Have you ever heard a child say something and immediately recognize where they learned it?

Rodney Atkins is a country music singer and songwriter.

In 2006, his song “If You’re Going Through Hell” finished the year as the top-ranked country song.

His son, Elijah, was in pre-school at the time. Like any other four-year-old boy, Elijah repeated what he heard around the house. This tends to get you in trouble when your dad writes a song with a curse word in it.

Atkins was called in to speak with the teacher when Elijah kept singing, “When you’re going through hell, hell, hell.” This moment sparked the idea to write a song about how children watch and repeat their parents’ good and bad habits.

From an embarrassing moment, another #1 hit was born. Atkins wrote “Watching You” in 2007, a song about his son’s propensity to mirror dad’s behaviors. Any parent can relate to the chorus.

I’ve been watching you,

Dad, ain’t that cool,

I’m your buckaroo,

I want to be like you.

Children instinctively copy everything from mannerisms, vocabulary, fashion and rooting interests in sports teams. It turns out that we have a tendency to do the same as adults.

I was once interviewed by the Chairman of a company for an executive position. He was the founder of the company and an incredibly engaging person. He wore a button-down shirt under a v-neck sweater.

Next, I met with the CFO. Another button-down shirt under a v-neck sweater. The President and VP of HR?  You guessed it.

I thought this company might have some weird dress code, like a Catholic grade school. I was young and didn't find the look too appealing.

After a month with the company, I found myself drawn to the sweater aisle at Nordstrom, loading up on every color. No one asked me to wear a v-neck sweater. It just felt like the thing to do. After leaving that company, I haven't worn a v-neck sweater since.

New Managers Learn By Watching

My first manager hosted a weekly conference call with his entire sales team. This was a "status call" that never seemed to end.

More than 20 sales reps dialed in and listened to our peers forecast their sales for the next three months. It was painful to sit through.

This manager wanted us on the entire call just in case he needed to "circle back" to something. He felt it was good for creativity if we could hear what our peers were working.

Occasionally, this worked. A rep in Wisconsin might offer to help an Ohio counterpart with a particular customer. But, this didn't happen frequently enough to justify the pain.

In reality, our boss held this call because it was convenient for him and his managers made him dial into a similarly worthless call every week. Bull crap only rolls downhill.

We hated it. After listening for two hours, it was my turn. I would unmute my phone when prompted and say something like, "No new orders to report in Chicago."

My boss was a great guy and never rubbed it in purposefully. But, since I waited patiently, he felt the need to follow-up and make it worth my time.

"Come on, don't sandbag us. I know you've got some big opportunities brewing from all those calls you're making."

I would fake a nervous laugh, "Haha, I wish. I'm working on it."

Even as I improved and had opportunities to forecast, I still hated the call. It was inefficient, especially when all of the information could be found in our CRM software. Why was I updating the system and reporting out on a call?

I vowed that I would never subject people to such madness if I ever became a manager. One day, after three years as a sales rep, I was promoted to sales manager. What was the first process I put in place?

I set up a weekly orders conference call, of course.

I wasn't sure what a manager was supposed to do. Without experience, I copied a process from the only manager I had worked for. It was simple to put in place and I felt like it signaled to the group that I was in charge.

I ran that awful conference call for 15 painful months. I knew everyone hated it, including me.

I didn't cancel the call until a new manager came along that didn't require me to attend a similar call. I watched him and learned a better way. He used information in the system and held us accountable for updating the software with enough information.

When the system was lacking in information, he called us and asked questions. Before letting us off the phone, he reminded us that he wouldn't need to call if we communicated better in the software.

Over time, we anticipated the questions he would ask and made sure the information was in the system. Excited about his approach, I dropped my conference call and mirrored his approach. My team was ecstatic.

Imitate Until You Know What You Are Doing

Most new managers imitate senior leaders until they develop enough self-confidence to go their own way. Unsure of how a manager should behave, they emulate and copy the behaviors, processes and actions of those perceived as more successful in the organization.

In his best-selling book Liar's Poker, author Michael Lewis writes about how he copied his way to success as a rookie bond salesman for Solomon Brothers.

Thinking, as yet, was a feat beyond my reach. I had no base, no grounding,” Lewis writes. “So I listened to the master and repeated what I heard, as in kung fu. It reminded me of learning a foreign language. It all seemed strange at first. Then one day, you catch yourself thinking in the language. Suddenly words you never realized you knew are at your disposal. Finally, you dream in the language.

Imitation has its setbacks. I'm reminded of young Tommy Calahan attempting to sell like his father in the movie Tommy Boy. Early in the movie, Tommy's father is confronted by a customer who wants to see his factory before purchasing. "Big Tom" closes the deal with a swagger reserved for only the most confident sales professionals.

With no experience, Tommy is forced to hit the road when his father passes away. He attempts to copy his dad's signature line, with disastrous effect.

Herminia Ibarra is a professor of Organizational Behavior at the London School of Business. She studied the chameleon approach with a group of recently promoted investment bankers and consultants.

Some rookies emulated senior leaders and top performers, copying their ability to build rapport, ask questions and influence without appearing overbearing. They were coined "chameleons" and performed objectively better than the "do it yourself" group.

The latter group was more technical in nature and felt that imitation was inauthentic and ridiculous. Oddly, the "do it yourself" group arrived at an authentic approach much later than the chameleons, who were not afraid to borrow best practices from multiple mentors.

As the playwright Wilson Mizner said, copying one author is plagiarism, but copying many is research.

Your Team Is Watching You

The more responsibility a leader assumes, the more their behavior will reverberate throughout the organization. Employees don't just imitate because they lack perspective. Some will copy to make their life easier and get along with their manager.

Others will imitate because of ambition. They might be eager to climb within the organization. Their assumption is that copying the behavior of someone in a position they covet will translate to a promotion. In many cases, they are correct.

Knowing that teams develop through imitation, leaders can build winning cultures by paying attention to the following steps.

  1. High-level managers need truth-tellers. The lower you are in an organization chart, the easier it is to get "feedback." The opposite is true at the top. Perceived power has a way of shutting down honest criticism. Senior leaders might have a legion of managers emulating their worst behaviors and not recognize it. If leaders can't find an honest colleague, subordinate or manager, they should look outside the organization for an objective coach. I once listened to a CEO lament that his leaders were not providing insightful input during our quarterly reviews. Delicately, I mentioned that they might be distracted by the 42-page financial package he sent them days before their review. What was left to add? Shortly after, he led the reviews by saying he knew the numbers and only wanted managers to share their opportunities and challenges. This tweak led to a more engaging dialogue.
  2. Spend more time with your front-line employees. Senior leaders who regularly speak with front-line employees feel more accountable as servants. I often witness executives returning from trips to the field with entirely different perspectives. One President spent a week talking with his operations team and learned how much time they spent in "status meetings." Frustrated, he wanted to know why our field managers were subjecting these people to such torture. The answer originated with this President's propensity to fly off the handle. Fearful of how this executive would react to a problem, managers controlled and micro-managed intensely. By talking to enough people, he recognized that his behavior was at the root of the "status meeting" problem.
  3. Leaders are always on stage. The boy in the Rodney Atkins song blurts out a curse word when dad's sudden stop at a red light sends his french fries flying. When Rodney asks him where he learned to talk like that, he proudly points the finger back at dad. The same is true with leaders. Your team is watching how you respond to everything. They watch how you treat employees when they are hired, and especially those who are departing. Teams don't miss details when it comes to how you treat people, solve problems, collaborate and manage your time. Anything can be taken out of context. Be vigilant in guarding how you behave in front of a group.

Culture has a trickle-down effect. If you want to change your company culture, start by changing how you interact with your direct reports. They are watching you carefully.

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