A Leadership Interview With Mark Graybill

By Mark Graybill

Updated Over a Week Ago

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Today we have Mark Graybill in our “A Leadership Interview With…” series. Find out how Mark views healthy conflict, the topics he thinks leaders are failing to learn, and how to get your team back on track.

Thanks for doing this interview! Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got to where you are today – where you’re from, your educational and/or work background?

My interest in studying leadership began nearly 35 years ago. The material I studied included the popular leadership books of the time, commercial training programs, college at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and professional training in the Air Force.

Topics included all major leadership theories and approaches, the application of psychology to numerous leadership topics, and organizational leadership and global leadership.

My leadership experience includes both youth and adult, blue-collar and white-collar, and leadership over leaders.

Most of my leadership experience occurred during my 20 years in the Air Force. Half of that was active duty, and the second half was as a reservist. During my civilian career, over the last 25 years, I’ve served in a leadership capacity in numerous ways, including technical, project, team, and departmental leadership and running a business.

My interest in a deeper understanding of leadership began 20 years ago that culminated in acquiring a Master’s in Organizational Psychology and on to a Ph.D. in Psychology. But I’m still growing – just getting started, actually.

What made you interested in leadership?

We impact others in some way every day – it’s simply in our nature to be impacted by others. I view such as an awesome responsibility and want to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

Leadership affords such opportunity in a big way because of the power to lead others to greatness while completing a successful mission – ending with a win-win. Nothing is more fulfilling to me than helping others to grow and develop and to help them find joy and fulfillment in their work while assisting them to achieve successful mission completion.

What do you believe is the key to effective communication with your team?

Communication involves conveying information and getting feedback. But it is much, much more.

To start with, it is important to be clear and concise in conveying information while knowing your audience, paying attention to feedback, and acting on it as appropriate.

No matter how well you think you’ve done conveying information, you need to ensure they understand the meaning of your message. Although this is elementary, what we often miss is the collateral meaning we convey. We must ensure the such meaning is effective and healthy.

For instance, if you convey that you are large and in charge, your team may feel belittled and will pay more attention to those feelings than your message. They’ll likely miss the meaning you intended (unless your message is that you are large and in charge – something I strongly discourage). How you regard them and how you are with them will strongly impact your ability to communicate effectively.

How do you keep people motivated despite obstacles or setbacks?

Motivation is a widely studied and debated topic. Since organizations, teams, situations, missions, obstacles, and setbacks can differ significantly, understanding a few simple things about the nature of people is essential. This sounds complicated, but it isn’t. Just keep a few things in mind.

First and foremost, when things go awry, whether it’s the project or the team’s well-being, it is important you avoid the blame game. Granted, sometimes mistakes need to be addressed by levying consequences.

If such is the case, it is very important to avoid belittling or being disrespectful. Target the behavior and the situation it created rather than targeting individuals. It might be easy to fall into a parent-like mode, but I would strongly discourage it.

To get people back on track, it is important your attitude and mode of operation are focused on problem-solving and having the team involved. Look at the situation as the problem on the other side of the table, and you and your team on the same side look over the table and figure out solutions. How you handle obstacles and setbacks will set the stage for success or failure going forward.

However, it is just as important to invest in the team early so you and your team will ride the storms.

What sort of investment am I referring to?

As a young man, I enjoyed the numerous works of motivational speakers. Of the many things that helped me, one saying comes to mind, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

The most effective way to lead your team begins with genuinely caring and showing it, under the auspice of professionalism. If you care about them individually, you’ll want to get to know them.

Treating them as fellow human beings and letting them know they matter will build rapport and trust, two of the most valuable deposits for your team’s emotional bank account you can make.

Additionally, you should care about the well-being of the team as a whole. You will naturally want to empower them, involve them in decisions and resolve unhealthy conflicts.

Viewing conflict as a healthy aspect of team dynamics and leading conflict to healthy outcomes while keeping emotions at bay is essential. And ensuring they feel safe and empowered to speak up will go a long way to achieving these goals.

The teams of effective leaders will fare better during the storms of the mission. Follow the guidelines above, and you will build rapport and trust. If your team desires to please you and to be like you, you probably have a solid foundation of rapport and trust. If you have those two things, motivating and overcoming obstacles and setbacks will be just another day at the office.

Remember, members of your team should not only feel they belong but also that they matter to you, to the team, and to the mission. They should all feel like they are peers with you in the human family, despite the power differential between you. They should feel safe, meaning they don’t worry about having a target on their backs.

Good leaders avoid being condescending or showing contempt.

Which mistake do you believe leaders make most often, and how could they avoid it?

It is a tough decision to declare the most common mistake because there are several that, in my experience, are equally common. Off the top of my head, the most common mistake would be one of omission: not realizing how much one needs to learn, especially about themselves.

The top topics I think leaders often fail to learn are:

  1. The importance of developing rapport and trust, which includes extending trust by empowering rather than controlling.
  2. Being selfish is a human tendency, and leaders need to be selfless. Priorities are, first and foremost: the mission and the team.
  3. Followers want their leaders to be human, not to be perfect. Leaders don’t need to know everything or to make every decision themselves and should never cover their mistakes. Admitting mistakes and apologizing is not a sign of weakness. The days where one gets into leadership by being the strongest, smartest, and conqueror are over. You’re in charge, so use it wisely and humbly.
  4. The team may misinterpret messages and assume ulterior meanings without telling you. It is up to the leader to effectively communicate and ensure the appropriate meaning is received (see #3 above).
  5. Perceptions often mislead to misjudgment, and so they may need to grow and change. How one views direct reports will impact results. Although stereotyping, pigeonholing and bias are normal, they should be avoided. Leaders will need to learn this and how to overcome it.
  6. Being in charge doesn’t mean you need to control and constantly remind your team you’re in charge; they know. Leaders need to learn not to exercise power inappropriately, frivolously, or selfishly.

What do you believe is a quality that a leader should try to eliminate from their team?

Egoism. Everyone has their own agenda and self-interests. But to achieve mission success, team members need to put this quality at bay to a certain extent. They also need to avoid self-centeredness, self-ingratiation, and apathy toward other team members.

As egoism shifts toward altruism, empathy will grow, and agendas will merge into the team and mission agenda. A leader will do well by focusing on developing the team and leading it through the rough stages of team dynamics. If the leading practices and demonstrates the qualities mentioned above, the team will follow the lead, and egoism will not be a problem.

Is there a particular well-known leader or company that you find inspiring? If so, why?

The late Dave Goldberg, former CEO of Survey Monkey. The reason is how his employees regarded him. They were devastated by the loss of their CEO because of the kind of leader he was. One former employee, Paul Ollinger, said that he “hit the jackpot and landed in a vortex of brilliant, passionate people…led by a CEO who will become not just your friend, but a mentor and advocate, for the next 18 years.”

Juliana Jaoudi said in her LinkedIn article, Nice People Finish First, that Goldberg left a legacy of “intelligence, hard work, compassion, humor, friendship, fairness, and warmth.” Goldberg built his company’s culture by example. “His helpfulness, inquisitiveness, and joy were contagious.” He led with heart, and his employees loved to follow him and aspired to be like him.

In my opinion, the kind of culture leaders should strive to create can be captured in the legacy Goldberg left.

Are there any specific apps, tools, or software that you use for productivity/communication?

To complement vis-à-vis communication, I use Skype and e-mail. The former is great for impromptu conversations anytime, and e-mail is a way to drop notes they can read later (both can be used in this way). The former also allows for such exchanges where you can simply connect as a fellow human being.

I also use SharePoint, not just for knowledge management, which the team owns, but as a way of communicating official things such as policy or procedure. It is also a way to share individual and team triumphs with the company.

How do you resolve conflict within your team?

Determine what the conflict is about. If the conflict is over some job topic or subject matter, the reason for the conflict may be appropriate. Next is to determine if the conflict is healthy and, if not, lead it to be a healthy conflict.

Typical conflict-resolution steps can help achieve this while remembering to follow the guidelines mentioned above regarding motivation. You set the stage and the rules and then facilitate them in resolving their own conflict.

If it is a healthy conflict, I may simply remind them to work it out professionally and objectively. But whether I do or not depends on my history and knowledge of the participants. Besides the investment into the team I mentioned above, leaders should also invest in training that will give them tools to avoid unhealthy conflict.

Training in perspective-taking, conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, brainstorming, Crucial Conversations/Confrontations, and similar tools can go a long way in empowering your team to handle their own conflicts.

Bear in mind intervening can open a can of worms and makes a loud statement. Make sure the statement you make is intended and follows the guidelines I mentioned above regarding motivation.

But some reports will be more challenging than others. Maybe they have difficult attachment styles or have not yet fully integrated into the team, or there are personality conflicts.

Some may just want help pulling the argument back into the realm of reason. Others may want you to take the parent’s ego or may compete with her/his opponent for your vote. Regardless, you will need to tread calmly, fairly, and professionally. The last thing you should do is join the chorus of emotional conflict.

At all costs, do not abuse your power and resolve it for them. Sometimes, they roll in unannounced and conflict lands in your lap, and you’re not ready for its disruption.

The best advice is to schedule a time for the resolution, asking them to hold off until that time. This allows you to compose yourself and remember that they own the resolution – give them back the monkey while helping them tame it.

What advice would you give to upcoming leaders?

Learning about leadership mostly involves learning about yourself – especially relating to how you regard or view, react to, and interact with other people.

Do you have any particular hobbies or interests?

I love to make a positive difference in the lives of others, whether it is volunteering time to disadvantaged youth, donating to a good cause, or offering training on such topics as culture, diversity, bullying, and, yes, leadership.

Thank You, Mark Graybill, for doing this Interview!

If you have ideas you feel like sharing with Mark Graybill, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Mark Graybill
Mark Graybill
Mark has a Master’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is a management consultant, a leadership instructor for the Air Force Reserves, and a Ph.D. student of Psychology specializing in Social Cognition and Instruction.
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