April 2010
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When Leading With  Your  Head Isn't Enough

 

Great strategy can't replace human interaction, and that includes with your employees, too.
But not every effective leader is blessed with personal magnetism. In fact, in my experience, most of us are not—and to try to pretend otherwise is a sure path to trouble. The truth is that building strong emotional ties with our allies and organizations can be a real challenge for most leaders. Many of us are more naturally inclined to lead with our heads through strategic planning, extensive analysis, and a steady temperament. And it has helped many leaders make tough business decisions in the harsh economy of the past couple of years.

Personal Connecting

But leading with our heads is also the same trait that tempts us to head to the running trails for a solo workout at lunchtime instead of walking around to chat with colleagues. It's what prods us to leave a room as soon as a meeting is over to get to the next task, instead of sticking around for a few extra minutes to connect with colleagues on a more personal level. We can genuinely like the men and women we're privileged to lead, and we can very much enjoy listening to and learning from them.

Many of us, however, might not feed off these interactions quite the way a stalwart leader does. In many respects, that's a good thing for a leader; it's important to maintain independence and a little distance. But, like any leadership strength, self-reliance and playing things close to the vest can be overdone.

In hard times—and we're living through them right now—leading with our heads is not enough. Our men and women need more than sheer business expertise, whether it be a smart strategy, the right organizational structure, or clever technical solutions.  They crave authentic connections to their leaders.

Without those ties, it's hard for leaders to build trust with their people—and without that trust it's hard to accomplish much. In many organizations, including mine, our colleagues are working more hours. They want their sacrifices acknowledged. They want to know their leaders care. I do care, and so do many other leaders. But how do we convey those feelings effectively?

There's no easy fix. But we can start by taking our routines off autopilot. Then there are some practical steps we can take. The more you practice them, the better you'll become at connecting with your men and women. Here are four skills to work on right now:

• Listen (to groups and individuals)

Now more than ever, you need to be a Chief Listening Officer in your organization. Make sure you devote several meetings each week simply to listening to clients, colleagues, and advisers. When you're in these meetings, focus on the present. Turn off your BlackBerry and shelve the to-do list in your head. Maintain eye contact, lean forward, nod. Show you're engaged.

Just as significantly, pay attention to what the other person is expressing, not only with their words but also through their tone of voice, facial expressions, and posture. Can you accurately summarize the thoughts and feelings being shared with you, or are you already thinking ahead to the next thing?

• Be visible

It's tempting and often logical to eat a quick lunch at your desk to give you the chance to make phone calls, plow through a pile of reports, examine the latest metrics, and read urgent e-mails. Meanwhile, your colleagues are down in the cafeteria wondering why they never see you except at companywide meetings. Make a point once a week of sitting down at a table and joining them over lunch. Or drop in on a department staff meeting. You don't even need to say anything—just showing up conveys that their work matters to you.

• Show gratitude

A word of thanks to an overworked, underappreciated employee or group can make a huge difference. I've seen it happen. Maybe you're not the type who thrives on praise, but a lot of people do. It's even more important when a bad economy handcuffs your ability to reward them financially. Zero in on a contribution you particularly appreciate and explain why it matters. Be specific, and they'll know you understand something about their role—and that makes your praise all the more believable and meaningful.

Time to Innovate

I've been in many corporate meetings that left me wondering where I could apply to get back the two hours I had just spent that were completely unproductive, so I am completely convinced that it is possible to lose time, or use it ineffectively in any organization. But what's puzzling to me is the argument that I hear from many people that they need to "find" time to innovate, as if there are spare pockets of hours or days in hidden corners in their office, simply waiting to be discovered.

Finding time to innovate is nonsensical, at several levels. First, if an initiative is important to you or your management team, then those activities make it onto your calendar. Second, if you are good at what you do, or are in demand from others, then they will place demands on your calendar to participate in their work or activities. Third, once the calendar is full, it's hard to take on something new, and many of us allow our calendars to fill up with tactical, firefighting exercises that are urgent but not important. Only then do many executives state that they simply "can't find the time" to innovate.

I would suggest that we reverse the order of placing items on the calendar. If innovation is important, then time for innovation needs to go on the calendar. This will provide evidence to those in your sphere of influence that you are placing an emphasis on creativity and innovation. Where you put your time sends signals to those around you, and those that report to you. Then, once you've anchored time in your calendar for important but perhaps not urgent tasks like innovation, you can then fill in the calendar with urgent but less important activities. You simply won't find time to innovate - you have to set aside time to innovate.

Once you've set aside time to innovate, what should you do with that time? Think expansively. Identify and track trends. Think about the future - five, seven, ten years in advance. Anticipate market and environmental changes. Draft a white paper that defines where you believe the market is going, and how to get there first. Get out and interact with customers or potential customers. Look for unarticulated or unmet needs you can satisfy. Rethink your customer's experience. Network with people in your industry and adjacent to your industry. Exchange ideas with people on your team, or in other organizations.

Sounds like fun, but doesn't look like work, is the complaint that's rattling around in your head. And you are probably right. This doesn't look like the work that gets done in your business, simply because everyone is focused on the here and now, the further and later is not being investigated, and can't be investigated or understood using the tools that look like work in most firms.

This has a cascading effect. Since the effort involved in understanding innovation opportunities doesn't look like work, we find other urgent but less important things to fill our day. Then, we are left with the conundrum that while innovation is important, we can't "find" time to innovate. It's a vicious cycle, eventually leading to the failure to create new products and services, or to miss new market opportunities. Then, what was urgent becomes even more urgent, and even less attention is paid to innovation. Eventually everyone is working on next quarter's efficiency savings and no one is taking time to innovate.

This isn't a question about "finding" time to innovate - it's a challenge to balance near term demands of the business with strategic vision about the future of the business. You can't make time, and it's our most valuable commodity. You can strategically select where you spend your time, and by doing so send signals to others. You make time to innovate by placing that time on your calendar before allowing the calendar to fill with other tasks and other work.

• Invest

Ensure that your teams are engaged in meaningful work and that you have good development plans for their members. If things are slow for one team, turn its members loose on key projects that are important for the future of the organization and that will help build their skills. Nothing is more important than showing interest in the professional development of your women and men—so invest now in the training they need.

There's no guarantee that following this advice will suddenly help you lead as authentically. But at the very least, we can all get considerably better at connecting with our men and women through focus and practice. Indeed, we need to make leading with our hearts a priority. When we don't, we jeopardize all the magnificent plans in our heads.

 

 
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