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Helping Employees Excel: An Apparently Simple Strategy

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Helping Employees Excel: An Apparently Simple Strategy

by Carol Kinsey Goman

At an office of about 125 employees, the head of human resources recently spent the day observing the local manager. Not only had the office ranked high on productivity, but this particular manager had received fantastic feedback on her company’s Leadership Measurement survey. So the HR executive was curious to watch her interact with employees to figure out what generated this great response.

As they walked through the office, conversing about the normal work conditions, the manager often stopped and referred to specific individuals: “Steve over there has been with us for 15 years. Steve also coaches Little League. They won their game last Thursday.”

Then they’d move on to someone else, and as they left that person’s area, the manager would say quietly, “Sally had some problems with her daughter this year. You know how difficult teenagers can be. We’ve had many sessions behind closed doors where Sally’s trying to sort through these problems.”

Months later, when I interviewed the HR executive, that day was still etched in her mind. “It became apparent to me,” she explained, “that this manager knew all her people. And I don’t mean just knew their jobs. She knew each individual—their backgrounds and hobbies, what their concerns were, what got them excited. She knew when they were upbeat because things were going well, and she knew when they were struggling and needed her time and attention. I asked her how on earth she could do this for 125 people. Her response: ‘That’s my job.’”

Implementing the Idea

Great leaders understand that you can’t pay people to excel. You can only pay them to show up. But once you’ve got them there, the leader’s job is to encourage people to excel by creating an atmosphere of caring, trust, and inclusion. Sun Tzu, the author of the Chinese classic The Art of War, put it this way: “Regard your soldiers as your own children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys. Treat them as your own beloved sons, and they will be with you even unto death.”

As an expert on the human side of organizational change, I have been a guest on hundreds of radio call-in programs over the past several years, but I especially remember one in the Northwest, when an unusual number of disgruntled employees phoned in with corporate horror stories.

People complained about being unappreciated and overlooked. They spoke of callous treatment from uncaring bosses, and reported that they worked for organizations “just interested in making a buck.” For the entire hour, calls followed the same line. Finally, in genuine disgust, the interviewer said to me: “The principles you’re giving us sound so simple, why aren’t more managers following them?”

I didn’t have to think twice about my reply: “With all the diet books on the market, why aren’t we all thin and trim? What could be simpler than reducing calories and increasing exercise?”

The answer to my question and his is the same. Things that are simple are not necessarily easy.

My work has enabled me to deal with business leaders around the world, and not once have I encountered a boss who despised all his or her employees. On the contrary, the leaders I’ve met were genuinely concerned about the well-being of people who reported to them. (Even the occasional leader whose focus was only on the bottom line understood that the best way to increase profits was to build the commitment of talented employees.)

Traits for Tomorrow’s MBAs

When you think of the qualities that leaders need to encourage in their employees—responsibility, creativity, caring, commitment—you can see why coercion or manipulation just doesn’t work. The leaders who influence us the most are those who understand that engagement and productivity are not about rules, regulations, and rewards—or the struggle to keep people “in line.”

In general, it’s the soft skills of leadership that are paramount. Leaders (and their organizations) won’t succeed without genuinely caring about people and being able to develop and nurture interpersonal relationships.

This is something that the MBA industry is grappling with today. Many business schools are revisiting their offerings to see if they still have relevance in the 21st century. Consider Harvard Business School, the blue-chip brand of all MBA programs, which used 2008 (its centennial year) to convene worldwide experts on business education and plot its directions for the next 100 years.

The results: Deans and recruiters said that MBAs in general needed better communication skills, increased self-awareness, and an enhanced capacity for introspection and empathy. HBS is now looking at several change proposals, among them a program to develop various soft skills in its students.

Isn’t that simple?

Not easy, mind you. But simple.

Carol Kinsey Goman is an executive coach and keynote speaker who addresses association, government, and business audiences around the world. Her latest book is The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. For more information, call 510/526-1727, email CGoman@CKG.com, or visit CKG.com and NonverbalAdvantage.com.



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