Twelve years ago, Leigh introduced me to her research and observations about operational styles in a conversation about fitting in at work. She was developing this concept to figure out where she fit. But as it's often the case, when we set out to solve a problem we have, we end up addressing something many others are facing.
The problem is the reason we take dozens of assessments over the course of our career. You've been probably weighed and measured in multiple ways—personality traits, selling approaches, aptitudes, teaming scores, evaluations, you name it. Lack of engagement is a symptom—the cause is fit, or as Leigh says, how we “plug in with others.”
Many assessments give you a score, a label (or acronym), and a box, without telling you much about how to collaborate with others.
The central problem is everywhere in organizations—how to translate the way we view our job and ourselves and how we get things done into how we leverage relationships to get things done. Leigh says it best, “I wanted to work in a more people-centric way, and I felt like a lot of the training that I went to kind of pointed me to naval gazing instead of having me focus on others.”
Without an understanding of operational style, we don't have an appreciation of how others view work, nor how we can help others and use get what we want. Walk, Climb, or Fly is a timely book that was gestating for 15 years.
Three layers of value
When I read a book, I examine the ideas in three ways—as a learner, as an author, and as a practitioner. Here's my take on Walk, Climb, or Fly.
First as a learner—before we can figure out where we want to go, we need to know where we are now. How did we get here? That's the first question Leigh answers. Then we discover our design and the styles of others with a deep dive into the operational styles. In part three, we learn to negotiate challenging territory—mitigating weaknesses, learning to adapt, style dynamics, bias and balance. Part four is about plotting a new course, and in part five we move from surviving to thriving.
Then as an author—Leigh uses the journey metaphor to bring you along. We get oriented, we take stock of what we have in our toolkit, figure out the lay of the land, then set out to bridge the distance between where we are to where we want to be. It's easy to follow along, and the personal and third party stories are a useful backdrop to the internal conversation you have as a reader. The structure and organization make it easy to dip in and out of chapters and concepts, even tough the book is most useful when read front to back.
Third as a practitioner—awareness of operational styles will make life easier. Leigh suggests we adopt a mindset of the manager, regardless of our rank, title, or experience. We already manage our lives and relationships. At work, we manage up through accountability to the people who have authority over us, manage across in our interactions with peers in the company and industry, and manage down when relating to direct reports and colleagues with less experience. An appreciation of style dynamics can help us manage well.
This section is about the key actions or takeaways that I'm going to implement—or do differently— because of what I learned in the book.
There are many exercises throughout the book to help you pause and reflect. I especially love the chapter on managing tough terrain. When talking about weathering storms of conflict, Leigh says:
There's no escaping the fact that the modern workplace seems to have more than its fair share of jerks. The Oxford Dictionary online defines the word “jerk” as “contemptibly foolish person.”
However, when you think about it, a jerk is merely a triggered person with a lot of very active pitfalls. Jerks certainly can be contemptible and stir up conflict at work.
By nature, however, there may not be a whole lot you can do about a jerk, besides manage that behavior and choose the right responses.
Workplace conflict is complicated, and we have a hand in what happens. If we agree to own 100 percent of our responsibility in creating outcomes—positive or negative—everywhere we go, we can make a difference. We have control over this, and our actions.
How many of us have stumbled here?
How behavior spreads
The reason why I talk about behavior may seem obvious—unless we observe what people do and and understand how actions spread, we won't get to the root of motivation. And motivation is one of the powerful human levers, along with availability and triggers, that get us what we want.
As Leigh says, identifying your operational style will help you find your posse and work from strengths, rather than trying to overcome weakenesses. We may be tempted to try and switch styles. That's a bad idea. Because we're naturally inclined to operate in a certain way, and going against the grain won't work.
Recognizing the operational style of others is a process of discovery. You may be able to figure out at a high level, but observing, asking, and investigating will help you develop a better sense. Professional relationships make this a necessity. We don't have to relate to different style, just understand it so we can respond. Our response is our responsbility and will reflect on us.
Leigh provides a wealth of tips for style recognition—from reading body language and paying attention to the relationships people form at work, to hints about power, authority, and hierarchy. What do people focus on? What are their priorities? How people communicate can give us a sense of operational style, as it does employment history.
Our own behavior provides hints to others. Along with strengths, we have pitfalls in our operational styles. Leigh dedicates a full chapter to emotional triggers and managing our headspace, and another to style dynamics.
Organizations have operational styles as well. A few years ago, I was working in a chemical manufacturing company where the majority of my colleagues had a walker style balance. As a flyer, I had zero issues getting things done and adapted my behavior to the steady work pace.
However, things humming along were not getting us to where we need and wanted to be. I was the one suggesting we look into how we were working together to hit more aggressive objectives. To his credit, the CEO had observed there was room for improvement, and heard me.
The point is to thrive, not merely survive
Dr. Rocacz is an endocrinologisty. She says:
my job is to study the impacts of stress on the body's endocrine's system.
What I have learned is this: When you are fulfilling your purpose in life, you expend your energy and it returns to you. It comes back to regenerate you in body, mind, and spirit. However, when you abuse you purpose in life, you expend your energy and it doesn't return, and you find yourself depleted. This always results in disease—whether it's physical, spiritual, or mental.
Nobody is going to tell us what our purpose is, that is ours to figure out. But we need to pay attention to how it feels to work in a certain place and job vs. another.
It's possible to let our natural instincts and a certain dose of “career autopilot” run us in circles. If you've ever changed job to land somewhere where the experience is similar to the last company, you're not alone. We tend to gravitate toward what is familiar.
But we also may not have become stewards of our own career journey, or have a broken compass. It's useful to know your operational style, what energizes and motivates you, and to have a meaningful, individualized definition of professional success.
A broken compass means we need to recalibrate it, redefine success, and shift our mindset. The last chapter and conclusion address this process.
If you're looking for a meaningful and substantial guide to figuring out your career journey, or to hire people whose operational styles fit your business needs, or need to fix work dynamics, Walk, Climb, or Fly is that manual. It's not a quick read. Then again, improving your work life and career is worth every page.