Back to Basics

Developing a leadership vision and strategy, influencing change, making effective decisions, managing conflict, and driving for results are just a few of the competencies most critical for leaders. Organizations try to groom leaders in these skills, and aspiring executives often focus their self-development in these areas.

Our colleague Meg Drago asserts, however, that in focusing on big picture leadership development goals, many executives too often forget to practice the “basics” that can really make a difference. Below, Meg shares her thoughts on some of the “basics” that, if not attended to, can have potentially serious negative effects on employee engagement, productivity, and even reputation.

SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF! We all know an executive who never says good morning or hello, as well as one who constantly interrupts or ignores others. Research has proven that one of the key drivers of employee engagement and commitment is the connection employees have with their managers. Fundamentally, people want to belong, to make a difference, to contribute, and to feel like part of something. Leaders must be self-aware and willing to adapt their behaviors to the needs of the team. If you are a leader, make no mistake about it: your team is watching your every move. They interpret your facial expressions, talk about the “mood” you are in on any given day, and read into your silence, your reactions, and your attitude. Be aware and thoughtful about how your state of mind comes across. What is your body language saying if you are frowning? Looking worried? Smiling? It’s often the “little” things (what you say or don’t say, do or don’t do) that can make or break your credibility as a leader.

IS ANYONE LISTENING? You are the leader, with the experience, the education, the knowledge, and the vision. And you hired the best people to work with you to bring that vision into reality. How often do you take the time to solicit input from them and listen . . . without jumping in with your own point of view? Are you curious and open? Try this exercise: with a curious mindset, simply ask questions and listen to a member of your team for 10 minutes. Do not interject or make statements; just ask questions and be curious. Ask questions such as: What do you make of that? What is your conclusion? What opportunity does that present? Take note of how often you were tempted to interrupt during the 10 minutes. And afterwards, pay attention to the reactions of your team member to your authentic listening mode. Being curious helps filter out judgment and opens up your ability to truly listen. Taking the time to hear someone, really hear her, will build trust and inspire confidence. Ask for her thoughts and give her the time to tell you her ideas and challenges (without a Blackberry in your hand) and you will immediately start to see an improvement in the quality of the dialogue. (You might also try this exercise with your spouse!)

WHO CARES? Many studies show that senior executives who sincerely care about, and are committed to, their employees benefit from significant improvements in employee effort. Treating people with respect is a core leadership “basic.” Unfortunately, more often than not, leaders have no idea when their words or actions have upset someone, or that they have been rude or disrespectful. As a start, think about and notice how often you are simply saying “please” and “thank you” during the work-day. Using these words can go a long way towards building a perception of caring and respect. Experiment with sincerely thanking someone as the opener for a conversation, and watch what happens to the level of effort and willingness the person exhibits. Showing appreciation makes people feel that what they do matters, that they are part of something meaningful, and that they are needed.

BE THERE (IN MIND, BODY, AND SPIRIT). You are a demanding leader with high expectations from your people. They have spent weeks preparing diligently for a critical meeting to review a proposal and gain your approval to move ahead. The time has come: every detail is worked out, the presentation is perfect, coffee is poured, and everyone is seated and ready . . . except for you. You arrive 10 minutes late, and enter with a flurry. With one quick glance you tell the presenter to start, and then you begin working on your Blackberry. Your body is in the room, but are you really there? Tentatively, your star manager begins to present while you multi-task. Then, within minutes, you are called out of the room for a “business emergency,” and you leave behind a demoralized, disappointed, and de-motivated team.

Being fully present is a leadership act that generates great human energy. When you are fully present, people will be drawn towards you because they will feel like you are working to understand their thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs. Fully engaging in the moment can be practiced and refined. First, don’t let your body hold you back. Before starting a meeting, close your eyes for a minute or two and breathe calmly. Allow the tension you are holding in your body to flow out with your breath. Then, with a calm start underway, notice your eye contact, your body language, your level of listening without judgment, and your behaviors of respect. Your ability to be fully present will significantly influence your team’s level of engagement and productivity.

The above are just a few examples of how you can get “back to basics” and meaningfully improve your leadership effectiveness. If you have other ideas or examples, please share them with us: