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Rotten Tomatoes

Here is a life & leadership insight.

I am originally from Calgary, Alberta, Canada and my parents still live there. I now live in Texas. The growing season is super short in Canada, which is why I sent my Mom this pic of my monster tall tomato plants. I was boasting about the good fortune of my growing season and gloating about how tall I could get my plants to grow.

To put it in perspective, I nurtured these tomato plants through 84 days of 100F heat. I diligently watered them, talked to them, and cajoled them to produce plants. Heck, I even sprinkled cinnamon on the leaves to make sure the worms stayed out.

What happened?

My 11 plants bloomed, grew taller than any tomatoes I’ve ever head, and only produced a total of 6 cherry tomatoes and a couple of wannabe regular-sized tomatoes. There was nothing to harvest!

There is a leadership and life lesson here.

As leaders, we can spend tons of energy facilitating growth, developing relationships, as well as encouraging and mentoring people. However, if we don’t slow down to make sure that we are really reaping the benefits of all of that effort, we may be growing someone in a way that is misaligned with the outcomes that matter.

Growing is alone is not enough.

In today's space of innovation and the need for agile leadership, we need to slow down and ask ourselves if all of our watering, talking and protecting employees so that they grow at all cost, and whether or not that growth is aligned with what we need from them.

Permit me to extend this leadership metaphor a bit more.

Growth does not necessarily equate to productive outcomes

Here are three things I have learned about growing anything in San Antonio. First, the summers are too hot in Texas to grow tomatoes, or effectively transplant plants (which I also did). It is ironic to me that I need to grow tomatoes during the months of the Canadian winter, a foreign concept to me as a Canadian who knows that nothing ever grows in the winters there!

In my consulting work, I see companies paying for tuition and conferences to keep employees happy and engaged. I don’t always see the teams and companies benefitting from that employee growth. Similar to my tomato plants, just because someone grows doesn’t necessarily equate to productive outcomes.

Biases blind us

Second, consider your biases. I turned to my known source of truth on how to grow these tomatoes: my mom and my mother-in-law. I diligently applied their advice. I pruned the tomato plants. I fertilized them. I followed these mothers’ sage advice. Were they a good source of advice given the environment I live in? I won’t say they were wrong. I will say that my San Antonio neighbors could have been a bit more on point – not because of their lived experiences, but because my neighbors understand this environment.

In the business world, things are messy. Companies are needing to be innovative, reinvent their definitions of success and shift their mindsets. I was coaching someone yesterday who was exasperated with their organization’s approach to something and said, “If we keep doing what we have done for the last 30 years, we will keep getting what we got for 30 years. That is not what we need right now.”

Naturally, we all have a bias that what we did in the past has worked. Certainly that success brought us to where we are. That bias can blind us from getting to where we need to be in the future.

Giving more of our best will get us more of the same thing

Third, assess a little more critically. I realized that the plants weren’t producing like I wanted, so what did I do? I loved on them a little harder. I made sure every branch was nicely tucked into the tomato cages, I used the fertilizer – you get the idea. I did more of my best green thumb strategies.

In hindsight, I could have read the seed packages to see how long it takes for them to produce fruit. I could have been a little more critical about my efforts when only a few cherry tomatoes grew and then nothing else happened. Instead, I did more of the same, which gave me more of the same.

Sometimes failing is the best form of learning.

Finally and worth noting - there is always next year. I will do things differently.

In other words, it’s OK if I wasted a ton of energy. It would not be OK if I didn’t own my foolishness and correct my strategies for the next tomato season.

What is a great work have you done growing someone where their development maybe didn’t give you the benefit you had hoped?

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