It's paramount to a leaders success that they create an environment where their employees can flourish and do so in a manner that breeds optimism and opportunity while showing them that the company (and leadership) is there to support them.
The above statement probably comes off a bit obvious as most people in business recognize that without a supportive, positive work environment leaders will struggle to keep their employees happy and working diligently. If the notion of a positive work environment is so obvious than why do the vast majority of leaders struggle significantly to actually put one into action?
The answer: they don't listen!
Many leaders have a similar characteristic which contributes to our little problem we're discussing here. The problem is that people love the sound of their own voice, so much so that other sounds (people's voices, options, ideas, frustrations, etc.) get stifled in the process. The sound of our own voice makes us feel good yet too much of it can put us in situations where our mouths write checks our bodies can’t cash. Wanting to be heard is part of our desire to influence, make an impact or speak our minds; whereas wanting to be heard over others (intentionally or unintentinoally) can be directly attributed to ego.
Listening isn't as easy as one thinks it is but it's one of the great truths having to do with leadership. That truth is the art of listening is the end all be all in leadership.
Why is listening an important habit to develop to be a good leader? Those who possess the ability to listen earnestly experience deeper relationships, advanced awareness of how they show up and how others are impacted by them (EQ), are genuine in their care for others and are touted as being “leaders people would run through a wall for”. To become an exceptional leader, you must develop your ability to listen.
You may be thinking, “Well, that’s not very profound. I listen all the time.” But, do you really listen?
Let’s see how good of a listener you are. If you’ve done one of the following in the last week you’ll want to continue reading this article:
The list goes on, and on, however these six items seem to be the biggest perpetrators of what we see from people who aren’t engaged and listening.
Why is it we don’t listen? Short answer – our egos get in the way of allowing someone else the stage to talk.
The long answer – Perhaps you’re the exception as your listening skills are top notch. For everyone else out there, which I’ll gladly throw myself into this boat, as leaders we struggle with listening. We tell ourselves that others are wrong; only we know the truth; “I don’t have time for this”; I can multi-task while we’re talking; my point makes more sense; they’re idiots; they must not see the big picture (love that one); they have to hear my side before we can move on, etc. With so much going on in the world today it’s easy to fall into the trap that you don’t have time to have a conversation, especially if that conversation isn’t of grave importance.
Leaders – read closely here.
The success of your job depends on your ability to listen. Forbes writer Glenn Llopis says that when “leaders judge, they expose their immaturity and inability to embrace differences.” Did you know that your act of not listening actually sent such a strong communication to the person on the other end?
Imagine how it made them feel!
How can we fix this?
Short answer – zip it (our mouths that is) and focus on the person in front of you.
Long answer – put away your phone, your work at hand, close your computer screen or turn it off, close your door for that matter and stop mulling over that rerun episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians you watched for the sixth time last night. Do whatever you need to in order to give the person on the other side of the table your complete and undivided attention.
WHY should we focus on being better listeners?
When we listen we allow others to speak their mind furthering an atmosphere of open communication, respect and free flowing ideas. Employees perform best in these environments and show up to work often times much happier to take on the day at hand.
People follow and support leaders who live a servants’ mentality which means when their people have an idea, a question, a problem, or a wild haired suggestion, they listen as if listening is going out of style. Being a servant doesn’t mean being a leader is weak, it means their people and company come first, before themselves. Conversation is the gateway to a persons’ mind, body and soul. It's best we listen or we’ll run the chance of missing out on some truly incredible opportunities to serve the very people that make all the difference - our employees.
Back in December of 2015 I wrote on a topic that was near and dear to my heart as it is something I came across often in business, matter of fact still do today. It’s a challenge which all companies deal with quite frequently and seem to struggle creating a sound solution to the problem.
What is the challenge you ask?
It’s transitioning an individual contributor into a management role for the first time and doing so successfully.
Identifying a person, let alone the right person, to take on management responsibilities is becoming increasingly more difficult. HBR put out a stat recently which indicated companies fail to choose the candidate with the right talent for the job 82% of the time when hiring for management roles.
If it is so tough to hire for management than imagine the challenge and stress a person feels when they do get the job and are new to the role. I’ve been there and can share from direct experience that most often you get thrown into the deep end, left to tread water with a giant weight over your head. The majority of companies out there don’t offer formal training programs to their newly promoted managers therefore the sink or swim mentality is a very real and potentially frightening hurdle people looking to be promoted need to be aware of. Without the right training, development and mentorship it’s incredibly challenging how tough management jobs can be.
Have no fear my friends. Even if you find yourself in a management role without the necessary training and development there are many things you can do to improve your likelihood of success. If you follow these 13 steps you will be on your way to building a future that is purposeful and aligned for success as your lead your team to victory. (or a full write up and details of how each step below works click on the following links: part-1, part-2 and part-3)
1. Read “The Go-Giver” by Bob Burg and John David Mann
2.Have a 1:1 (One-on-One) with Your New Boss
3. Communicate Your Plans to Your New Team
4. Learn About Your New Role and How It Impacts the Business
5. Identify a Professional Mentor Outside of Your Immediate Company
6.Schedule 1:1 (One-on-One) with Your Team
7.Create Performance and Professional Development Plans
8.Develop Time Management Structure
9.Develop Relationships With Other Leadership
10.Create A Department Game Plan
11.Present Game Plan To Your Team
12.Create Systematic Communications & Follow Ups
13.Plan A Team Event
These 13 steps are to be used as an outline to reach success as you step into leadership. My best advice is to use this framework in combination with a style that is authentic to who you are as a person and who you want to be for others.
It is my belief that anyone CAN be successful in leadership so long as they have the right attitude, mindset and care for others. This is the foundation for which you need to be successful in leadership. Having a leadership game plan along the way merely keeps you on track, increasing your chances for success and happiness, providing you the best opportunity to serve those lead.
This past weekend I found myself engulfed in a really interesting conversation about how our words can and often times represent very different outcomes than what our actions show.
A person I know as an acquaintance of sorts, we’ll call him Carl for the purposes of this story, was sharing with me a frustration he has having with a couple of his employees. Carl owns a successful yet modest small business that does a couple million a year in revenue and serves a niche market in SoCal in the contract laboratory space. Carl’s business is small by design. He chooses to live a lifestyle of flexibility and comfort rather than cast aside those luxuries to chase for more dollars. I must admit, I envy him for that.
As Carl further explained to me his dilemma I become thoroughly intrigued and a bit puzzled on how to help him with a solution.
What would you do if you were in Carl’s shoes?
Carl has six employees, so including himself there are a total of seven employees in the business. Each employee has a specific job they oversee however because it is a small business every employee is expected to dive in when needed and lend a helping hand in other areas, even if it is outside of their specialty or normal duties. This mantra of sorts describes what Carl is trying to create as a culture within the company and people seem to really like it, or so he’s been told.
Carl shares with me that he has two employees in particular that talk often about wanting more opportunity, wanting additional responsibilities and of course wanting more money. As a side note Carl shared with me what he pays these employees and I was shocked to hear the number. He compensates his employees very well, so well that he’s probably 15-20% over standard market rates for similar roles elsewhere.
When hearing about the desire of his two employees to want to further their careers, abilities and responsibilities Carl was excited. He sat each person down individually and learned more about what they wanted, why it was important and how it aligned with their career. Carl shared with the employees how he could help get them there. This is a crucial part of the story. Not only did Carl say ‘Yes I can give you that opportunity’, but he also then said ‘I can help you along the way’.
A strategic plan was put in place for each of the two employees that gave them a clear path and support to achieve their growth goals while taking on new responsibilities. As each employee hit milestones their compensation would then reflect that. Carl believes people need to ‘do the job to get the job’ before compensation comes with it. I happen to agree wholeheartedly with him on that. People need to perform first then receive additional compensation later, not the other way around.
As each employee started down their path of learning, taking on new responsibilities and making decisions for themselves something interesting started to unfolded.
Both employees eventually, and at different times, began to falter in their efforts. Carl was hands-on with them as they had asked, offering suggestions and support however would make sure to keep an appropriate distance as to not be too involved leaving the employees to feel they didn’t have the autonomy to do it on their own.
Here’s where the really interesting part comes into play. Each employee as they were struggling to keep their commitments would start to make comments which from an outsiders’ perspective comes off as a victims mentality, not someone who is choosing to advance themselves in their careers. As time went on both employees’ attitudes, demeanor and job performance began to suffer. They didn’t show up and perform like they had prior to starting this new career journey and they didn’t help others when situations called for it.
Carl was really caught off guard by this.
Carl shared his bewilderment saying “How could someone talk so much about wanting more opportunity, more responsibility and more money to then have their actions be so different in such a short amount of time?” Carl struggled to understand it because he grew up very different. Carl’s upbringing taught him that if you wanted something you had to go out and get it for yourself, no one was going to just give it to you.
“Success should be earned!” said Carl.
Finally Carl decided to sit each employee down one-on-one to ask why their persona and performance had taken a turn for the worse. Good for you Carl – you cared enough about your employees to want to understand their situation before you made an assumption.
Carl asked each employee: “Help me understand [employee name]. Initially you had shared with me that you wanted to grow your career, learn, take on new opportunities and responsibilities. You shared with me this was important to you. How do you feel now and what has happened along the way as your actions have been very different than your words?”
Employee #1’s response: “Yah I said that and yah I want more money because I think I’m worth it but I don’t think I should have to do more responsibility. It’s not as easy as I thought. Can’t I just get paid more and keep doing what I was doing before? My friends make more money than me and I feel I should be paid more.”
Employee #2 response: “I don’t think I want more responsibility after all. It’s too hard and I don’t want to have to think about work after hours. (all employees start at 8AM and leave at 4:30PM, daily) I do need more money though because I have bills to pay and I don’t have a lot of left over money for other things.”
Carl was shocked. He didn’t even know how to respond.
How could two people want more money, more than what they’re already paid for (as mentioned they’re already paid handsomely for the job their doing) without putting in more effort along the way.
Carl’s frustrations grew because he struggled to understand his employees’ perspectives and needs as they were so very different from his own.
Carl is hoping to readdress the issue this week and come to a good resolution that is helpful to his employees, himself and the business. He still hasn’t made up his mind on how to handle the situation with both employees.
What would you do if you were in Carl’s position?
About the Author
Travis Smith is the founder and managing director of Square-1 Engineering, a life sciences consulting firm, providing end to end technical project services to companies which design, develop and or manufacture products in Southern California. He successfully served the life sciences marketplace in SoCal for over 15 years specializing in engineering services, consulting, project outsourcing and leadership development. In 2019 he was recognized as a ‘40 Under 40’ honoree by the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce as a top leader in Orange County, CA.