Flying to Sacramento, California on Monday, I sat beside an interesting individual on my four and a half hour flight from my connection in Atlanta until we touched down on the west coast. The individual was a 23 year old young lady who was going on a business trip for the first time. It was easy to tell that she was nervous, as she was fidgety in her seat prior to takeoff, and started conversation with awkward comments and nervous laughter. After listening to her a little bit, I began to relate and remembered my first work trip and what it was like to not know what to expect.
Our conversation became more interesting when she began to ask my opinion on how to handle leadership situations. While I have been in a senior leadership position for a few years now, I’m still young at only 33, and have a hard time seeing myself as someone to give career advice to young professionals or as a professional mentor in general. However, she inquired so I gave feedback. Our focus for most of the discussion was communication and follow-up, areas which I believe are keys to being a successful leader at any level. I am a firm believer that setting good habits in both areas will lead to greater success down the road.
After landing, and subsequently deciding that my experience was one that appropriate for this blog, I decided to research into the advice that I had given the young lady, to see what scientific backing there may be for my approach to leading my teams.
It has been my experience that too many times, we focus on past events when communicating with our teams. I am guilty of past focused communication daily, regardless of how hard I try to focus on future outcomes. Past events warrant discussion and are valid topics however leaders tend to focus on the past too often instead of focusing on the future. In fact, research has shown that 80% of work related conversations are spent discussing past events and assigning blame to events that did not go well, 15% of conversations are focused on what is currently happening, leaving only 5% to talk about future outcomes, direction and solutions. (CRM Learning , 2013) In summary, as leaders, 95% of time is spent discussing things that have occurred and the outcome cannot be changed. Instead of driving innovation, change and looking for new ways to create value, leaders instead spend a vast majority of their time rehashing potential failure and bad habits. Even when the past outcomes are positive, we tend to focus on the past result.
Last year, I created a new template for my team meetings. In the age of teams that are “conference called” to the point of non-productivity, I wanted to figure out how to make the most of the necessary evil. Part of that template was instructing my team to only spend five minutes on non-safety related events of the past week (Note, working in an operations environment where safety of teammates is paramount, I believe having a deep understanding of safety incidents and thorough review is important). The teammate then has ten minutes to deliver what they are doing differently to drive value to our customers, our teammates, and our company.
As I told this to the young lady, I could tell she was confused. Being in her first management role out of college, her experience was limited and she was used to the 85/15/5 communication breakdown that plagues many leaders. As I stated prior, I have the same issue of still focusing on the past too often. A Division Manager I used to work with had a favorite phrase that that did not just annoy me, but made me angry. “Do not talk about the birth, simply show me the baby,” was a comment he would make at least once in review meetings. As I gained stature and respect, my retort became “if we don’t talk about the issues that caused pain during the child birth, how can we prevent it in the future?” This angered the Division Manager, not because I was being unprofessional or challenging his authority, but because my counter point is a valid statement and should be something a great leader does. If we do not work to prevent the same thing from happening, we will never improve. If we do not improve, our competition will end up surpassing us. If we are passed, we suddenly become irrelevant.
However, when communicating with a team, it is important that we step away from the past focus in order to motivate our teams to be better, to engage them to want to do more, and ultimately, to gain their trust. My project worked and I still use the format today. While I have always had fairly high employee engagement scores on employee opinion surveys, my scores increased from an 80% positive level pre-meeting change to a level above 90% post change. During individual sessions with my teammates, the message was clear. By shifting the focus of the specific meeting to talk about what we will do different, they felt empowered, engaged, and ultimately felt a sense of pride that was different than the past.
The second major item we discussed was timely and honest follow up communication. While it may seem like another obvious leadership approach, I have two specific reasons for making it a focus item. First, I believe it is the right thing to do. I have yet to meet an individual in life who has not felt chided by a lack of follow up to a question or concern, be it a student in school, a consumer at a store, or in work situation. While it may not be the case for others, I feel highly disrespected should I not receive timely and honest follow up. I feel unimportant. I feel jaded. In my mind, courtesy is one of the most virtuous activities a human can have in interactions with others, and a lack of follow up, or dishonest follow up, lacks courtesy.
Second, I believe that by having timely and honest follow up, my team will perform at a higher level, and in all be more engaged, even if the follow up does not yield the communication that the teammate wants to hear. Two weeks ago, I was talking to a group of teammates who recently transitioned to our organization. After asking the team if they had any questions about our organization and the subsequent five minute prodding for folks to boldly ask questions, the teammates began to gain comfort and ask questions. I answered each question to the best of my ability and responded that I would follow up to each question I could not answer. That evening in the hotel room, I spent three hours contacting partners getting answers to the questions I could not answer. Even if I knew the answer would not necessarily be considered positive in nature, each question was answered.
The next morning, I cancelled any meetings on my schedule and I met individually with every teammate who had a question I could not answer. Knowing that the team had heard the questions and would wonder what the answers might be, I asked permission to share the individual feedback with the greater team. Each and every time, the teammate shook my hand and thanked me for taking the time to provide the follow up I did. Prior to leaving, many teammates sought me out, asking when I would return. As a senior leader, it is fulfilling to know that I was quickly able to begin the trust building process with new teammates. In the past month, productivity at that site is up 9% since the transition date. I’m not foolish enough to think that my interaction is the only, or even the primary, reason for the increase but I do believe that it had an impact.
After four hours of talking about my philosophy and approach to business, which is neither earth shattering or unique, we ended the conversation on a single prevailing thought that came from our conversation. Successful leaders engage their teammates and partners at a high level.
According to Gallup research, organizations with highly engaged employees have 3.9 times the Earnings Per Share (EPS) growth rate of organizations who have low levels of employee engagement as measured by employee opinion surveys. (Kelleher, 2015) Sadly, research shows that only 31% of employees in the United States feel engaged in their current jobs. In an even more staggering statistic, this is the highest engagement percentage since Gallup began annual measurements in the year 2000. (Adkins, 2015) Globally, the statistics are drastically worse. In a 2013 survey representing 180 million employees in 142 different countries, only 13% of employees felt that they were engaged at work. (Crabtree, 2013) It is staggering that even though research has shown that employee engagement leads to significantly greater profitability, leaders in organizations are failing to properly engage their team members.
When I think about those statistics and my personal outlook on leadership, it validates that my focus points can have a significant impact. I am far from being a great leader, but my focus of ensuring that communication is future focused and that I follow up with timely and honest feedback makes my teams feel more engaged, which in turn produces a higher result. For the young lady that I shared a flight with, I feel great pride in knowing my advice has scientific backing and that she may able to use my thoughts to make herself more successful.
She asked for help navigating the airport and getting to the rental car counter, even asking what she should do when she arrived so I helped her along the way. As we shook hands at the rental car center, I couldn’t help but think of the irony of the situation, that we just talked about engaging teammates for four hours and in four hours, I had gained enough of her trust that she was looking to me for insight on how to complete tasks that her manager should have covered with her prior to her trip. I gave her my business card and thanked her, as these discussions made me better and I looked forward to hearing from her should she ever have questions or need advice. Even if I never hear from her again, I feel good knowing that our conversation could have a significant impact on her future as a leader.
Adkins, A. (2015, January 15). Majority of U.S. Employees Not Engaged Despite Gains in 2014. Retrieved from Gallup: http://www.gallup.com/poll/181289/majority-employees-not-engaged-despite-gains-2014.aspx?utm_source=EMPLOYEE_ENGAGEMENT&utm_medium=topic&utm_campaign=tiles
Crabtree, S. (2013, October 8). Worldwide, 13% of Employees Are Engaged at Work. Retrieved from Gallup: http://www.gallup.com/poll/165269/worldwide-employees-engaged-work.aspx
CRM Learning . (2013, August 25). How Good Workplace Communication Improves Employee Morale. Retrieved from CRM Learning : http://www.crmlearning.com/blog/index.php/2013/08/communication-improves-employee-morale/
Kelleher, B. (2015, February 15). Employee Engagement Surveys: The Secret Sauce of Successful Businesses. Retrieved from Monster: http://hiring.monster.com/hr/hr-best-practices/workforce-management/employee-performance-management/employee-engagement-survey.aspx