Almost 20 years ago, when I was still selling Dale Carnegie Training, I made a sales call on the owner of what I believed to be a smallish company in a southern Minnesota city.
Now keep in mind I was there to sell training programs but the entire call quickly became one big learning opportunity for me.
Upon arriving at the company I was shown into the owner’s office and introduced to the owner and his General Manager. The company was an office supply firm with about 300 employees that also operated a few retail office and stationary supply stores in the Minneapolis/St.Paul area.
The owner almost immediately told me that before we could do business together I would need to know something about how they did business and with that he set about giving me a tour of his operation. At every stop, the front office, the warehouse, the loading dock, everywhere we went, he would stop and talk for a moments to a few of his employees. After one or two stops it became apparent to me that he knew every one of his employees by name. Not only did he know them by name, he knew something about them too, he would ask about their kids or hobby or just how they were doing.
I didn’t realize at the time what I was watching but I came to understand that it was an impressive display of leadership, perhaps the most impressive I have seen to this day.
When we returned to his office I couldn’t help but comment on what I had seen and heard. I told him how remarkable I thought it was that he knew everyone’s name and something about them. What he said next would change how I thought about leadership forever.
He said that “his people” were the key to his success. He said that without them he had no company. He said that “his people” were his greatest asset and that he “invested” the greatest amount of his time with them.
In the ensuing years almost evey organization I would work with would “say” that their people are their greatest asset but I have yet to see another leader back that up with their actions the way this leader had.
So I asked him the obvious question: How do you get to know so many people so well? What he said this time would change how I taught leadership forever.
He said that you can’t lead people without caring for them and he said that you can’t, or won’t’ truly care about people that you don’t know about. He said that his most important “job” as head of this company was to truly know his people. With that in mind, everyday, absolutely everyday, he would take 5 or 10 minutes to conduct an “innerview” with one or two of the people in his organization.
He explained the difference as he saw it between an “interview” conducted while recruiting new employees and the “innerview” conducted with those with whom he had already entrusted with a part of his company. The “innerview” allowed him to ask much more meaningful, sometimes personal questions about a person’s well-being. About what they wanted from life and how he might help them achieve it.
He would ask them about how the company was doing “for them” and how they might work together to make it work better.
From this 5 or 10 minute investment of time he forged real relationships with the people who controlled the success of his company. He knew, with great specificity, why they came to work each day and how he could help them have a better life. He invested in them and they invested back.
I haven’t talked to that leader in several years and I’m reluctant to use his name without his permission but let me share just a little more about this remarkable person. Remember when I described his company as “smallish”? Well, I might not have done all the preparation for that sales call that a professional salesperson should have. You see, while it’s true that the particular company I was calling on had 300 or so employees, that was just one small part of what I can only call his empire. It turned out that he owned some other “stuff” like Major League Sports Franchises, other worldwide manufacturing and investment firms. In fact, as it turned out, I received this unforgettable life lesson from one of the 10 richest men in the world.
Now think about that for a minute. It’s something of an understatement to say that this guy had a lot going on, he was one busy man. Yet he made the time, everyday, every single day, to invest in his people. Everyday!!!
As I’ve shared this story through the years I am amazed by the number of “leaders” who say that their people are their greatest asset while in their next breath tell me they don’t have time to conduct an innerview.
Let me be perfectly blunt here as I share what I’ve come to believe about leadership the last decade or so: If you don’t have time to care, then you don’t have time to lead.
Invest your time in your people, it will provide you with the greatest return of any investment you will ever make. And hey, it just might make you some money too!