Everybody that knows me knows that I essentially see myself as being in the people business. The art and science of identifying the right people whose values are aligned with your organizational culture and values; and ensuring that over time they don’t lose that alignment.

Over the last several years I have written volumes about engagement, the “phenomena” of perfecting that alignment in your organization and nurturing it beginning with your employees and then building on that base with your customers, suppliers, and community.

Years ago I quoted an article that indicated 60% of new managers fail within their first 18 months because of their inability to build and sustain relationships. I don’t think we have improved our track record much. We still use leadership and management as interchangeable concepts and skill sets; they aren’t and never will be.

I read a comment recently on LinkedIn, a very popular business/social networking site, where  the author  felt the U.S economy would never regain its international leadership position again because of the “limited” productivity of American workers.

 He mentioned that companies were off shoring to take advantage of lower wages, better technically educated workers, and less restrictive environments. I think he is very wrong. The American worker hasn’t failed, our leadership model has failed! We have become increasingly reluctant to examine and deal with root cause issues.

In the financial services industry a study just concluded that C level compensation increased by over 24% in the last two years compared to a little over 2% per annum for average employees. They don’t trust their leaders- go figure!

As Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford pointed out about Detroit, most of their issues are not with technology or the UAW, they are from poor leadership and management decisions. I could say the same about financial services. We are not going to solve these issues with numbers and “systems”; we need to examine our relationships.

So my point, we need better management and leadership models.

I read an article in the McKinsey Quarterly about a CEO in Brazil who is running one of the largest and most successful financial institutions in the world. Three years ago he facilitated a merger that created one of the 20 largest financial institutions in the world. What is truly compelling is that he did this when his organization was considered “very successful”. What is even more intriguing is that as CEO of the new entity he began a program of changes focusing on relationships and people not technology. He talked about transparency, delegating decisions down to the lowest possible level, holding himself and his executive team personally accountable for modeling the values, and “inviting” management and employees who could not or would not get on board with the new culture to pursue other opportunities. I also was thrilled to hear him respond that after three years he sees the bank as being about halfway through the process.

 “Leaders” of our U.S based financial institutions had better hope he doesn’t decide to aggressively target this market!

I have previously written a lot about culture change and creating a culture of commitment and engagement and the critical elements for making that happen. I would like to think some of you are familiar with a few of them:

  • Hire the right people
  • Incorporate the elements of commitment rather than compliance.
  • Be flexible about process and ruthless about principle.
  • Build on a foundation of trust.
  • Remember it is all about relationships.

I have done a number of presentations for groups about the criticality of recognizing the importance of social networks in the workplace.

One of the comments that created an “aha” moment from part of my audience was my opinion that in a way social networking is going back to the future, the concept of the “oral” tradition.

For hundreds of years there were no books or media. We told each other “stories”. Information was passed between people verbally. Over the years with the advancement of technology we have lost that “art”. Many of the newer generations don’t trust the messages. Have you ever listened to the popular John Mayer tune Waiting for the World to End? You might find it interesting to really listen to the lyrics and the distrust of the media.

Social networking restores the “oral” tradition in a way. I share information with my “friends”. I create my own tribes and relationships. Relationships based on trust and some degree of intimacy or commonality. I control who enters my “network”.

Those issues deal with trust and relationship on a systemic or cultural issue. What I would like to focus on a bit at this point is the issue of you as manager or leader. What you can do individually without necessarily “permission” or direction from the higher ups to begin addressing that key issue of relationships.

Once again a question on LinkedIn acted as kind of a catalyst- the asker wanted to get opinions on the criticality of “front line leadership” in creating and sustaining real, meaningful change in organizations. I told him I think they are the critical link. How many studies have we seen that indicate people join cultures, but leave managers?

So what makes for a good manager? The list is possibly endless, but here is my shot at a start:

  • Balance- when I talk about balance I mean balance relative to several attributes. Among them I would include intelligence, technical skills, experience, emotional intelligence, and practicality and ingenuity among others. How many times have we seen “smart” people fail because they can’t connect? How many times have we seen “experience” impede the willingness to experiment?
  • Humility- the average graduate of a top flight engineering program, medical school or MBA program just knows they have all the “right” answers. Just ask them. There is nothing wrong with being confident and trusting your skills and training. It is misguided to believe in yourself to the exclusion of others. Remember my earlier comment about the new leadership failure rate, it wasn’t about being smart, it was about being arrogant. If all your people are “dumb” or dumber than you what does that say about your selection process or willingness to deal with performance deficiency?
  • Objectivity- this is probably one of the most difficult attributes to develop and maintain. As executives and managers we are often immersed in our own environments to the point we don’t “see” things”. Learn to step back, seek outside counsel, and listen until you understand.
  • Teaming- as I have said facetiously in a number of settings, “Simon and Garfunkel may be a rock and an island,” the rest of us need the support and cooperation of others. Our teammates, our employees, our boss, our customers, and our suppliers. I have rarely seen anyone succeed who could not be part of a team or a successful leader who could not build teams.
  • Recognizing your limitations- recognizing where the “boundaries” of your expertise and knowledge end is critical. It allows you to build teams and ask for help. As a leader you can assemble teams that complement your strengths rather than duplicate your weaknesses.

    So at this point you might say, OK this is good, how do I go about doing some of this stuff?
  • People who regularly seek feedback do better than people who don’t.
  • People who seek feedback from specific people or groups do even better. 
  • People who do it sincerely and actually incorporate the feedback become leaders. Here are some tips;

1. Ask your internal and external customers how you can help them and make them more successful. If you don’t think you have any internal customers give me a call. We have work to do.

2. Ask your staff what obstacles you can remove to make their job more efficient or easier.

3. Ask the people on the front line how products and services can be enhanced or modified to make them easier to provide or produce or address customer requests.

4. Ask your peers how they think you and your group are doing. If you are an internal service provider this is especially critical.

5. Ask your boss how you can help them. This may seem a little obvious, but you will be surprised from how you communicate to taking a task off their list can make a difference.

6. Ask your HR department who they perceive to be your best and worst performers. Your best and worst managers and supervisors. Really listen to why they perceive that.

7. Ask your staff regularly how they are doing as people. 

I am not suggesting you become their friend or counselor, but you will find that sincere interest in them as people goes a long way to build that foundation of trust and respect.
If this is not part of your organizational culture when you first begin it may cause some nervousness or concern about “hidden agendas”. Stick with it. Management by “walking around” or MBWA is still one of the best techniques out there. 

Guess what the last time I checked it wasn’t in the curriculum of most business schools. By asking these kinds of questions you do two key things:

  • You build relationships. (Are you seeing a pattern here?)
  • You rarely get “surprised”. 

By having a strong network and checking in frequently you don’t have to wait for the email or announcement to know what is going on.

If you are in management or above do not mistake the hours of tedious meaningless management meetings you attend as having the purpose of conveying information or building relationships. That concept was designed by consultants who don’t have to participate and parochial school graduates who know that you need to be punished! We consultants charge by the hour and have learned to sleep with our eyes open and speak while mentally organizing our in basket.

In this time especially another key attribute of successful leadership is maintaining your confidence in difficult times.

Reduced Business

One of the most critical roles those of us in leadership and management play for our employees is providing clarity and confidence. In times where there is difficulty (these would be them), employees look to the leadership team and especially their boss as the calm in the storm.

If you truly believe that the business is tanking then you should be actively removing yourself from a leadership role. You are now part of the problem not part of the solution. I believe the test for individuals and organizations is not whether or not they encounter adversity, but how they deal with it.

Most businesses have some dimension of cyclicality. I personally am hoping that this recession has created a gigantic wake- up call that our old paradigms and models are working.

Workforce Reductions

I have had the “opportunity” to be on both sides of work force reductions. There is one school of thought that work force reductions are a management failure. I don’t personally believe that. We live and operate in a global economy where things that happen thousands of miles away can affect us with minimal warning. That being said constant “workforce adjustments” because of “cyclical” business conditions is poor management. That tells people they are a disposable asset. Not great for building relationships.

I have seen organizations execute their workforce reductions very poorly. They didn’t have an objective methodology, they hadn’t addressed long term performance issues, or they just didn’t run an efficient business. The worst is the “rolling layoff” where you go through waves because of an unwillingness or inability to really assess the situation and take action.
I don’t like workforce reductions as vehicles for addressing performance deficiencies. It is bad business and sloppy management. People who cannot or will not meet your performance expectations should be given an opportunity to work somewhere else. They drain your business of critical resources like management time, reduce productivity, and limit your ability to create and maintain an engaged workforce. I also feel it is dishonest and codependent to allow or tolerate performance that doesn’t meet your expectations.

Your employees are adults. One of my cornerstones of building commitment based relationships is respect. Respect is based on honesty. Treating employees like children is neither respectful nor honest. By being honest and forthright you also build the foundation for collaboration. Remember my set of questions? It is interesting if you ask them and give them an opportunity to participate how employees can provide excellent ideas as to how to cut costs, increase productivity, and even come up with alternatives to reducing staff or minimizing the reduction. You have to have a relationship. You have to ask and listen.

Ask for Help

I believe great leadership is about building teams, trusting my staff, and recognizing that it is about collaboration not genius. I have never seen micro management as a successful management model. I have never met anybody that had all the answers.

It is always interesting to me when leaders are unwilling to engage their employees in problem solving and decision making. It causes me to ask some questions:

  • Do we hire stupid people?
  • Do we “train” them to be stupid once they get here?
  • If they were or became stupid (I can’t trust them or rely on their judgment) why do I keep them?
  • Do I really believe I or my executive team is smarter than everybody else collectively?
  • If I don’t give them an opportunity to participate in the decisions how can they contribute or learn?

I just did a program with a group that for the very first time combined front line leaders, management, and even union leaders in the same training. We talked about resolving conflicts, but what came up time and time again was the statement, “If I knew why we were being asked to make some of these changes I might be either less resistant or be able to offer an alternative suggestion.”

The conflict in many cases wasn’t about the change, it was because they didn’t know or understand why the change was being made. In many cases the front line leaders weren’t withholding the information- they didn’t know why either.
It all comes down to relationships. Relationships come down to trust. In all of the reading I have done and in all my experiences it was the relationships and understanding that created engagement. Technology and tools and systems are great; when people understand them and embrace them. When they feel they are being used to improve their work life and productivity not as a way to obsolete them.

So let’s summarize:

  • Goal for engagement. It is more productive, more profitable and more sustainable.
  • Engagement is built on relationships and people. Hire the right ones. Build on a foundation of trust. Trust is built on relationships.
  • Leadership and effective management are built one person at a time on relationships.
  • Building relationships is hard work, but it isn’t rocket science.
  • Numbers and technology and neglecting relationships are what brought us to this point. What is the likelihood that numbers and technology and neglecting relationships are going to lead us out of it?
  • Off shoring, outsourcing, and right sizing are not about relationships, they are about avoiding them.

“Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed of fear and no concept of the odds against them.”

Robert Jarvik

If you look behind you and no one is there you aren’t a leader or a visionary, you are just alone.


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