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The owner was pompous. He relished being “the boss.” He was middle-aged. I was in college. This was retail. I was selling stereo gear and going to school. He was just another boss teaching me how NOT to lead and manage. Fact was, in my opinion, he wasn’t good (or effective) at either. But thankfully he had a manager who both good and effective. In that one job, I was able to watch and learn both sides of the coin. How not to do it. How to do it.
Here we were on the frontlines of retailing serving customers for hours each day. We heard their questions. We heard their requests. Every day we stood toe-to-toe in conversation with our customers. The owner never sought out our opinions or insights. It frustrated all of us.
Instead, he barked out orders, passed down edicts and made policy changes that seemed whimsical. I never remember him approaching us, or asking us to approach him. Daily I’d think, “There’s quite a bit of brain power running around here. Why doesn’t he tap into it?” The answer was pretty simple: he was too busy being “the boss” to care. Like so many bosses, he behaved as though he were the smartest guy in the room (any room). Who were we? A bunch of college kids! Nobodies.
Bosses of all ilks are susceptible to the same blind spots. Getting it wrong by diminishing the value of their team. Collectively and individually.
Come on, you’re the boss! There’s no way your team members can know more you. No way they can know better than you. Why should you engage them in problem-solving?
Have you ever seen an episode of that TV show, Undercover Boss? Todd Pedersen, CEO and Founder of Vivint, Inc. appeared on one episode back in 2015. One scene reveals how it’s not about being the smartest guy or gal in the room. It’s about asking questions and listening. Todd is working alongside a woman who works in the call center. Vivint was founded by Todd as a home security company. The call center is deep in the trenches of the company’s service priority. This is the front line of customer interaction with the company. These employees wear headsets as they’re fielding many phones each hour. Todd has a headset and the employee who is training him also has on a headset. That way, Todd is able to listen in on the same call and he can take a call with his trainer on the line, too. She takes a call. The static is so bad she can’t hear the customer. Professionally, she does her very best to help the customer, but it’s painful for both her and the customer. The headset is constantly cutting in and out. When the call ends, she complains to Todd that they’ve been lobbying for upgrades to their headsets for a long time, but it seems nobody listens. The VP of the division isn’t responsive to their input.
You can see Todd begin to fume. Here is his company, in a high tech industry, with phones that are scratchy and can’t maintain a good connection. As I watched it, back when it first aired, I was reminded of what I’d read back in 1987 by Scandinavian Airlines System CEO, Jan Carlzon, in the book – Moments Of Truth. If the flipdown trays on the planes have coffee stains, then passengers wonder if the maintenance is any good. He said,
SAS is ‘created’ 50 million times a year, 15 seconds at a time. These 50 million ‘moments of truth’ are the moments that ultimately determine whether SAS will succeed or fail as a company. They are the moments when we must prove to our customers that SAS is their best alternative.
Todd Pedersen knew that, but like so many leaders in growing companies, he realized he had lost touch. Worse yet, he had a boss working for him, the VP of the call center, who wasn’t listening. Nobody was listening to this hourly worker who was answering tons of calls from customers every single day. They’re smarter than her. So they thought.
Pedersen revamped the entire phone system.
Leaders make decisions. Our job is to serve the people we’re commissioned to lead. We forget that. We may wrongly think our job is to be large and in charge. And we most certainly have management responsibilities. But the work is different. Congruent, but different.
Leaders lead people. Managers manage the work done by those people.
In YOU both roles are rolled up into one person. One position. It doesn’t matter if you’re the owner/founder, CEO, VP or a team leader of a small band of employees. The scope and scale of your work may differ from others, but leading and managing are still the role — and the job. And you can’t do either of them well if you can’t make good decisions. You can’t make good decisions if you limit the information and data available. And you do that every time you refuse to listen to others. Their insight, experience and knowledge will make you better. If you avail yourself of it.
Todd Pedersen’s VP could have listened to the front line people who worked under his leadership. But he didn’t. He failed. Fact was, based on the big problem with the phone systems, he was failing as a leader and a manager. He could have wildly succeeded as both if he’d listened, made a proper determination and acted. If you’re the CEO, why do you need a VP like that around? You don’t. He serves nobody!
What Can You Do Today?
- Privately, one-on-one, approach your direct reports with a single question, “What’s the one thing you need from me today to help you do your job better?”
- Then shut up and listen.
- Take in the information from each of them and follow up for clarification if you must, but make a decision.
- Take action.
Many leaders are appropriately concerned about culture. Some engage months of consulting to help them figure out ways to improve their culture. Save your money. Start asking better questions aimed at helping you better serve your team members, then listen. Not to patronize them, but to take meaningful action that will elevate everybody’s performance. Ping me and let me know how that works out because I already know how it’s gonna work out. Your culture will improve very quickly as team members realize you’re really interested. You care. You listen. You do something about the problems.
Oh, and one final thing. Don’t forget to thank them after you hear what they have to say.
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