As the leader walks into the room, people were greeting him with handshakes and smiles. You could feel his amazing presence the second he walked into the room. Everyone was anticipating what he was going to discuss. As I glanced around the room, I noted the dynamics of the different pairs and people on the team. Everyone was very cordial as they spoke together.
The ornate conference room was set up meticulously for the 24-member team. They were meeting together for the first time since several new individuals were hired. Team members started to arrive, and I could hear people greeting each other and mentioning their excitement that the whole team will be at the retreat. Mostly, they were excited to hear from their leader about their progress and looking forward to working together into the future.
The leader proceeded to kick-off the meeting with a brief story about himself – how he grew up and how he got started in the business many years ago. He had a PowerPoint deck prepared with numbers and statistics to back up his story. However, the very inspiring moment came when he started to articulate his past, present, and future vision for this team and the organization. He then told the story of how this team consisted of only 3 people jotting down ideas of how to expand on his very ambitious long-term goal in the industry. He took his idea and consistently prodded the stakeholders to invest in his idea and him. It took several years for the stakeholders to finally buy in, but he was relentless. The stakeholders finally accepted his challenge, and the team of 3 grew to the 24 individuals in the room.
One of the activities of the day was to share journey lines. They each discussed 8-10 life events made up of personal and professional events that have now shaped them into who they are today. You could feel the excitement around the room as the leader discussed his own life events. The theme was that of tenacity and perseverance. He set the tone for the rest of the team as they illustrated and spoke of their own journey lines. This was the “past” portion of the meeting.
He then proceeded to talk about the journey line of the business. He honored the past, spoke of the challenges they have endured along the way, and shared what it took to become the strong business they are today. Lastly, he shared his own vision and articulated what he sees for the future of the work and his team. He discussed how every single person fit into the bigger picture, what they needed to accomplish, and why the work is important. Looking around the room, I saw people taking notes and listening in awe to this leader’s words. It was inspiring.
The day progressed with some strategic milestone benchmarks and ended with an exercise of how the team is expected to collaborate and break down silos in order to achieve this ambitious goal that had been laid at their feet. A month later, and the update following the retreat is amazing. The 24 individuals have reported improved collaboration and productivity in addition to reaching one of their benchmarks goals within one month after meeting. It’s incredible! Everyone knows the vision and why they do what they do. It is clearly engraved into their own vision of how they need to work together to achieve this common goal. They walked in cordial to each other and walked out as if they were old friends.
Remember, leaders bring the weather! Clearly articulating the vision and core purpose of the team enables everyone to understand their role and provides guidelines of expected behavior to achieve the larger goal. This leader started his team on their individual and collective journeys. By sharing his own story, they were able to follow the signs he had clearly posted along the way that allowed them to gain alignment and ensure a clear path forward.
What is your story? Steople consultants are ready to begin the work of articulating your vision through storytelling. Will you accept the challenge?
As I sat in the passenger seat of Debbie’s car, she gave me a tour of the beloved Ft. Worth children’s hospital she had worked at for the past 43 years. She spoke with love and respect about what she had helped build over that time. She reminisced about the two small buildings they had started in all those years ago and pointed to the numerous blue-topped roofs and sprawling grounds they decorated with adorable, welcoming-to-children topiary landscaping. We saw the Ronald McDonald House and the staff childcare center, as well as the numerous areas for reflection and relaxation for those suffering a physical setback. She talked about how the pandemic trauma of the last two years had impacted the culture they had built and even threatened to crumble it.
Regardless, as we pulled into the parking garage, she greeted the parking attendant warmly and asked how he was feeling, saying to me, that he had just recovered from surgery. As we strolled the brightly colored hallways, Debbie chatted and hugged her way across the campus. She would quickly point out those individuals who had been with the hospital for decades and were so dedicated to the cause of helping children heal that they wouldn’t think of leaving until retirement. During this tour, I fell in love with this new hospital client of ours and told Debbie how inspired I was to be a part of their purpose on this planet.
The whole experience was remarkable and seeing so many long-term employees reminded me of another group I had worked with the week before who had recently been acquired by one of my clients. During our joint company strategic planning session, we were discussing the “talent war,” and we all listened intently as two of the owners of the acquired company talked about the team that became family over the years. They had started at the age of 16 working in the lumber business and were set to retire from that same company in the next 5 or so years. They talked about others in the business who grew up together, got through school, enjoyed fishing trips as a team, went to one another’s weddings, and celebrated when they had children. We are talking retention of 31…28…19 years, which are unbelievable numbers in today’s world.
So how is this possible and do we have any chance of recreating this in today’s job market? Some will say “No way, today’s workforce isn’t nearly as loyal, and it is not realistic.” But is that true? Or can we at least aim to be a significant part of an employee’s work history? I believe we can.
Develop a Great Retention Initiative
Many employers are no doubt wishing that the Great Resignation, where employees have been quitting their jobs in record numbers since the Spring of 2021, would suddenly become a very different trend: the Great Retention. But research suggests that many workers remain confident about their prospects in the current hiring market, in fact, 41% of respondents are currently looking or plan to look for a new role in the next six months. This means employers must still be vigilant about the risk of top performers walking out the door.
This, in my opinion, is the number one issue, outside of finding talent, for companies today. Every single coaching or consulting conversation I have includes the current challenges with talent. And it’s not getting better anytime soon. We have to look at those companies who are doing it well, come up with creative strategies, and listen to what our most-valued employees are telling us. Based on research and my own anecdotal evidence there are 8 areas that I believe you need to focus on as a leader to retain your talent. I hope these resonate with you and inspire you to work on at least one of these:
1. Create and Support an Inclusive “Family” Culture
Having a “sticky” culture where people take care of one another and truly care is crucial. Through the years that is one common thread in companies I have seen be successful in keeping their employees long-term…they are one another’s work family and it would be unthinkable to leave that family. Now with that kind of vulnerability, you must make sure there are good boundaries in place so there is no “family dysfunction”, but essentially these teams support one another through the good times and the bad.
2. Find Each Team Member’s Motivation ‘Lever’
“Money” is not the reason people stay in a job. It can be demotivating if they are paid unfairly but thinking about throwing money at an employee who is thinking of leaving is the wrong strategy. Every person has his or her levers of engagement and motivation: Fun. Authority. Development. Responsibility. Autonomy. Respect. Recognition. Challenge. Variety. Figure out what each individual needs, then figure out how to best work towards it. Meeting those individuals where they are is one of the best things you can do as a leader.
3. Emphasize Shared Non-Negotiable Core Values
From the beginning, recruit people whose values align with yours and the company. This builds a positive atmosphere and culture, which resonates with people and keeps them on board. Consult with your people, find out what they care about, and build collaborative solutions that inspire their loyalty and commitment. People like to feel included, and valued and that their contribution makes a difference. The great thing about this is that if there is a value mismatch the team will pick it up instantly and advocate to keep the shared values on track.
4. Rally Everyone Behind an Emotionally Driven Purpose
Most employees want to feel part of something bigger and to be proud of it. In addition to rewards and positive feedback, leaders can inspire others by consistently and regularly communicating a clear purpose that people connect with emotionally. It is easy to get mired in the day-to-day details; step back and connect those details to a broader vision. This means embedding it in your everyday work not just from a “marketing” perspective (posted on your website), but in daily conversations as evidence of working towards that incredibly important purpose beyond making money.
5. Change Old-School Thinking Against Flexibility and Track Results Instead
In 2022, people value flexibility more than ever. If someone is in a role that can be effectively carried out through flexible work, then offer this. Not only is this hugely rewarding for employees, but it also gives them a sense of comfort, knowing that you trust them to carry out their role effectively and manage their own time. And don’t automatically assume the younger generation will take advantage of it. Depending on what stage of life and career people are in will determine how much or how little structure or time in the office they will need or want. Track results, not “butts in chairs”.
6. Get Everyone Directly Involved in The Company
Money is the result of successful work and not a sustainable source of motivation. Other important forms of compensation include having fun, working on something great, recognizing and appreciating colleagues, and the feeling of having achieved something challenging. Coming from this mindset, rather than just exchanging their time for money, the culture should encourage an “owners’ mindset” in the employees. The employees can then be a part of building something inspiring that they can be incredibly proud of.
7. Recognize Your Team Member’s Humanity
The most meaningful way to recognize employees amidst all the difficulties we are facing in the current challenging business and social environment is to first and foremost recognize their humanity. Know the individuals on your team and recognize each employee’s unique challenges as the year unfolds. Command and control are out. Prioritize time, space, and opportunity for them to thrive and reach their goals by guiding their growth and investing in them. Compassion is one of the most overlooked leadership traits to leverage, especially after a couple of tough years.
8. Share What Each Employees Role in Your Vision for The Future Is
Inspire people to want to work with you and each other by sharing your vision and their role in it. You might be working your way through current challenges, but your eyes are on the future. Tell them about three indicators informing your vision for the future and why those give you confidence. Assure your people that they are building the foundation for a future in which all of them play a part. Be honest, specific, visionary, and hopeful. People love making a difference and being a part of something big.
The list above is near and dear to my own heart. The two that were highlighted by the clients I was working with the last two weeks were knowing one another on a personal level and ensuring people understood how relevant their contribution was to the success of the organization. This aligns nicely with Patrick Lencioni’s work on employee engagement. I would hope that you might look at the above list and rank yourself from 1 to 5 on each. Then ask yourself which one you might need to work on from now till the end of the year. If you are diligent in working on it, it will pay off…I promise! If you need more resources, please let us know, and, as always, best wishes in your leadership journey!
Over the next two hours, we went over all of the feedback – both positives and negatives. Themes that seemed consistent and not just “one-off” accounts. Eventually, we got to some hot button issues. I say hot button because when I relayed some of the feedback, I became angry at his reaction. As many of you know, if you have some righteous anger or indignation about an issue, it is probably because whatever is happening in the room is stepping on your own value system. Initially, I assumed he would be mortified by what he heard from his employees. “There isn’t air conditioning in some of the warehouses.” Silence. “The workers actually have to step outside to get some air so they don’t pass out and then go back into work.” Silence. “It is limiting productivity, not to mention the morale of the staff.” A cold stare. “Did you know about this?” I asked. He replied, “When I was coming up through the ranks in this industry, I endured those same conditions, why should they be any different?” Wow. The I-walked-five-miles-through-the-snow argument.
Power is a fundamental force in life, something infants can recognize as early as 10-months old. For as long as people have formed groups, human relationships have been structured by hierarchy, dominance, status, and control. Power permeates all aspects of our social interactions with friends, loved ones, family members, and co-workers. Indeed many of the problems we struggle with within the workplace – the issues that make work-life arduous and painful, whether you are a CEO or an entry-level employee – are problems related to power. Honestly, in my humble opinion, the success of every endeavor depends on how leaders use their power, and whether they can effectively utilize the authority of their roles.
A Word of Caution
If power were being marketed by a pharmaceutical company it would have some serious side effects listed. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can make you forget where you came from. Many of you may have known people afflicted with power like this over the course of your career. People that worked their way up through the ranks, only to end up seemingly cold and out of touch with the realities of the real challenges frontline employees experience. But can power alter the brain’s neural pathways over time and, if so, is there anything that we can do about it? The historian Henry Adams metaphorically described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies”. Recent research may actually back up that quote.
In a study conducted by UC Berkeley, it was found that individuals in positions of power (participants in studies spanning two decades) acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury – becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view. The research also found that powerful people performed worse when trying to identify what someone was feeling or guessing how a colleague might interpret a remark.
One of the most troubling parts of the study found that leaders in power, over time, had stopped mimicking others. In the world of psychology, we call that “mirroring”. Keep in mind that mirroring happens in our brain and, for the most part, without our awareness. For the non-powerful participants, mirroring worked fine. The neural pathways they would use fired strongly. What about the more powerful groups? Less so. Was the mirroring response broken? More like anesthetized. Power, the research shows, primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. As far as work goes, this might help with efficiency, but it has a detrimental effect on being able to pick up social cues. Laughing when others laugh or grimacing when others grimace helps trigger the same feelings those others are experiencing and provides a window into what they are feeling. When leaders lose the ability to mirror, they lose important data that allows them to connect with others. This is the “power paradox”. It seems that once some of us have power, we lose much of the emotional intelligence we utilized to be in that leadership position in the first place.
The thing is, there is a certain amount of hubris (lack of humility) that typically comes with power. “Hubris syndrome,” as defined in a recently published article, “is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.” Many are guilty of this…even the great leaders. Winston Churchill’s wife, Clementine, held him accountable for his hubris and had the courage to write, “My Darling Winston, I must confess that I have noticed deterioration in your manner. You are not as kind as you used to be.” Written on the day Hitler entered Paris, torn up, then sent anyway, the letter was not a complaint but an alert: Someone had confided to her, she wrote, that Churchill had been acting “so contemptuous” toward subordinates in meetings that “no ideas will be forthcoming.” So it really does afflict the best of us and is definitely a cautionary tale.
Now, I have told you one of the big potential pitfalls that come with leadership. So how do we avoid the possibility of these changes that come with power? The answer is simple. Stay grounded. Have people who tether you to reality and challenge your thinking. Monitor your mood. Stay connected to the real work your people do day in and day out. Stay out of the ivory tower. Surround yourself with “no” people. Constantly get feedback on how you are showing up. Take failures personally. And, most importantly, don’t lose touch with the WHY of what you do every day. As one of my favorite coaching clients once asked, “Don’t our people deserve great leaders?”
These are all statements made to me just in the last week. We are all feeling it! The last nine months have definitely been challenging for each and every one of us. Here at Steople what we have witnessed with our clients has been work from home orders, downsizing, compassion fatigue (especially in healthcare), agonizing decisions, and working much longer hours. But on the other side of this difficult time in history, there are many lessons! Across the board, I feel we have all learned to adapt in the moment, become more creative in our problem solving, and gotten very comfortable with ambiguity. But how can we put all of this to work for us in 2021?
Many of you probably already utilize post-project reviews on your own team. Why not implement something similar at this time of year…a post-pandemic review for 2020 (realizing it is far from over)? Being able to look back and discuss as a team what could have gone better might be time well-spent. Here are some helpful tips to facilitate the conversation:
Today I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the top “silver lining” leadership lessons that I have learned that will stay with me for years to come. As I document these I am going to get a little help from some of our most respected leadership thought leaders.
Give Grace to Others
A client is late to a Zoom meeting, the restaurant didn’t get your lunch order right, a direct report missed an important detail in a presentation, and your 16-year-old forgot to set his morning alarm. Hmmm…in these situations it is tough to hold the assumption of positive intent. Brené Brown writes that asking leaders to assume others are doing the best they can move them from “pushing and grinding on the same issues” to the more difficult task of:
“It’s a commitment to stop respecting and evaluating people based solely on what we think they should accomplish, and start respecting them for who they are, and holding them accountable for what they’re actually doing,” she says.
Find Joy in Missing Out
The pandemic has forced us to curb so many of our regular activities. I’ve always said Mother Nature sometimes can stop us dead in our tracks and clear our calendars. Nothing could be truer in the past several months. We must establish a new mindset. One key strategy Adam Grant advocates are practicing gratitude. “I know many people are feeling FOMO, the fear of missing out, right now on all the things that could be happening in their lives,” Grant says. “But there’s also such a thing as JOMO: the joy of missing out.” His gratitude list, for example, includes wearing sweatpants to work, skipping his commute, and having fewer awkward interactions with strangers. Mine include having quiet time to work on much-needed projects, focusing on healthy eating habits, and more time with my 16-year-old son.
Realize The Importance of Human Contact
One of the most difficult parts of 2020 for those of us who are “high touch” people have been no handshakes, hugs, or expressions due to being behind a mask. Paul Zak, the author of The Moral Molecule, argues, “We touch to initiate and sustain cooperation.” He conducted a “neuroeconomics” study from which he argues that hugs or handshakes are likely to cause the release of the neurochemical oxytocin, which increases the chances that a person will treat you “like family,” even if you just met. He states there are even economic benefits to physical touch, probably because “touch signals safety and trust; it soothes.” Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response.” NBA teams whose players touch each other more, for example, win more games.
Understand Ambiguity is Here to Stay
Looking at an organizational chart, you will see boxes and lines. Boxes are what the individual job is and the lines are the reporting relations. Although most of a leader’s work might fall within their job description, the meaningful activities that will advance an organization never truly fall into any specific “box,” but surf in between them in the white space. My observations of the past few months are very clear. The leaders who had the most comfort with the ambiguity of the white space and were able to bring a team of teams to work together as one have been able to achieve a tremendous and impactful amount of work in ways that heavily exceeded normal productivity – especially in the midst of chaos.
To emphasize this point, in his new book, Simon Sinek advocates that as leaders get beyond the normal day-to-day elasticity that running a business demands, playing the “infinite game” requires existential flexibility. What exactly is existential flexibility? Simon Sinek describes it as, “The capacity to initiate an extreme disruption to a business model or strategic course in order to more effectively advance a Just Cause.” In other words, it’s a big-time offensive maneuver and not to be confused with the defensive adjustments companies make when facing changing client needs or market conditions.
Double Down on Discipline
When the pandemic kicked in mid-March I began to research what companies not only survived, but thrived during the economic downturn of 2007/2008. In a previous blog, I mentioned that one of the strategies they utilized was being disciplined and consistent. In “Great by Choice,” Jim Collins recounts several stories of outrageous behavior by former Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher, including resolving a trade slogan dispute with another company by arm wrestling the firm’s CEO in an arena in front of hundreds of employees. He did this not for the sake of weirdness, but because by “behaving with outlandish consistency,” he was animating a culture designed to be high-spirited and fun-loving. His point was that ultra-successful CEOs exhibited a fanatical level of self-discipline, doing “whatever it takes to create a great outcome, no matter how difficult.”
So before you start to disperse for your holiday celebrations, sit down with your team and pose these three questions to them documenting as you go:
Reflecting back on how our team performed in 2020…
My guess is you will find some “golden nugget” responses that you will be able to leverage as we roll into 2021. Have a great rest of the week and finish this crazy, unpredictable year strong!
Every year our team attends an annual conference joined by our friends and colleagues from across the country and even around the world! This year the conference was in Philadelphia and we got to do some awesome activities like running up the Rocky steps, seeing the Liberty Bell, and having a Philly Cheese steak at Pat’s. However, the real reason we are there is to learn about the gold-standard practices in our field and the scientific research that backs up the work we are doing. There was some amazing speakers and I thought I would share just a few of the many gems of wisdom that might be relevant to your own daily leadership practice.
Embedding a Culture of Innovation
The former Vice President of Innovation & Creativity at The Walt Disney Company, Duncan Wardle spent his 25-year career at Disney developing some of their most innovative ideas and strategies. Ideas that would forever change the way the company expands its impact, trains its employees, and solves problems creatively. Duncan Wardle and his team were tasked with leading the creative process for Lucas Films, Pixar, Marvel, Disney Imagineering, Disney Parks and ESPN. He currently serves as CEO of id8, a top innovation consulting firm.
The ability to think creatively is the one core human truth that will remain relevant in the coming era of 5G and artiﬁcial intelligence. Duncan believes everyone has the power to be creative. Even though the world may be doing its best to inhibit our creative expression, our childhood creativity does not dissipate — it just lies dormant, waiting to be brought back to life. So how can you encourage creativity on your team?
Psychological Safety on Teams
Eduardo Salas, Ph.D. is one of the world’s leading experts in the use of simulation training and optimizing learning and development on teams. He has studied these areas extensively in a variety of fields, including aviation, health care, and during a 15-year stint in the US Navy.
How can we begin to “crack the code” on building high performing teams? Having an understanding from Eduardo, who has studied some of the best teams on the planet, was enlightening. Turns out one of the most important factors in creating effective teams is establishing a sense of psychological safety.
Psychological Safety is “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for asking for feedback, asking questions, requesting help, and speaking up.” You can promote this on your team by admitting mistakes, remaining open to dissenting views, not tolerating a teammate saying disparaging things about other teammates and creating time for good ideological debate.
The question to ask yourself about your team is simple…in what ways are we boosting psychological safety and in what ways are we draining it?
Fascinating Entrepreneurial Traits
Rodney Lowman, PhD, is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the CSPP/Organizational Psychology, Alliant International U., San Diego and President of Lowman & Richardson/Consulting Psychologists. He does research in career choice and change, professional ethics, and occupational mental health.
One of my favorite presenters at this conference and one I have come to rely on for his counsel, Rodney, is a wealth of research and statistics. During his presentation I learned a few things about the personality of an entrepreneur. We know entrepreneurs are creative in nature, but they not all cut from same cloth! There are, however, certain things we know about them that are well-grounded in research.
The questions to ask yourself as an entrepreneur, is are you leveraging your ability at pattern recognition? Are you collaborating enough with experts to ensure you are executing on your ideas? Are you the best person to lead the team?
As always, growth is at the core of what we are about. What opportunities are you taking to continue to build your leadership IQ? I encourage you to to invest in yourself and continue to build those leadership capabilities as you work towards becoming the leader you were meant to be.