Talk and Listen To Everyone

Everything in the article below I have said many times. Lead from the front. Get out and about. People want to know what you their leader wants. Tell them and they will get it done for you. They are not mind readers. This article relates to all leadership levels both at work and at home…Lee

PS: My book will be out in 17 days.

CEO Magazine
Issue Date: July/August 2008, Posted On: 8/8/2008

Leading Live and In Person

By Kevin Daley
Brian Halla, chief executive of National Semiconductor Corp., speaks from the heart.  At a management meeting during June this year [2008] he opened his talk with an attention-grabber, asking: “Do you want to know what keeps me up at night?“  He spoke with passion, without a script or visuals.  Mr. Halla shared his concerns about these uncertain economic times and the need for the managers to seize near-term opportunities and focus on growth.  He was modeling the kind of commitment he wants from everyone. 

Jonathan Schwartz, chief executive of Sun Microsystems, is a featured speaker at the meeting his company holds for new directors each quarter.  At these meetings he shares deeply-felt personal stories about how he deals with the challenges he wants each audience to address.  To demonstrate his belief in transparency, he speaks for 20 minutes and reserves the last 40 minutes for a candid question-and-answer session. 

These chief executives are leading live and in person.  Though new technologies have made it possible for executives to communicate instantly with the entire workforce, the most effective way to express their personal passion for their message is by interacting with employees face-to-face. 

Verizon chief executive Ivan Seidenberg had been holding quarterly meetings with employees via webcasts for six years and via the internal network for the previous eight years.  Beginning this year he has been hosting webcasts before a live audience of 300 employees and inviting them to ask questions.  Mr. Seidenberg feeds off of the energy the live audience generates and the webcast audience reacts to the event’s dynamics. 

While other chief executives remain isolated and insulated, the executive who leads live and in person is fully engaged and seizes every opportunity to have flesh-and blood, from-the-heart interactions with the workforce. 

Maintaining a personal blog is useful, particularly when employees are scattered far and wide.  But it is not a substitute for leading live and in person.  Indeed, a blog with irregular postings could signal the executive doesn’t really care about reaching out to the workforce.  In contrast,  Schwartz of Sun Microsystems, whose blog has over 100,000 readers each month, writes three or four blogs monthly on his vision for the company’s strategy and news about Sun.  The blog encourages two-way communications. 

Bill Marriott helps maintain employee commitment to quality by visiting 250 hotels around the globe each year.  Virgin Group’s Richard Branson gives his home address and phone number when he meets with employees.  Kevin Kelly of Heidrick & Struggles meets individually and with groups at every opportunity.  Lou Gerstner’s tireless personal campaign to save IBM by enlisting everyone’s support in the company’s turnaround has become legendary. 

Payoffs Provided 
Regrettably, too few chief executives are leaving the comfort of the office to meet with employees face-to-face.  This is unfortunate because full engagement with the workforce provides enormous payoffs: The organization’s goals and strategy are conveyed credibly and without ambiguity because they come straight from the horse’s mouth.  Feedback on workforce attitudes, problems and opportunities comes through unfiltered.  The employees are energized by the executive’s very presence.

This kind of executive has large “town hall” meetings but also interacts with smaller groups, where employees can feel more comfortable questioning the status quo or making an unconventional suggestion. Included are walkabouts, coffee at the cafeteria and skip-level meetings where a cross-section of employees gathers.  The executive personally makes awards for exemplary performance because this gives the awards special meaning.  For small meetings, the executive makes a solo appearance, without a posse of assistants, advisors and retainers. 

The fully engaged executive recognizes that the power of the position no longer commands compliance with directives.  Today’s workforce must be inspired and persuaded.  Employees come to work having different assumptions than the executive does and, often, markedly less commitment.   Lawrence A. Bossidy, former CEO of AlliedSignal and Honeywell, has been quoted saying, ”Often a CEO assumes everything he or she says is picked up by employees and digested with enormous enthusiasm.  Unfortunately, employees are frequently not on the same wavelength or even tuned in at all.“  

Given this challenge, the executive must present with passion, appeal to the emotions as well as the intellect, convey feelings as well as facts.  The message uses the language of home and hearth rather than jargon, euphemisms or Dilbert-speak.  Recognizing that employees today have a “what’s in it for me“ attitude, the executive puts aside the organization’s boilerplate and speaks to the particular needs of the group being addressed. 

When speaking before groups, the executive gets out from behind the lectern, commands the stage, wades into the group, continually reads the audience and adjusts the presentation as needed.  Since attention spans are shorter today than in the past, the executive’s message has been finely honed and distilled to its essence. 

With groups and one-on-one as well, the executive responds to questions openly and directly, without defensiveness or evasion.  Though a question may be designed to agitate, the executive retains equanimity.  The question may betray lack of knowledge but the executive treats the questioner with respect.  It may not be possible to answer the question fully for lack of the needed information.  In those cases the executive promises to get back with the answer — and does so.  Questions about job insecurity require carefully thought through answers that demonstrate the executive’s humanity. 

An executive who leads live and in person responds to those who may disagree about strategy or implementation decisions without relying on the power of the office. Instead, the executive tries to fully understand the other person’s position and the personal motivators behind it. 

Seven Steps To Take
How can you rally employees behind your change initiatives more quickly and effectively?  What should you do to lead live and in person?  Here are seven steps to take: 

  1. Admit to the limitations of chief executive power. Today’s workforce is markedly different from yesterday’s.  You cannot simply direct employees to meet their goals.  Instead, you must persuade them. 
  2. Recognize that “one-size-fits-all“ employee communications will produce disappointing results.  Success comes when you tailor your message to the particular needs of each audience. 
  3. Your argument may make perfect sense but to gain employee commitment to meeting your goals you must demonstrate your passion for them.  The facts do not speak for themselves.  You must appeal to the heart as well as the head. 
  4. Capitalize on every opportunity to interact personally with employees.  The smaller the group, the greater the opportunity for making a personal impact and getting honest feedback. 
  5. Fine-tune your presentation skills.  You will come across as a stronger leader, your message will be clearer and the audience will be moved to action. 
  6. When an employee asks a question or disagrees with you, conduct the discussion without relying on the power of your position. 
  7. Say it and say it again.  For any message to get through, it must be constantly repeated.
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