When the GFC hit in 2007, I’d just landed the role of Practice Lead for a New Zealand division of a US multi-national HR consulting firm.

Talk about sucky timing to be in Executive Search when ABSOLUTELY no one was hiring.

As each month end rolled around and the red numbers shouted at me from the P&L, the prospect of making people redundant and asking my team to work part-time to save their jobs became a reality. I felt sick, angry, and a victim of circumstance.

“Why me?!” was my daily lament for months as I drove to work each day dreading what it would bring.

And as I rocked up each month to Nick, my boss, with the dismal numbers, I’d blame our result on the GFC, on the soft market, on not enough resources, on this and on that. Although these were truths, I was unconsciously stuck in a cycle of victimhood and problems without solutions.

Nick (a wonderful mentor and a top-notch boss) stopped me mid-sentence one day, after a few months of listening to my excuses for why we hadn’t achieved budget (peppered with many declarations of “it’s not my fault” and “it’s not fair”).

“Suzi, do you want to be ‘above the line’ with this situation or ‘below the line’? Because how you’re handling it right now and over the last few months is ‘below the line’.”

“What do you mean?” I replied.

Nick responded by describing one of the most powerful concepts I’d ever heard of and gave me one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received.

“You can’t always direct the wind but you can always trim the sail. You can choose to take responsibility and be accountable or you can blame, justify, and make excuses. But which approach you choose to adopt will have an enormous impact on what you do next, how you feel about your situation and ultimately, how you weather the storm you find yourself in. You’ll encounter another GFC, it might just turn up in another guise. Choosing to adopt an ‘above the line’ or ‘below the line’ approach can literally be the difference between success and failure for you and your team.”

From that moment on, I chose to respond to tough situations, failures, mistakes, and missteps with an ‘above the line’ mentality (so a big thanks, Nick!)

What is this ‘above the line’ mentality that Nick so eloquently espoused? And why is it important for you as a leader to model it and create a culture where your team do too?

Let’s imagine that you’re faced with a situation which did not work out the way you wanted it to.

You’ve got a choice in terms of the way you respond. You can either go ‘above the line’ and take personal responsibility. Or you can go ‘below the line’ and blame, justify, defend, or deny.

The path you choose will determine the outcomes you’ll get. Some people live mostly ‘below the line’ (and let’s face it, we all go there some of the time!). Everything is someone else’s fault. Or there’s a good reason why things didn’t work out. Or everything is just fine (when clearly it’s not). The language of these approaches tends to be THEY, THEM and YOU. This is looking through the window.

‘Above the line’ language on the other hand uses I and WE. It assumes the mind-set that there’ll always be reasons why it hasn’t worked but I’m willing to be accountable. I’m taking responsibility. This is looking in the mirror.

And it’s this ‘above the line’ approach that’ll lead you to embrace mistakes, successes, failures, and unanticipated events. It’s this ‘above the line’ approach that’ll mean you’ll be much more likely to learn from adversity.

Sidebar? This mindset is key if you’re looking to develop an achievement culture within your team.

So, the next time something goes wrong, ask yourself:

  • What have we and I learnt from this?
  • Faced with this again, what would we and I do differently and what would we and I do the same?
  • What could my part in this outcome be? What’s my responsibility?
  • How can I adopt an accountability mind-set in this situation?

The postscript to my GFC story is that as soon as I adopted an ‘above the line’ approach I actually felt better, focused on what WAS within my control and switched into problem-solving mode with my team. I found by doing this, we not only weathered the storm, we became a stronger more resourceful team because of it.

So my challenge to you this week is to stay ‘above the line’. Walk the ‘above the line’ leadership path as often as you can and you’ll start to create a culture where achievement, trust and creative problem solving is the norm.