There’s a saying in sports that says you don’t want to be the coach who follows the legend. You want to be the coach who follows the coach who follows the legend. Bill Proenza, the former director of the National Hurricane Center, knows what it is like to follow a legend. He succeeded the very popular director, Max Mayfield who was seen by millions on television during hurricane season.
Proenza was reassigned after more than half his staff signed a petition to have him removed from office. Proenza got in hot water for complaining publicly that the QuickSAT satellite could not be counted on to provide accurate hurricane forecasts. Those comments irritated his bosses in the Bush Administration as well as his staff who said that QuickSAT was only one tool in their forecasting instrumentation process.
Proenza, according to a report on NPR’s All Things Considered , is a highly experienced and competent forecaster who has worked for the National Weather Service for many years. His appointment was endorsed by Mayfield, the well-respected head of the NHC who retired at the end of last year. Courtly and avuncular Mayfield led by consensus. His management style was the exact opposite of Proenza who keeps his own counsel and sometimes “shoots from the hip.” So it seems that when Proenza got into trouble over his remarks, there was no one on his staff to back him up. Proenza had burned his bridges. So what can we learn from the Proenza firing?
Survey the territory. Know the terrain upon which you are treading. If you are following a legend, pay homage to the leader by acknowledging his style and strengths. Defer to his legacy until you establish your own.
Ask for input. Make certain you introduce yourself to everyone. Meet one on one with your key staff. The first meeting, or subsequent meetings, should be spent asking questions and listening. Make it known you want straight talk.
Ask for ideas. New leaders need to ensure the loyalty of staff. They can expect it, but they must earn the trust. You earn it by your example. Asking for ideas and suggestions about how things are done is critical. At the same time, float your ideas, too, but ask for suggestions about how to make them better.
Be your own person. Is this a contradiction? No. You are the leader now. It is appropriate to develop (or continue) the vision and insist on alignment. State your priorities. Allow comment on them but you can, and often should, be firm in what you want to accomplish.
Evaluate the situation. If your new ideas are not met with overwhelming support, find out why. Again, be open to suggestions. You may hold to your mission, but you can allow individuals and teams to set their own strategies and tactics.
Proenza should not be painted as the cowboy wearing the black hat. Members of the NHC bear some of the blame. It would appear that Proenza’s biggest failing was not being Max Mayfield. Following a legend as Gene Bartow, the coach who followed legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, is not easy. Bartow was a fine coach but he didn’t bring in the titles like Wooden did so he was fired.
Proenza’s close-to-the-vest management style did not earn him any friends, and for that he must be accountable, but NHC senior staff owed him something less than a rebellion. One employee spoke up for his former boss telling the New York Times that Proenza was sharply criticized for speaking out, yet “where is the reprimand for what amounts to a mutiny by a group of federal employees, the likes of which has never been seen at NOAA… There’s going to be tension for a while, at least until proper explanations are given.”
Going forward it will be up to the next senior leader to work cooperatively with the staff. At the same time, he or she must make it clear what he or she expects in terms of performance and behavior. The NHC cannot afford another misfire in the top slot. Egos cannot be allowed create storms of their own. The nation expects and demands leadership in hurricane forecasting.
Sources: Greg Allen “Hurricane Center Director Temporarily Reassigned” All Things Considered NPR 7.09.07; “National Hurricane Director leaves position” CNN.com 7.09.07; Kenneth Chang “Hurricane Center’s Director Is Replaced After a Mutiny” New York Times 7.10.07
John Baldoni • Executive Coach/Author/Speaker • Baldoni Consulting, LLC • ww.johnbaldoni.com