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A little courage goes a long way

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

It began as a routine meeting. Joyce Russell was a senior executive convening with colleagues to divvy up annual bonuses for their managers.

"I love rewarding incentive payments to those who deserve it," says Russell, who currently serves as president of Adecco General Staffing USA, a unit of Switzerland-based Adecco Group. "But as we went through each manager and discussed bonus amounts, the waters got a bit muddy."

Specifically, Russell disapproved of her colleagues' decision to give a high-performing manager a low bonus while allocating what struck her as an inordinately large bonus to a senior executive sitting in the room.

Russell realized she was outnumbered in the meeting, so she decided not to express her concern to the group. Instead, she approached her boss (the chief executive) and the chief financial officer afterward.

"It took courage to tell them that I disagreed with a position that they seemed totally wedded to," she recalls. "But sometimes you have to be brave enough to speak up for what you think is right."

Russell pulled no punches. She said, "We are making the wrong decision. We're changing the rules at the last minute and incentivizing people in the wrong way."

Russell momentarily wondered if she had spoken too bluntly. But after a few seconds, the CEO looked at the CFO and said, "You know, she's right."

"The CEO later told me, 'I've never been more proud of you,'" Russell says. "He admired me for going against the management team to take a position in the best interest of the company."

Today, Russell is one of the leading female executives in the $131 billion staffing industry. Her division generates $3 billion in annual revenue.

Courage is an asset, but it can sometimes lead you astray. When weighing whether to act courageously, consider the organizational culture and line up solid support for your claims. If you lack evidence or overstate your case, you can do more harm than good.

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