Behind every good company culture, there’s an even better leader. In my experience, a workplace takes on the personalities of their leaders, for better or for worse.
In fact, an honest evaluation of your employees’ opinions will likely clarify the exact places where leadership and culture meet, or in some cases clash to create a disconnect – and that disconnect really matters. When employees are unhappy with leadership, productivity drops, turnover rates spike and bottom lines suffer. This begs the question, why isn’t there more of a focus on people as the leading indicator of company success? Are we aware of how our employees perceive our leadership styles?
For over a year now, I’ve been working closely with a senior leader at our company, Chris. Through his story, I want to convince you to side with me on one big idea: that the “directive” form of leadership, where we simply tell people what to do and they do it, is not the best route to success. Although it is often revered as the default model in the corporate world, there’s an approach that is much more effective – and leaders like Chris prove that it is possible to change your ways.
Having moved from running my own small company to working in a large, public company, I got to know many leaders like Chris, who had climbed the corporate ladder very successfully, hitting or exceeding their targets and getting that next promotion. Chris had been promoted multiple times, he regularly met and exceeded goals and metrics – and he subscribed to a traditional form of leadership. Like many, Chris attributed his achievements to his blend of command and control leadership with a non-apologetic drive for success. But when our company executives emphasized the notion that effective leadership meant not only hitting targets, but also covering the people side of things, we challenged his understanding of success.
As a first step, I worked with data from our most recent employee engagement survey. Our leaders were used to understanding things in terms of metrics, so this proved to be the most effective way to deliver the message.
As suspected, we found that while some of our leaders met and exceeded their company targets, their teams were feeling left behind. The data showed that Chris’s team was reporting low engagement and personal investment, and often felt disconnected from him as a leader. When Chris received that feedback, he was not only shocked – he was hurt. Nobody wants to hear that they’re viewed poorly, especially by their own team. As such, I had to approach him with great sensitivity and work to earn his trust.
Aligned with this traditional mode of leadership, leaders like Chris prioritized goal attainment over everything else – even the well-being of their own employees. With a little guidance, I hoped to help Chris realize the positive impact of growing the careers and lives of his own employees and to feel inspired to adjust his approach.
Because Chris was so emotionally impacted by the results of the survey, I found that he was receptive to the idea of working with me. Chris was realizing that his upward mobility in the company would depend on his ability to adopt a more collaborative leadership style – and personally, he wanted to be more well-regarded by his team. Although we all operate differently, most of us want to be liked by our peers. That base desire is a great motivator to start what can otherwise be a daunting process.
It was time to get to work. We started in on a series of coaching sessions that provided Chris with small steps that could make a big impact on his team. We set realistic goals that came down to simple adjustments in style – how to be inclusive in meetings, how to listen to employee ideas, and how to care for employees by showing them compassion in the totality of their lives. We conducted focus groups with front-line team members, we moved away from delegation and embraced inclusion – Chris even attended a team bowling night.
These kinds of changes don’t happen overnight. There were moments of hesitation, and missteps along the way. At times, Chris had to directly confront the urge to take over a slow-paced meeting or to issue directives for an important project. In those moments, Chris learned to exercise patience with his team and to enjoy the collaboration process. He even pushed back when I challenged him to have the courage to move more quickly on people who didn’t belong on the team. But small victories along the way, like positive feedback from direct reports or a successful brainstorm, encouraged him to continue with his new practices.
In meetings, traditional leaders like Chris would usually get things done by rattling off a list of tasks and telling others exactly what they need to do. Instead, I suggested he go into meetings and simply share his vision. Then, he could empower his team to come up with the action plan they would need to achieve that vision. It’s a small adjustment, but it allows employees to feel engaged, respected, and an integral part of the process. More often than not, the group came up with the same list of ideas that Chris would’ve had, but now they could claim ownership of it.
Almost immediately, Chris was seeing the results of all of his hard work, and he was thrilled. Emails were coming in from his team members who were noticing the changes and praising him for his efforts. Essentially, they were telling him that if he continued to show that he cared about them, they’d work even harder for him. Imagine the relief Chris must have felt when that positive feedback began replacing the negative.
In the end, this process helps leaders realize that their role extends far beyond meeting a company’s financial goals and metrics. In fact, their job is to support and motivate their team, which in turn drives even greater overall success down the line. Chris’s internal employee engagement numbers went way up, and his team’s performance continued to improve. Plus, Chris finally had a team that respected him, trusted him and just plain liked him.
Today, Chris and I still work together to identify opportunities for him to better succeed as a leader. True success will be determined by Chris’ commitment to long-term change. That’s ultimately what will earn him the trust of his team.
Chris’s experience proves that not only can traditional leaders adjust their style, they absolutely should. It could very well be one of the best professional decisions of your career. Readers, I challenge you to ask yourself: what kind of leader am I? Am I a directive leader, am I compassionate – where do I fall on the spectrum? And most importantly, are you willing to do what it takes to adjust?
Smart business people take a combination of experience, education and data to make sound business decisions and become better leaders. If we simply listen to our own employees, show we care about them, and involve them in our business decisions, we’ll do more than simply hit our targets and grow our businesses – we’ll experience what it feels like to make a difference. And it feels good.
Paul Spiegelman is the chief culture officer of Stericycle and the CEO of the Small Giants Community.
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