You’d Better Do More Than Say You’re Listening

4.3 million people quit their jobs in September as the “Great Resignation” continues to pick up steam. This as thousands of companies continue to pretend that this won’t have any impact on them. 

In a recent survey of people who quit their jobs within the last 12 months a full 79% reported a major reason for leaving was the feeling that their efforts were not appreciated by their organizations. 

But the question is, where did that “feeling” of no appreciation come from?

In many cases it came directly from “management” not listening to their employees. I’d hazard a guess that many of the companies that lost employees told their people that “we are listening” to you. Some likely made a big deal out of their desire to listen to their employees.  They encouraged their people to “speak up.” 

Maybe those companies actually listened and maybe they didn’t. And therein lies the problem. The employees have no idea if they are being listened to because they receive no feedback on their suggestions, questions, or complaints. They don’t see any changes come about because of their efforts to communicate. 

The lack of change or feedback leads people to believe that management doesn’t value their input, experience, or knowledge. Looking at it objectively I’d have to say the people are almost certainly right. 

It’s always been that way to some extent. Today, for a variety of reasons, people are more likely to leave the company than put up with it. 

To be clear people are quitting their jobs for a wide variety of reasons but if you don’t solicit input from your people they are likely to leave faster. If you do solicit input and then appear to do nothing with it they leave even faster. 

If you are a leader in your organization you must make certain that EVERY suggestion, question, or complaint is responded to. You must make every effort to receive those suggestions, questions, or complaints with an open mind. You must be willing to guarantee that no matter the feedback from employees there will no retaliation of any kind. 

Most of all you must be willing to change what makes sense to change. You should also be prepared to explain, with some detail, why something cannot change. 

Explaining a policy or why things are done a certain way does not make you a weak leader. Someone asking why something is done a particular way is not challenging your leadership. In most cases they are trying to help. They are trying to make a difference. 

Communicating with the people you lead makes them feel valued. Feeling valued is more important than money and benefits. It’s so important that people would rather quit their jobs than sell their souls for a paycheck. If you’re running a business and you haven’t figured that out yet then you best be buying a whole bunch more “help wanted” signs cause you need a lotta help.

Some organizations will indeed be impacted less by the Great Resignation. That’s because they do more than merely listen to their people, they do something with what they have learned by listening. 

You Could be Wrong

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time you know that my first job in management came as quite a shock to me. I was a very good salesperson until one day I was pulled into the office and asked if I would be interested in jumping several levels of management to become the General Sales Manager. 

I wasn’t actually sure what the General Sales Manager did but I did know the job came with a new car, a huge office with a private bathroom and a whole lot more money. Lots and lots of money. 

So of course I said yes and the following Monday I was in charge of a large sales organization. I didn’t let the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing keep me from doing it. We were selling soda pop and I sold more than anybody. How tough could it be to make sure everyone else was selling all they could too.

To say I made a few mistakes would be a rather large understatement. The worst part was everyone but me could see the mistakes coming from a mile away. I might have been a little too proud to ask the more experienced people for help but eventually I made the sales organization more of a democracy so others could share their ideas. But I made the final call because I was the boss and that’s what bosses do. 

Shortly after I was promoted I faced the biggest decision I would ever make in my new role. There were two major convenience store chains in the city where I was working. Vendors in both of those chains paid for the best shelf space. I only had the budget to purchase “eye level”  cooler space in one of the chains. The chains appeared to be about the same to me so I very strategically picked the chain with a location closest to my house. 

We would still have shelf space in the other chain’s stores but it would be “bottom shelf. ” Customers would have to look long and hard to find our products. 

My decision looked good for a few weeks. A few weeks. Just 3 weeks after making the agreement with one convenience chain it was acquired by the chain I decided not to make an agreement with. 

The chain that did the acquiring tossed all the vendor contracts from the chain they acquired. That meant in every major convenience store in a large metropolitan area, my products were now all bottom shelf. 

I was pretty lucky that my boss didn’t think that disaster was my fault. He chalked it up to bad luck and we agreed there was no way I could have seen that coming. But to this day I suspect I could have seen it coming. I know for a fact I should have seen it coming. 

I managed to mitigate much of the damage with some new sales programs and by out hustling the competition. I also learned a ton about making decisions, making mistakes, and “fixing” poor decisions. 

But what I learned most of all is to accept the fact that I could be wrong. About almost anything. That meant that people I disagreed with could be right. About almost anything. 

Authentic Leaders must make confident decisions based on the facts they have available. They must also be open to discover new facts that become available and have the courage to change a decision based on the new information. 

Leaders who cannot accept that one of their decisions may need to be changed are very limited leaders. Leaders who refuse to accept that they could be wrong have no ability to learn from their mistakes. Leaders who believe that accepting responsibility for a poor decision is a weakness will never fully have the trust of their people. 

Leaders who do not have the trust of their people are leaders in name only. For anyone hoping to truly lead making a mistake need not be fatal, refusing to admit that mistake most often is. 

What a Leader Needs to Know

I still remember being promoted to my first leadership position. I was a fairly new salesperson when I was promoted to the position of General Sales Manager. I skipped several layers of leadership to reach that level. That put me in kind of a strange position. It put the people who were my bosses on Friday in an even weirder spot because the following Monday I was their boss.

Many people were shocked by my sudden rise in the organization but no one was more shocked than me. It all happened so quickly that to this day I don’t know exactly why I was promoted so far up the organizational chart. But I do know I felt like kind of a fraud. 

The people working for me had a lot more experience. They knew stuff I didn’t know. 

In fact I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. But I knew this much, many of the people suddenly working for me were very unhappy about it. They didn’t like working for someone much younger and far less experienced than them. 

So I resolved to fake it until I learned everything I would need to know to be a successful leader. 

I’m pretty sure I didn’t fool anyone…except maybe myself. 

That was many years ago and I’ve yet to learn everything I need to know to be a truly complete leader. But I’m okay with that because I now know I will never know enough to avoid every possible mistake. 

All leaders need to know that they can never know it all. They need to know that saying “I don’t know” doesn’t make them a weak leader, it makes them a human leader. 

Authentic Leaders don’t need to know more than the people they lead. In fact, the best leaders want people on their team who know things they don’t. They want people who know enough to  challenge and enlighten their thinking. 

If you’re a leader who believes they need to fake it until they know more than everyone else then you’re a leader who needs to rethink that. You can never know it all. So stop believing you need to and accept the fact that if you allow it to be, every day is an opportunity to learn something new. 

Authentic Leaders never miss that opportunity and neither should you.

The Service of Accountability 

Hopefully you’re holding your people accountable for their attitudes, actions and results. Even though no one really likes accountability everyone preforms better when held accountable. But all accountability is not the same. 

Accountability used as a tool to force compliance with “orders” results in the bare minimum being accomplished. Accountability used as an opportunity to excel results in extraordinary accomplishments. 

When used as a compliance tool the accountability discussion can quickly turn confrontational. So quickly that many mangers simply don’t hold their people accountable. Except for once a year during their annual review. Then they dump of year’s worth of subpar performance on the unsuspecting employee. 

When accountability is provided as a service the discussion looks very different. Authentic Leaders ask their people to hold themselves accountable. If the team member was unsuccessful in accomplishing their tasks then the leader can help. They can provide “along the way coaching” to help the team member succeed.

When the annual review happens there are no surprises. No difficult conversations and no mountains of improvement needed from either party. Because accountability has been established throughout the year the “review” is actually a review. Determining what worked particularly well and what could work even better. 

Many managers do everything they can to avoid conflict with their people. Even if it means allowing them to flounder their way to failure. Authentic Leaders know that one of the best ways to minimize conflict is to help their people hold themselves accountable. 

Authentic Leaders set up annual or quarterly accountability plans with their people. Each team member knows exactly what is expected of them. The required outcomes are crystal clear. Accountability is understood to be an escalating process. If the team member was not able to hold themselves accountable then their leader will serve as an accountability partner to ensure their success. 

The difference between accountability as a method for forcing compliance and as a service to develop people is mindset. 

Never underestimate the ability of your people to ferret out the motives for your actions. If you’re using accountability for your benefit they will know it and fight it. If you’re using accountability to help them grow and succeed they will realize that as well and they will be much more accepting of it. They will in fact commit to continuous improvement. 

Compliant people might get the job done. Committed people will get the job done and they will do it well. Which would you rather have? 

Accountability should never be used as a club to punish someone for poor performance. It should be used as a tool to guarantee success. 

How do you use accountability?

Are You a Manager or a Leader?

Not a single person reading this has ever successfully managed people. That’s because it can’t be done. Human beings resist being managed to the point of being impossible to manage. 

People insist on being led. If you think managing and leading are one and the same then you may be a manager but you’re most certainly not a leader. 

I’ve written about this before but since it’s been awhile here’s a refresher. 

Managing and leading are two different things. You manage things. Things like a budget, buildings, inventory, property and the like. If it’s an “it” you can manage it. If “it” is not capable of expressing emotion go ahead and manage away. 

But if you’re dealing with a flesh and blood person then attempting to manage them creates nearly every problem the typical manager complains about. 

Leadership is about people and only people. When you attempt to manage people you risk treating them like things…at least they feel that way. That highlights one critical difference between managing and leading. Things don’t “feel” but people always do. 

That makes leading far more challenging than managing. Dealing with our own emotions is tough enough, trying to make sense of other people’s emotions can be more than a little daunting. That’s likely why so many people in leadership positions don’t try. They try to manage their people instead.

Another reason that happens is that over 70% of the people in leadership positions have no formal leadership training. None. Zippo. Zero. They also have had no mentoring from a successful leader. They are put into a leadership position and then expected to fend for themselves. It’s almost as if people think leadership just happens.

Make no mistake about this absolute fact…leaders are not born, they are trained. The training can take on different forms but absent some type of training it is exceptionally rare for Authentic Leadership to emerge. 

That makes for a difficult leadership experience, for both the leader and those they try to lead. 

I wish I could tell you that every company that promotes someone to a leadership position also provides them with the training to succeed as a leader. Unfortunately very few actually do. So be aware that just as it is in much of life, if success as a leader is meant to be then it’s likely up to you to make it happen.

So find yourself a leadership development program to enroll in. Maybe even more important, find yourself a leadership mentor. Someone you trust and admire as a leader and ask them to show you how they do it. 

If you’ve chosen the right person will be thrilled to invest their time to share their insights with you. 

One last point. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m diminishing the importance of solid management within every organization. Poor management is in fact the cause of many business failures. If you’re a great manager then your impact on an organization can be substantial. You are vital to the success of any organization. 

It’s important to understand however that being a great manager does not make you a great leader anymore than being a great leader makes you a great manager. Some people are blessed with both skillsets. Many are not and it’s incumbent upon you to know the difference. 

Questions of Leadership

People in leadership positions tell others what to do. Authentic Leaders ask others how they can help them do it. 

When I’m trying to determine someone’s leadership ability that’s one of the first things I watch for. Are they telling or are they asking. Authentic Leaders seldom wonder what’s going on in the lives of the people they lead. They seldom guess about why their people make the decisions they make. They don’t assume they know what motivates their people. They don’t need to assume because they have asked.

If you’re in a leadership position when was the last time you asked each of the people you lead how you can help them remain consistently motivated? When was the last time you asked them how their job or position was treating them. When was the last time you asked them about their goals or objectives…and not only professional goals but personal goals as well? When was the last time you asked them what you or the company could do to ensure they never feel the need to look elsewhere for employment? 

When was the last time you asked them specifically if they were certain that they were having an impact on the organization? When was the last time you asked them how you could help them be more effective? When was the last time you asked them how you could honor them? When was the last time you asked them anything at all? 

Here’s a question that many people in leadership positions would never think of asking. It’s also a question that Authentic Leaders ask fairly often. “How am I doing as a leader?” 

I’ll never ask someone in a leadership position how they are doing as a leader. It’s hard for any of us to see ourselves in the same way as others see us. So when I want to know how about the effectiveness of a particular leader I ask the people they lead. 

If you’ve established trust with the people you lead they will provide you with an honest answer. If you haven’t established trust with them then you’re not an effective leader. Sorry to be so direct and unequivocal with that but it’s a fact. You cannot lead people who do not trust you. 

I often hear from people in leadership positions that they don’t have time to ask these kinds of questions. Funny thing is I never hear that from Authentic Leaders. It’s not that Authentic Leaders have more time, it’s that they have their priorities in the proper order. They know that their own success is dependent upon the people they lead succeeding. 

They also know it is far easier to help them succeed if they invest the time to really know them. So they ask more and tell less. 

If You Just Don’t Care Then You Just Can’t Lead

I get asked often what the most important characteristic of leadership is. I determined that most people who asked that had already determined what it was. They wanted confirmation that the one of the characteristics they possessed was the most important. 

Many of the people asking were hoping humility wasn’t the most important. 

My answers to those questions put integrity at the top with judgement a very close second. I put integrity first because in my experience it was a lack of integrity that often caused otherwise sound judgement to go off the rails. But there are other almost as important characteristics for a leader to possess. 

A leader who is missing even a few of those characteristics, so long as integrity is present, can still lead. They will have some deficiencies but those can be overcome by strengths in other characteristics. 

But there is another characteristic of Authentic Leadership that doesn’t get the “ink” that it should. That characteristic is a caring heart. 

One of the truest bits of knowledge I know about Authentic Leadership is this… you can care for people without leading them but it is impossible to lead them without caring for them. 

If you do not care about other people then you cannot lead them. If you do not care about other people then you should not pretend to lead them. If you do not care about other people then you cannot lead…anyone. 

When one of the people who you are responsible for leading asks you for help how do you reply? With “I’m busy right now but as soon as I’m done I’ll help you.” Or with, How can I best help you now?” 

Are you willing to complete your work after you help someone else? Does your success matter more than the success of the people you lead? Do the people you lead get whatever time you have “left over” after you’ve taken care of your own needs? Have you discovered their strengths, hopes, goals and objectives outside of work? Do you see them as an individual or simply an employee? Are you more interested in what they can do for you than you are in what you can do for them? 

Have you ever even asked yourself those questions? 

This quote has been attributed to many people so I won’t attribute it to anyone, just know that it isn’t mine. The quote says “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” 

What are you doing to demonstrate that you care about the people you lead? What are you doing to show people in general that you care about them? One of the surest measures of Authentic Leadership is how the leader treats people who can do nothing for them. 

If you only care for people who can help you succeed then you’re missing the one characteristic of leadership that you must have in order to Authentically Lead.