‘There’s Always Something That Somebody Can Tweak’

By Chuck Williams
Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, Ga.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Debbie Lane is the owner of the “Leadership Edge,” a Georgia based executive coaching firm.  In his Q&A  Lane has plenty of advice for both men and women regarding careers, leadership and networking. However, Lane does have quite a bit to say about the state of women in business.  As Lane points out, research has shown that when companies have women on their boards in executive ranks, market share improves, productivity improves and employee morale improves.

Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, Ga.

Debbie Lane is very much a coach.

A former Blue Cross/Blue Shield executive, the last decade she has owned her own business. The Leadership Edge. It’s executive coaching firm that works with many of Columbus’ large employers, helping them develop and refine management talent.

Recently, she sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to talk about leadership, management and style. She also opened up about the role gender plays in management.

The following are excerpts from that interview, edited for length and clarity.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about The Leadership Edge?

A: It’s an executive coaching firm. Coaching, it’s a goal or it’s very practical goal-oriented, one-on-one learning. It’s focused to develop leadership skills. It can be a short intervention or it can be a series of meetings. It’s designed to enhance somebody’s leadership skills and create behavior change.

Q: Why do executives need coaching? They’re the boss.

A: Everybody needs coaching. There’s always something that somebody can tweak. If everybody’s boss says, “You know, you’re doing a really good job, but if you would just get along with your peers better, if you could enhance your productivity, if you could be a better team builder, if you’d be a better communicator.” Those are the kind of things that I work on. Usually, the people that I work with are already very successful, but there’s one little thing that’s holding them back, that could make them better than they already are. That’s what I work on.

… Coaching is a practical, goal oriented learning process intended to develop specific leadership skills and create desired behavior change. It consists of a series of one on one meetings designed to develop and leverage strengths and understanding and minimizing the impact of weaknesses.

Q: Do you coach people in Columbus or outside of Columbus or a combination?

A: Always in Columbus. When I first created my business, I did travel, and then I decided there was plenty to do right here and so I stayed in Columbus. I worked with all the larger companies in town.

Q: Such as TSYS, Aflac?

A: Not Aflac, but I do with … all the other companies.

Q: How do you start to coach somebody?

A: One of the first things that I say is: “What’s getting in your way? What’s getting in your way of being the most successful person, most successful executive that you can be? What’s keeping you from being and achieving the goals that you want to achieve?” That usually makes them stop and think, because people don’t usually think in terms of what’s getting in my way. They think in terms of what other people are doing, I wish somebody else would do, but they don’t really think in terms of what they’re doing. That starts to zone a path of thinking about, “What am I doing that I need to change?”

Q: It’s a self-awareness lesson as much as anything else, right?

A: It’s very much all about self-awareness.

Q: When someone comes to your company for coaching, do they come on their own? Or does somebody within their company say, “Hey, Debbie can help you here.”

A: Most of the business I do is created by companies. Companies call me and say, “We have a high-potential person here that we want to accelerate about the company.” It’s usually a company that will call me, but there are individuals that’ll call and say, “You know, I can’t seem to get a promotion.” Or, “I know that my boss keeps saying I need to develop my communication skills. Can you help me with that?” Typically, it’s a company that’ll call. Most companies have coaching programs.

Q: What is the most common problem, issue, opportunity that you see in a competent, promotable, mid-level manager?

A: I think there’s two things actually. One is communication and one is awareness — their own self-awareness about how they’re coming across to other people. I don’t if you’re familiar with emotional intelligence.

Q: Sort of.

A: There’s two things to determine somebody’s effectiveness: IQ, which everybody’s familiar with. That’s how intelligent you are. Emotional intelligence, EQ, determines how well you connect with other people. Research has shown that your emotional intelligence — how well you connect with other people — is a higher indicator of success than IQ, especially when you reach the executive level. Most people aren’t aware of how they connect with other people. They’re just going through their day, they’re doing their job, and they’re ignoring the person that they’re interacting with. Once they realize that they’re not connecting with that person, it makes a huge difference in the way they interact. Once they learned to connect, once they learned to make eye contact, listen, figure out what that other person’s really trying to say or what they’re going through, it helps to elevate performance.

Q: That seems like common sense to me.

A: I bet you have a high EQ.

Q: Who knows?

A: If you didn’t, you would go, “People just need to do their job.” That would be the response of somebody that didn’t then have a high EQ. “They just need to do their job. I don’t need to tell them. I don’t need to baby them. I didn’t need to cuddle them. They just need to do their job.” That would be the response of somebody that didn’t have a high EQ.

Q: That is fascinating. You have been in upper level management position. You were there with Blue Cross Blue Shield here. How did that prepare you for this?

A: Oh, my gosh. That’s what it was all about. That’s really what I did when I was there. I was an HR executive, but my role there was really working with the CEOs and executives to help them meet their business goals. Meeting business goals is all about how you treat your employees. If an executive wasn’t meeting their business goals, I would be called in to sit with them and say, “What’s getting in your way? What’s going on? Why aren’t you meeting your goals? What do you think the reason is?” It would always come down to the employees and how they felt about how they were being treated, either they weren’t communicating the vision correctly, they weren’t communicating the goals, the employees didn’t understand what they were expected to do, they didn’t understand their expectations. Once we would turn that around, then people would start meeting their goals again. That’s what I did. It also helped, because while I was at Blue Cross, we went through five mergers. I worked for six different CEOs and hundreds of executives. Throughout that process, I worked with all kinds of personalities. I learned how to deal with every personality imaginable.

Q: I noticed looking at your degree. Your degrees aren’t business degrees. They’re psychology degrees.

A: They’re not and it’s come in very handy.

Q: Is the workplace essentially as much about psychology as it is business?

A: See, in my mind, it’s all about psychology, because it goes back to that emotional intelligence. It goes back to connecting with other people. If you get the people answers right, you get the business answers right. You need the people to drive the business. I think some people have that reversed.

Q: Let me switch gears a little bit. Who make better executives, men or women?

A: Now, that’s a loaded question.

Q: I had to ask one. You have been a very successful female executive, when there weren’t a lot of female executives in Columbus in your role. You could probably look in some of the rooms you were in, it was male dominated is my guess.

A: Right

Q: Has the climate changed for female executives from what it was when you started at Blue Cross years ago?

A: I think the conversations have changed. I think more companies talk about the need to hire more women in their executive positions and for their boards. I think that conversation has definitely changed. I think there’s probably more recruitment activities. In the question, “Who makes the better leader,” I think it goes back to … I don’t think you should promote women just because they’re women. I do not support that philosophy at all. I don’t think that’s the right decision.
I do think the right decision is to promote the most qualified person. The most qualified person is the person that’s trained and has good EQ. I think emotional intelligence is very, very important. Let’s look at it this way. This is factual. Men’s personalities, in a corporate setting, tend to be linear, logical, competitive, aggressive. Women’s personalities tend, this is not a generalization, tend to be inclusive, compassionate, more authentic. They want to involve people. … Each can be very successful achieving business results. They just achieve these results in different ways. … Which personality brings more people on board?

Q: The latter.

A: Research has shown that when companies have women on their boards in executive ranks, market share improves, productivity improves, employee morale improves.

Q: Are there more opportunities today for qualified women executives than there were 20, 25 years ago?

A: I don’t understand the question. I think there’s positions out there. I don’t know that women are going into those positions.

Q: Explain. …

A: I don’t see a lot of women being promoted. I see one or two women being promoted into positions. I don’t see a lot of women being promoted into high level positions. Is it because they’re not out there? Did they not have the skill sets? I don’t know. I don’t know the reason for that. … The work environment. I refer to that as the culture, because that’s what it feels like to be there, to work there. Most cultures are created by males, because that’s who dominates the culture.

Q: Yeah.

A: The culture is a male personality and the male personality, which I described, is aggressive and competitive, and linear, and logical and usually non-compassionate. They’re in there to get things done. It’s more of an aggressive personality. When you bring females into that culture, you’ve got a different personality. More inclusive, authentic, compassionate, wanting to bring people together, wanting to talk solutions through. If it’s not a real supportive, inclusive kind of environment, several things can happen with the female executive. The female executive learns, she adapts to the male culture.

Q: And becomes good at it?

A: … and becomes good at it and it works well. People, in that male culture, embrace it; and she does great. That’s one option. Another option is the female adapts that personality, learns those behaviors, but the males don’t like the female having that kind of personality, and they view it as aggressive and abrasive. They shun her, they leave her out, she doesn’t get any of the key projects, she becomes a non-entity, because she’s too aggressive for them. The third option is the female learns the culture. She does it well, but her value system becomes riddled with conflict. She can’t take it, so she leaves the company and everybody says, “What happened? She was a great employee. Why did she leave?” She can’t cut it, but she wasn’t supported in that male environment.

Q: What’s the middle ground?

A: The middle ground for?

Q: For the female employees that you described that are going into male-dominated cultures, how does it work? What’s the middle ground to making it work?

A: Well, is it the female’s problem to solve or is it the CEO’s problem to solve?

Q: That’s an age-old question.

A: It’s an age-old question and that’s why it’s a vicious cycle. It just keeps turning and turning and turning. There are some females that just find a middle ground. They’re able to keep their own value system and keep their feminine characteristics and still make it. In those cases, the female’s extremely goal-oriented. They don’t compromise on their goals. They don’t compromise on the hard work. They don’t compromise on getting their questions answered. They just deal with it.

Q: If they’re successful, do they alter the culture of the company?

A: They might alter their division.

Q: What they immediately touch?

A: What they immediately touch and they develop a following of people that love to work for them.

Q: Which leads other people throughout the company to go, “Wow.”

A: Yeah. “What’s going on? She must be easy to work for.”

Q: It creates a whole other set of issues.

A: Exactly. See, that’s what I’m saying. If you want to solve it, then it becomes the CEO saying … It’s a strategic question. It’s not a, “Yeah. We need to have some more women in the company.” It’s a strategic question about, “What does this mean to our company? How serious are we about it? Is this really going to impact our company?” If it’s not, don’t deal with it. Leave it alone.

Q: Let’s talk about Columbus. … What was Columbus like when you moved here in the late 1960s?

A: Oh my gosh. I was so upset that we had moved to Columbus. We had lived all over the southeast, because my father worked for IBM. We moved every 18 months. We’d live in all these great places, Chattanooga Lookout Mountain. We’d moved from Lookout Mountain to Columbus. I was very upset. It was, as you know, textile, military town. I wasn’t even allowed to come downtown, because my parents thought bad things would happen. It wasn’t a great place. Now, downtown is thriving.

Q: Are you amazed at what you see down here?

A: I can’t believe it.

Q: When you talk about it and in terms of what you do, somebody obviously was managing change down here for many years.

A: Right.

Q: You were in a lot of the meetings where the initial discussions took place. How did this happen?

A: It happened, because somebody had a great vision and they didn’t give up on it. Even with the naysayers, they didn’t give up on it. They kept saying, “We can do it. We can change it. What if … There were so many what if, and this is the way it could be. They just kept on. They just kept on hammering. They never gave up.

Q: When you say, “Somebody,” you were talking about one person or you’re talking a group of people?

A: I’m talking about multiple people.

Q: Yeah. You were in some of those meetings. You could put some names to that.

A: Well, I’ll tell you who comes immediately to mind. I know Frank Brown had this vision of moving the university down here, which I think everybody knows that. That’s not a surprise. What a fantastic vision that was. He made it happen. Lots people made it happen, but he said, “We got to do it.” He did it. Look at it. Here’s what I remember, like the people of the chamber did a lot and talked about, “We can make it happen.” The people at uptown talked about, “We could make it happen.” The thing that I remember was Frank Martin — Butch Martin, love him or not …

Q: I loved him.

A: I did, too. I could remember there were a group of women that were very concerned about the status of Columbus, feeling like we need something to happen, because we were just floating. Four, five of us, we’re having lunch at the Rankin Deli and he walked in. We were actually talking about who could be running for mayor. We were saying, “Should one of us run for mayor? Should we get somebody … What should we do? We got to do something.” He walked in and he said, “Oh my gosh, what are you gals doing, because this looks like trouble?” We said, “We’re trying to decide who’s going to run for mayor.” He said, “What would you think if I ran for mayor?” We said, “I don’t know. What could you do?”

He sat down at our table and he started telling us what he could do. He said, “I was actually thinking about going down and registering. Would you support me if I did?” We said, “I don’t know. Go have lunch and come back. We’ve got to talk about it.” We talked about it. All through lunch, he kept looking over and waving at us, doing this. He came back around. We said, “We think you’d make a good mayor.” He had the same concerns we did about where is Columbus going. He said, “Well, would you help manage my campaign? If I run for mayor, will you all be on my campaign to help me?” We did.

Q: At the end of the day, Butch made a huge difference to this place, right?

A: He made a huge difference, because he didn’t mind stepping out. He had a vision and he didn’t mind stepping out and saying, “Look. We got to get it done.” He made some missteps. He said some things that made people mad. At the end of the day, he took us to the next level. He created a stepping stone for the next leadership.

Q: Is a lot of what we’re enjoying today, the fruits of his life?

A: I think so. I really believe so.

Q: Let’s talk about Columbus today. Do you come downtown much?

A: Yes. I love downtown.

Q: What’s your favorite part about it?

A: My favorite part is seeing all these college students buzzing around on these sidewalks. They make this place so alive.

Q: They do.

A: That’s just the feeling of energy. It’s a feeling of energy that I love. Now, besides that, I love the RiverCenter, the restaurants. I love seeing everybody sitting outside of these restaurants. More than anything, I love the energy. It makes me happy to see all these people buzzing around. You can’t even find a parking spot down here.

Q: I know.

A: Which I don’t like.

Q: When you look around and you see what’s happened here, if somebody had laid this out to you in ’95, ’96, when you were the chairman of the chamber and said, “This is what 2016 Columbus is going to look like.” They describe this scene, the RiverCenter. They described CSU building on the Ledger site. If they told you all of that and the businesses that are coming down here, that there was the TSYS campus, everything, what would you have said?

A: I would have said, “That would be very nice if that would happen.”

Q: When you talk about leadership, corporate leadership, which is what you do, how does that translate into civic leadership? Civic leadership and corporate leadership are connected, right?

A: They’re connected, but I think it’s a little different. In corporate leadership, I think you have more control, because you have a smaller entity. It’s more contained and you have more control over what gets done. When you look at the community leadership, you’re depending on a lot of volunteers, a lot of different entities, and you’re trying to bring all of them together. I think it’s harder, because you don’t really have … You can’t say, “Uptown, you go do this. Mayor, you go do … You can’t. It is harder to pull people together.

Q: Are top-level corporate executives obligated to do civic jobs such as a Chamber, the United Way, non-profit agencies to chair those boards?

A: I think it helps a community. The reason I think it helps the community when the corporate leaders are involved in community activities. It builds a sense of inclusiveness and connectedness. It builds relationships. It’s the relationships that makes things happen. I don’t think that the employees can make everything happen. It’s hard. The government employees and the city employees, it’s harder for them, but when you start involving the business executives and you start having those relationships and there’s more pressure to make changes, I think that that’s really important. I think the business executives help make that happen. They can’t help make it happen if they’re not involved.

Q: Does it make them better business executives to know what’s going on in the chamber, what’s going on in the United Way?

A: Yeah. I think it gives them a broader perspective. I think it gets them out of their everyday perspective just of running the business and helps them understand what’s going on in their communities.

Q: Last question and we’ll go ahead and wrap it up. This had been a really good interview. You’ve been here now 40 years. Why is this a special place?

A: I love Columbus. When I was working for Blue Cross and WellPoint, I had so many opportunities to move to other cities. Every time that I got offered to move to Chicago, Boston, California, I mean big cities, I would say, “No. I won’t be able to accept the job. I’m not leaving Columbus.” Every time, they would say, “OK. We’ll let you stay here. You just have to travel.” That’s what I chose to do, because Columbus, it’s a beautiful city. It’s small enough so that you feel connected to everybody. That’s what I really love about it. It’s the connectedness of the community, but it’s large enough that you have all these great stuff.
Debbie Lane
Age: 61
Hometown: Montgomery, Ala.
Current residence: Columbus
Job: Owner, The Leadership Edge, an executive coaching firm
Education: Hardaway High School, 1972; Columbus State University, BS, Psychology, 1977; Georgia State University, Masters of Education of Psychology, 1982.
Family: Husband, Blake, have been married 30 years; two Jack Russell Terriers, Molly and Eddie.

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