront that person, tell your boss, tell HR, write up a blog post, or share through IE. The first step is being able to identify the problem. Take that first step with me! We can do this together!

To share your story with IE and the insurance industry — visit our storyteller page.

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