Friday, April 15, 2011

KeFactors Friday: The Leader as “People Person”

Stadion CEO Tim Chapman advises young people entering the investment management business with this: “Remember there are people and stories behind those accounts. I’ve never had a client talk to me in [the language of the stock market]. What they do say is ‘I want to be able to educate my kids...’ so be a good people person.”

L for listening.

Without question, the best leaders are skilled listeners. Period.

E for engaging.

The writer Antoine St. Exupery said a leader could tell his people how to build boats, or teach them to love the sea. If the latter happens, those who follow will quickly—eagerly—learn everything they can about building boats, and they’ll learn a great deal about the sea as well. Managers engage their people at one level, for process improvement; leaders engage at another—for the longer view, the bigger picture, the enticing vision of what could be. Also, successful leaders are good at enhancing their customer’s vision of possibilities.

A for accountability.

People in formal roles of leadership can get away with a lot: the media is filled with stories of leaders who’ve helped themselves to company coffers, or we’ve worked for bosses who admonish employees for being slack or tardy while maintaining freewheeling work habits themselves. Bottom line: As a leader, you must be accountable in the same ways you’re holding your people accountable; and when it comes to customers, you must be consistent and disciplined in how you hold yourself accountable.

D for discretion.

I’ve talked with leaders who have no qualms about discussing their employees’ private lives and struggles. Some do this with compassion, in understanding the bigger picture of an individual’s life. Others trade in the currency of idle gossip. Gossip is natural—merely the way people connect to one another, especially in the workplace—but a leader who constantly dabbles in it is gambling with his authority. For a customer to know you’re into petty gossip triggers serious qualms about your professionalism.

E (again) for ego.

It’s natural for leaders to have large passions, but the successful ones balance their egos with constant self-reflection. They also surround themselves with loved ones who keep them grounded and help them through the most painful moments of self-reckoning. When it comes to customers, skilled leaders are, at their core, humble—not as a way of “sucking up,” but because they know their livelihoods would not exist otherwise.

R for reality-checking.

Leaders who surround themselves with sycophants and “yes men” are blocking off streams of crucial information. If informal advisors are driving away formal ones, if the ones in agreement with you are outnumbering those who maintain critical thinking positions, then you may have a problem on your hands, particularly if your advisors are blocking you from authentic customer insights (complaints). Surround yourself with people who aren’t afraid to tell you the truth as they see it. Deal real.

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