"They won't care how much you know until they know how much you care," holds the old adage. It's simple, basic, even trite. Yet think back and name the leaders who have cared for you. I can guarantee that it's a short list because most leaders don't get it. Their mouths say they care (and I believe most really do), but their actions tell a different story. They don't know how to care and consequently appear to care only for themselves. I see it every day. Many common leadership actions scream, "I care more about myself than I do about you -- or the enterprise." As you read these descriptions, see if any hit home.
TALKING TOO MUCH. You put your needs in front of others'. You self-promote, overuse the word I and rarely question. Because of your self-centered viewpoint, you are unable to play an enabling role by helping others find the right answers and gain credit for the results.
FORGETTING THAT PEOPLE HAVE DREAMS. You assume that people want to get promoted within the context of their current position. You begin development discussions with "This is what you need to do to get to the next level" rather than exploring how employees can build the skills they will need to mesh their long-term goals with the interests of the enterprise. Finding that sweet spot energizes employees.
REFUSING TO REPLACE POOR PERFORMERS. Everybody waits for you to do the right thing, but you fail to give honest feedback and spend entirely too much time trying to mitigate or work around the problems created by inadequate job performance. As a result, teams are not able to function without intervention, and strong performers have to make up for others' weaknesses. Everybody is frustrated when the solution seems so obvious and close at hand.
PLAYING DEFENSE. You allow work to flow into the organization unfiltered. Rather than playing offense -- by defining the work that will and will not get done, clarifying objectives and ensuring adequate staffing -- you are reduced to acting defensively. You try to bolster performance by micromanaging employees and overcontrolling their work. Some of your managers don't get the support they need and feel ignored and professionally at risk, while others get too much scrutiny and feel a lack of trust and respect. Everyone is working too hard for too little, in both results and recognition.
IGNORING THE FOREST FOR THE TREES. You focus on strategy at the expense of delivery. You overlook the need to interact with the front line of the organization in order to challenge your perceptions of reality and road-test your strategies. By staying in the corner office, you delegate the critical work of the organization too quickly (before the work is really understood) and too far away (buried deep in your organization). As a result, you become isolated and communicate to your staffers that what they do isn't all that important and that you are out of touch.
Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't, describes the attributes of a great leader. After conducting his own empirical research, Collins concluded that great leaders have a "paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will." Their personal humility is evinced in their willingness to learn from others, serve as a guiding hand and let the team receive credit. At the same time, these leaders demonstrate the professional will to make the hard decisions about people, confront the truth about what can and should be done, and dig down to the details when necessary.
Why do so few leaders fulfill Collins's ideal? Perhaps because they were never really cared for themselves. It's the "abused leaders abuse" syndrome. If you are an abuser and believe that people are just a means to your end, do everyone a favor and transition to an individual contributor role, like investment banking or consulting. If you are one of the good guys and the actions I described above made you a little squeamish, then it's time to break the cycle of abuse. Most managers find leadership assessments based on 360-degree feedback to be very helpful in identifying their problem areas and monitoring their progress. As you face the (sometimes) brutal truths and summon the courage to change, take heart in the fact that by serving others, you will also serve yourself. As Collins found, leaders at superior companies "loved what they did, largely because they loved who they did it with."
Susan Cramm answers questions on "Show Them That You Care"
Q: A fundamental problem facing our society is that we seem to be economically structured in ways that virtually prevent caring in the workplace. When caring happens, it's a heroic behavior, even though it contributes to the long-term interests of an organization. What's really going to cause a change in this institutionalized behavior of not caring?
A: Jim Collins's research in Good to Great makes it clear that caring pays off and should not be a function of economics. Unfortunately, caring does not pay off (except in people's hearts) in the short term -- the time frame defined by Wall Street's attention span and the average executive tenure. Looking toward the horizon, however, I am optimistic because we are getting older demographically and, I hope, wiser.
Q: I am not familiar with 360-degree leadership assessment but would like to submit to one. We have no budget, however. Any self-help suggestions?
A: Just by your willingness to undergo self-assessment, I am sure that you are a better leader than you think. If you want to challenge yourself with a 360, here's a low-cost alternative: Contact MJ International (www.corporatelibrary.org) and purchase its Leadership Practices Inventory materials. For less than $200, you will have all the materials (including tabulation software) to conduct a good, high-level leadership assessment. Good luck!
Q: What are your suggestions for dealing with a manager who exhibits many of these qualities?
A: First and foremost, forget about changing your boss; work on yourself. Figure out what you need that you aren't getting from your manager and get it from somebody else (this can include yourself). For example, if your boss is a self-promoter and your team is not getting the recognition it deserves, enlist support from clients you serve. If you aren't having productive career conversations with your boss, don't wait for him to ask about your dreams; make sure he knows. If there is a poor performer in your group, don't be a martyr and silently suffer. If your boss doesn't have a strategy, offer to facilitate a strategy for the organization. If your tactics are being ignored, see if you can position yourself as the COO. If this all seems impossible, move on -- and be very careful about selecting your next boss.
Q: What's the best way a company can evaluate how well it does in this area? An employee survey?
A: Start by ascertaining whether the senior leadership is truly interested in developing great leaders along the dimensions I've discussed. Conduct an employee survey only if leaders are truly interested in taking action over the long term. The survey will raise expectations, and a lack of follow-up would be a clear sign of "not caring." If you proceed with an employee survey, then move on to 360-degree leadership assessments.