Burst your own bubble: Learn what employees want from you.

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Being a CEO is a tough and complex job.  Few people tell you what is really true and often you see only the truths that support your beliefs.  Speaking from experience, it is easy to get insulated into a bubble where the folks around you tell you what you want to hear vs. what you really need to hear.

Here’s some bubble-busting insights:

  • Most employees know far greater what is really going on than you give them credit!
  • Employees can sense when a CEO or top leader is clueless.
  • Employees can tell you when the vision is muddled.
  • The staff are quick to identify which leader on the team is “in-” or “out-of-favor” with the boss.
  • Employees are super-adept at perceiving if you have integrity and can be trusted to hold the organization accountable to core values.

Yet, surprisingly, many CEOs completely under-estimate the role they play in communicating and leading.

Being a CEO is far more about tone setting, nurturing culture and building influence than it is about directing and managing. The role is unique in that it is the top chair for seeing how all the pieces of the organization come together and how the company can achieve synergy from the silos. If the CEO can’t communicate a compelling vision with clarity and connect the dots to each are of the organization, who can?  And if that vision and clarity isn’t happening, each area begins inventing their own narrative.

After working with more than 100 CEOs, Melissa Raffoni, Faculty at MIT’s Sloan School and Harvard’s Kennedy School created a list of what employees want their leaders to do.  Her fresh take gets it right – here’s an excerpt from her HBR post on the top 8 things her research shows employees want from their leaders:

  1. Tell me my role, tell me what to do, and give me the rules. Micromanaging? No, it’s called clear direction. Give them parameters so they can work within broad outlines.
  2. Discipline my coworker who is out of line. Time and time again, I hear, “I wish my boss would tell Nancy that this is just unacceptable.” Hold people accountable in a way that is fair but makes everyone cognizant of what is and isn’t acceptable. 
  3. Get me excited. About the company, about the product, about the job, about a project. Just get them excited.
  4. Don’t forget to praise me. Motivate employees by leveraging their strengths, not harping on their weaknesses.
  5. Don’t scare me. They really don’t need to know about everything that worries you. They respect that you trust them, but you are the boss. And don’t lose your temper at meetings because they didn’t meet your expectations. It’s often not productive. Fairness and consistency are important mainstays. 
  6. Impress me. Strong leaders impress their staffs in a variety of ways. Yes, some are great examples of management, but others are bold and courageous, and still others are creative and smart. Strong leaders bring strength to an organization by providing a characteristic that others don’t have and the company sorely needs. 
  7. Give me some autonomy.Give them something interesting to work on. Trust them with opportunity.  
  8. Set me up to win. Nobody wants to fail. Indecisive leaders who keep people in the wrong roles, set unrealistic goals, keep unproductive team members, or change direction unfairly just frustrate everybody and make people feel defeated.

No doubt CEOs have a tough job (but don’t forget they also get the top pay so save your sympathy!). Many of the ones I know and have worked with sometimes over-complicate the job by focusing too much energy on managing and too little on leading.  Leading will produce more results through people than managing ever will,  plus it makes the job much easier.

I like the insight and advice from Author and PR pro Kim Harrison who published on her blog a great article covering her employee satisfaction research and what she found employees want from their leader.  Here is an excerpt –

“Why is the CEO so important? The CEO has the most influence over the entire organization and its culture and can usually make things happen. Although the immediate supervisor or manager is the key person for day-to-day communication, the CEO is the decision maker at the top of the organizational structure.

Too many CEOs act as managers, not leaders. They concentrate on technical things – planning, organizing, controlling and solving problems. Leaders should be role models, trendsetters, visionaries and voices for change.

Workers of today want:

  • participation in workplace decisions
  • better sharing of both good and bad news
  • managers who are sensitive and responsive
  • more of a partnership with managers than the old ‘command and control’ approach
  • freedom to balance life and work – less stress
  • the opportunity to work in self-managing teams
  • a chance to share in ownership”

It doesn’t matter if you are running a start-up or a medium sized $500M company, you can’t afford the cost of not having your people being 100% committed to a shared dream and their energy aligned with winning (vs. whining).

So if you’ve read this far and you are leading an organization, do this one thing!

Take out a piece of paper or open a word doc and don’t look up until you have an reasonable answer to the following questions:

  1. How can I get more honest/unfiltered input from my people?  Said another way, “How do I get out of my bubble?” Trust me, you’re in one!   I’ve heard Don Soderquist, retired Vice Chairman of Walmart, say many times at his leadership retreats, “All associates need two essential things from their leaders:  First, “Am I being listened to?” In other words, “Does the leader hear me?” and second, “I need a response!” They don’t necessarily need you to agree with their requests but they do need a response. Don would often bring the store managers up front on a store visit and ask all the associates in front of the managers these two questions, “Do these store managers listen to you? And, “Do you get a response?” Pretty intimidating stuff but it clearly sends a message for the managers to get out of their bubbles. 
  2. How can I take more opportunities to connect with employees around what they want and need from me as the leader?  Here’s a surprise for some, people don’t work for you! Matter of fact, it’s really not about you! Big surprise? People work for their families, their dreams, their careers, and when a great leader does it right, a shared company goal.  But they never just work for the company’s sake. They never just work for your directives. I know that sound’s crazy but many leaders are clueless when it comes to why people work at their company.  If you want people to flourish in your organization and help you reach a challenging shared goal, work out the answers to:

A.  What is our goal, and is it worthy of great effort? If it isn’t, how do I turn it into a worthy quest?

B.  How do I invite everyone to participate and make space for them to be at their best?

C.  How can I share in the spoils?  The spoils being shared rewards, or a shared story,or sharing a simple “thank you!”

Hopefully something in this post would cause you to pick up a pin and burst your own bubble!  Nothing would be better for you or your organization.

Here’s to a better quality of leadership and holding ourselves to a higher standard of excellence!


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