The event that saved Stephen King’s career (and why it is an important leadership lesson)

When Stephen King was writing his first book, he was working two jobs and struggling to make ends meet. He didn’t yet feel confident in the quality or marketability of his work. Day after day, he wrestled with self-doubt and mounting bills. One evening, as he sat hunched over his desk littered with crumpled up bits of paper and cigarette butts, he gave up. King slammed his fist on the table, hurled the first draft of his book in the bin and stomped out of the room.

Later, his wife Tabby saw the wrinkled balls of paper in the bin. She pulled them out, shook off the cigarette ashes, smoothed them out and sat down to read them. When she was done, she told him, “I think you’ve got something here. I really do.” She encouraged him to keep going at that pivotal moment.

That single act changed the trajectory of Stephen King’s career. That manuscript was Carrie. It was his first published novel and it launched one of the most successful careers in modern American writing. Stephen King is now one of the world’s most well- renowned and prolific authors.

King isn’t the only one who has succeeded from a nudge of encouragement. Everyone can do with some backing when they’re swamped with self-doubt or in a tangle.

When I was considering a career change from executive search to coaching, I faced road blocks as big as Ben-Hur. I lay awake night after night, wondering how I could walk away from a successful career and a big salary for a vocation I didn’t even know I could do, let alone make money out of.  I felt massive self-doubt – I wrote countless lists with pros and cons, and whys and wherefores, hoping it would help me make the decision.

But it was the encouragement of my friend and coach extraordinaire, Jayne Chater which gave me the courage to take that critical leap of faith. She said to me, “you can do this Suzi. You would make a great executive coach.” I knew her well enough to know she wasn’t just pandering to my ego.

And if it wasn’t for my husband’s belief in my potential, I would not have switched careers. “I’ll back you”, he said. “If this is what you want, we’ll be all right with less income as you build up your business.”

I wouldn’t be where I am now – earning a living doing something that lights me up in a way that I never imagined, without those two people – my own versions of Stephen King’s wife.

The people you lead also need the ‘Tabby Factor’. Seeing and cultivating the unique potential in each person is a critical part of your job as a leader.

Here are four ways you can do this:

For the team member who suffers from self-doubt: Write them a hand written note saying why you believe in them. Tell them they can do the thing they have self-doubt about. You have their back and if they back themselves too, great things will happen.

For the colleague who’s been battling a run of bad luck and needs a little encouragement: Take them out for a coffee and offer a listening ear. Ask, “how can I help?” Listen some more.

For the direct report with annoying habits unknown to them: Give them some genuine, compassionate and honest feedback. Then offer to support them in making positive change.

For the person who’s falling short in some aspect of their performance: Have a coaching conversation. Nip it in the bud before it becomes a big deal.

Fostering the potential in others may require having a candid, brave and heartfelt conversation with them.

It is about lifting people up, not putting people down.

It’s about looking past the rough exterior to see the raw talent within.

It’s about believing in people, even and especially when, they don’t believe in themselves.

When King won the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003, he didn’t talk about his success in his acceptance speech. He spoke about the woman who rescued Carrie from the rubbish and insisted he keep going – Tabby.

“If my wife had suggested to me even with love and kindness and gentleness that the time had come to put my dreams away and support my family, I would have done that with no complaint. But of course, she didn’t. What’s more, if you open any edition of Carrie, you’ll read the same dedication: This is for Tabby, who got me into it – and then bailed me out of it.”

What is one small thing you will do, this week, to show you believe in the potential of someone you lead? 

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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