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3 Simple, Powerful Things Leaders Can Do To Inspire People To Do Great Things

CEO.com | Erika Andersen

29th August 2013

 

Lately I've been thinking about the simple things leaders do, or fail to do, that have profound impact on their employees' perception of them, and on their employees' commitment and productivity.

Then today I was speaking with someone who mentioned how a leader in her organization had recently lost a lot of credibility with his folks.  When I got curious, she explained the situation: he had told them last fall that if they worked really hard to get a new product deliverable by a certain date, it would be reflected in their bonuses.  They did, and it wasn't.  Now he's going through the same thing with the 2.0 version of the same product, and his folks are (understandably) much less willing to go above and beyond the call of duty.

Then today I got a press release about an interesting study conducted by Keas, a company that focuses on employee health and wellness.  They interviewed over 100 HR professionals in the US on a variety of topics, most of them health and wellness-related. However, the finding that caught my eye (given my recent thinking about what CEOs can do differently), was this question: "In your experience, what are the top three Human Resources mistakes that every CEO makes?" And the top-scoring three responses:

64% - CEOs don't recognize what truly motivates employees
41% - CEOs fail to lead by example in key HR initiatives
32% - CEOs don't make company culture a priority

I think these HR people are exactly right.  Because all three of these actions (or non-actions) send a loud, clear message to employees: you are not that important to me.

That may sound brutal, but it's true.  Let me offer a couple of examples.  This first one is about the dangers of not recognizing what motivates (or un-motivates) employees. Earlier this week a client mentioned that when they moved into a new building recently, employee parking, which had been free in the old building, was going to be about $100/month per person in the new building. The CEO wanted to make everyone pay - he didn't think it would be a big deal for people.  The man I was speaking to, his COO, convinced him that it would be hugely demotivating - that for someone making $30-40,000 a year, $1,200 a year for parking was definitely going to be a big deal.  He also pointed out that the overall cost was going to be a wash; the rent in the new building was actually cheaper because parking wasn't included.  He finally convinced the CEO that any savings realized would pale in comparison to the ill-will that would be generated by suddenly springing this added financial burden on his employees, and they decided to subsidize the parking fee, at least for the first year. Because $100/month is barely worth mentioning to the CEO, given his income, he thoughtlessly assumed it wouldn't matter to his employees.  A great example of not understanding what's important and motivating to employees.

Here's another example, this one about the negative impact of not making company culture a priority.  I've watched, with sadness, over the past few years as many of the best people have left one of our client companies.  I believe it's primarily because the CEO refuses to recognize that she has allowed (and in some cases even encouraged) a very toxic workplace culture.  Her people are overworked and under-communicated with; they feel  pretty continually afraid of being yelled at, frozen out, or fired; they're asked to work long hours without being acknowledged; they don't have the tools or training they need to do their work well.  Not surprisingly, performance and profitability are suffering. The CEO and board think the problems can be addressed by cutting costs, putting a few new people in key roles and finding new revenue streams: I think they're doomed to failure.

In both instances, the CEO's actions clearly carry that core message of "you're not that important to me, employees." And there's a simple equation attached to that: if a leader's people feel that they're not that important to him or her, then guess what - that leader, and the company, and the company's success are not going to be that important to them.

So what's a leader to do?  Very simply: start by doing the 3 things those smart HR people in the Keas survey are saying you don't do:

Recognize what motivates your people. Get curious: Ask.  And be willing to hear things that differ from what's motivating to you, or from what you think ought to be motivating to them.  Talk to your HR people, if they're good and you respect them (and if they aren't and you don't... why are they working for you?) about what's most meaningful to people, and how you can incorporate that into your reward systems.

Support key HR initiatives by example, not just talk. Model the things you expect from others. Period.  Here's what happens when you don't do this: Let's say you've just put in place a new performance management system, and you introduce it with great enthusiasm - but then never review your own direct reports, or promote and reward them based on your own whims, vs. according to the criteria you've established for the rest of the organization. You're communicating 1) this may be good enough for you people - but I get to live by different rules, and 2) this (and you) are just not that important to me.

Create a strong, positive company culture. Start by finding out what your current culture is.  There are lots of good employee survey mechanisms out there you can use to get a sense of what's going on. Then really take in the information - don't deny, avoid, or dismiss it. Sit down with trusted advisors and decide a handful of key things you can start doing, stop doing, or do differently as an organization to begin to address the biggest problem areas.

If you consistently do these three things as a leader, people will feel they matter to you, and they're much more likely to support you in achieving great business results.  AND - big bonus - in tough times, they'll be there to help you and the company make it through.

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