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Second-Stage Sensei

by Dino Signore

Manager of Entrepreneurial Education

All the world’s a stage: the importance of shifting roles

Sociologist Erving Goffman originated the theory of impression management, which is about how we try to influence other people’s perceptions. Like actors in the theatre, people use scripts, settings, apparel and props to create a desired impression, Goffman said.

Although Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” was published in 1956, it remains an acclaimed book — and I believe his theories have particular relevance for entrepreneurs. As they launch and scale a business, company founders encounter a series of pivotal points that require them to embrace different roles. The better you are at recognizing those critical junctures and adapting, the more successful you’ll be.

Adaptive leadership

For example, in second stage a company founder can no longer operate as a lone wolf. As you expand your staff, you suddenly have a new system on your hands to manage — a social system. This is one of the most confounding aspects of running a company. Employees bring their problems to work, and those problems become your problems. I haven’t met many entrepreneurs who launched their business because they wanted to manage people.

Further changes in your leadership role occur as you build a senior management team. Becoming more hands-off, delegating instead of doing, and learning to trust other people is not always easy for hard-charging entrepreneurs. Yet another shift, being the company spokesperson takes on greater significance as your firm grows larger. And though many entrepreneurs love the limelight, others find it painful. (A great example is Richard on the television show “Silicon Valley” who throws up when he has to speak to group of people.)

It’s also important to balance professional and personal roles, to be aware of who you are when you come to work — and when you go home. I remember once having a conversation with my younger daughter and she said, “Stop talking that way. I’d like to speak with my dad now.” I realized I was still playing my facilitator role.

Some people have innate thespian skills and can quickly adjust their behavior to whatever situation they find themselves in. Other folks are not so fluid. The good news is that you can become more flexible at switching roles. A few suggestions:

Think about your thinking. The brain’s prefrontal cortex allows us to engage in introspection and think about the various roles we need to play. This kind of cognitive reflection becomes second nature after a while.

Allow time to ease into character between scenes. Consider the environment you’re leaving and the one you’re moving into. Whether it’s a meeting with your staff, advisory board, investors or peer group, think about who you’ll be interacting with and what they expect of you. Time helps with this adjustment. For example, for many years I lived about five minutes away from my workplace and found it difficult to flip the switch between professional and personal roles. Today I have an hour’s drive between the office and home, which gives me more time to decompress and transition into my role as husband and father.

Get out of your comfort zone. Do something that makes you uncomfortable. For example, if you’re a detail person, trash your master plan for the day and be spontaneous. Learn a new skill. Try a new sport. Like actors, leaders want to avoid being typecast, and pushing your boundaries helps enhance general flexibility.

Adaptive employees

Business leaders should also be aware of their employees’ ability to take on new roles. Growth companies experience a great deal of organizational change, especially during second stage, and it’s important to have people who are adept at adapting.

Just as some people are blessed with extremely flexible personalities, there are individuals who can’t transition to new roles required of them and will exhibit maladaptive behavior such as paranoia, extreme narcissism and histrionics. They are the drama queens, the ones who are always making a scene. You want to avoid these folks because their personalities will affect everyone else in your company. Granted, someone may just be having a bad day, but other times you may need to get them professional help (e.g. employee assistance program) or even show them the door.

Business leaders can do a number of things to encourage a culture of adaptive behavior. For example:

  • Create psychological safe places for playing new roles. For example, appoint different staff members to take turns leading your team meetings.
  • Devise projects that bring together people from different departments, especially those employees who usually work independently.
  • Have employees shadow a colleague in another department.
  • Explore improvisational games that force people out of their comfort zones.
  • When discussing company issues, ask employees to try to see a problem from another department’s perspective. This helps avoid entrenched positions where people get caught up in putting their interests ahead of the entire organization.

Some final words

In nature, adaptation has always been critical for species to survive. And in today’s business climate of accelerated change, adaptability has been called the new competitive advantage. When leaders and employees are adept at shifting roles, your organization becomes nimbler, more innovative and more productive. And, at least in my opinion, dealing with change becomes inherently more enjoyable.

(Published Nov. 11, 2019)