I thoroughly enjoy working with new first line leaders who’ve just moved into that role. And I like working with seasoned CEOs who may not have ready access to what their peers are doing.
Leaders make the weather. We watch their body language, note their tone of voice and facial expressions. Where they sit, how they get to work, what’s first and last on their agendas, and questions they ask or don’t all get noticed. We pay close attention to what they wear, who they promote and who they ignore. Then, we often do what they do.
When you take a leadership role, you’re stepping into a fishbowl. People will take their cues from you and will replicate your behavior.
- If you’re late, your people will be late.
- Take copious notes at meetings, and your people will take copious notes at meetings.
- If you’re aggressively challenging your people, your people will aggressively challenge their people.
- Ask supportive questions, and your people will ask supportive questions.
Leaders must be what they want others to be.
Based on my observations of leaders over many years, there are four primary ways they communicate their priorities.
1. How they use their time
When I’m coaching leaders, I often begin with a calendar review. I ask the leaders to keep track of what they do over the next week or month. We then sort the work into broad categories.
One client, the CEO of a health care financing company, spent a high percentage of his time talking about the importance of customers. But his employees didn’t think he put much emphasis on customers. His calendar review revealed that he spent only about 10 percent of his time with customers or on customer issues.
So he began managing his calendar more strategically and spending more time with customers. After two months, his management team told me Ben was more focused on customers. “He’s getting his point about the importance of customers across much better.”
2. What they take the lead on
“When will you know the company’s serious about cutting costs?” I asked a group of employees gathered around a conference table at a Midwestern retailer. “When management cuts their costs,” an employee shot back.
I’ve asked the “When will you know…” question more than a hundred times and more than a hundred times, people answer with a variation on the same thing: “When the leaders go first.”
3. The questions they ask
This is the power of asking and listening. If you preach the importance of customer satisfaction but always ask people about their production numbers, should you be surprised if they think you put production first and customer satisfaction second?
I worked with the former CEO of Hallmark Cards, Irv Hockaday. Irv frequently spoke about the company’s business strategy and vision, then asked people in the audience questions that signaled his priorities.
His first question: “What do I need to do or stop doing to help you realize your full potential—to be the best you can be?”
Second question: “What are our customers saying? What do we need to do to be more responsive to them?”
The final question was about business process improvement efforts the company was undertaking. “Are we making our processes faster and more efficient? Is it making it easier for you to do your work?”
Three questions about three values: people, customers and processes. Irv’s questions communicated his priorities and what he needed to do to help both his employees and customers succeed.
4. Who and what they reward and recognize
We all like to be rewarded or recognized for our contributions. When it’s clear what gets rewarded or recognized, then we’re clear about what we need to do—what actions we need to take.
When a leader gives one of her employees $5,000 for an innovative idea that almost worked but eventually flopped, she’s communicating that it’s O.K. to keep stretching and trying, even if it means that you don’t always succeed.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Leaders have multiple opportunities each day to communicate their priorities. What is critical is that their walk and talk communicate the same thing.