At a claim office of about 125 employees, the head of Human Resources spent the day observing the local manager. Not only had the office ranked high on productivity, but this particular manager had received fantastic feedback on her company’s Leadership Measurement survey. So the HR executive was curious to watch her interact with employees to figure out what generated this great response.
As they walked through the office, conversing about the normal work conditions, the manager would often stop and refer to specific individuals: “Steve over there has been in our area for 15 years. Steve also coaches Little League. They won their game last Thursday.”
Then they’d move on to someone else, and as they left that person’s area, quietly the manager would say, “Sally had some problems with her daughter this year. You know how difficult teenagers can be. We’ve had many sessions behind closed doors where Sally’s trying to sort through these problems.”
Months later, when I interviewed the HR executive, that day at the claim office was still etched in her mind. “It became apparent to me,” she explained, “that this manager knew all of her people. And I don’t mean just knew their jobs. She knew each individual – their backgrounds and hobbies, what their concerns were, what got them excited. She knew when they were upbeat because things were going well, and she knew when they were struggling and needed her time and attention. I asked her how on earth she could do this for 125 people. Her response: ‘That’s my job.'”
Great leaders understand that you can’t pay people to excel. You can only pay them to show up. But once you’ve got them there, the leader’s job is to encourage people to excel by creating an atmosphere of caring, trust and inclusion. Sun Tzu, author of the Chinese The Art of War put it this way: “Regard your soldiers as your own children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys. Treat them as your own beloved sons, and they will be with you even unto death.”
As an expert on the “human side” of organizational change, I have been a guest on hundreds of radio call-in programs over the past several years, but I especially remember one in the Northwest, when an unusual number of disgruntled employees were phoning in with corporate “horror stories.”
People complained about being unappreciated and overlooked. They spoke of callous treatment from uncaring bosses, and reported that they worked for organizations “just interested in making a buck.” For the entire hour, calls followed the same line. Finally, in genuine disgust, the interviewer said to me: “The principles you’re giving us sound so simple, why aren’t more managers following them?”
I didn’t have to think twice about my reply: “With all the diet books on the market, why aren’t we all thin and trim? What could be simpler than reducing calories and increasing exercise?”
The answer to my question and his is the same. Things that are simple are not necessarily easy.
My work has enabled me to deal with business leaders around the world, and not once have I encountered a boss who despised all his or her employees. On the contrary, the leaders I’ve met were genuinely concerned about the well-being of people who reported to them. (Even the occasional leader whose only focus was on the bottom line understood that the best way to increase profits was to build the commitment of talented employees.)
When you think of the qualities that leaders need to encourage in their employees – responsibility, creativity, caring, commitment – you can see why coercion or manipulation just doesn’t work. The leaders who influence us the most are those who understand that engagement and productivity are not about rules, regulations, and rewards – or the struggle to keep people “in line.”
In general, it’s the soft skills of leadership that are paramount. Leaders (and their organizations) won’t succeed without a genuine caring about people and the ability to develop and nurture interpersonal relationships.
Isn’t that simple?
Not easy, mind you, But simple.
Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.