What People Need Most from Leaders: A note to Senior Management

By STEVE COATS

In our work with many different organizations, we hear a lot of things that are going on at all levels of the business. Interestingly enough, we are now hearing some common issues repeated over and over at the middle manager and director level. We thought we would highlight them for you. There is nothing new in the issues, but there is a very important conclusion. People have consistently told us the one thing that will make the greatest difference in resolving these issues. We will share that with you too.

Common Issues:

There are four key items that keep surfacing from middle managers, no matter what company, industry, size or scope. They are:

1) Rampant change — which is creating a pervasive feeling among workers that everything is built on shifting sand. Organizational change and restructuring is continuing at a breakneck pace, as are mergers, acquisitions and other types of corporate arrangements. And the revolving door in the executive suites seems to be producing a great deal of unsettling turnover in key positions at the top.

2) The bustling economy — which is providing an unparalleled number of external opportunities for workers. Recruiting the right people has become a much tougher challenge, and there is a growing imbalance between the capabilities needed for the future and the right people to fill those positions today. We are frequently told by managers that they have to tolerate cynical or negative behavior of some of their associates, because they need the technical skill set that these people possess. This is especially true in the high technology industries.

3) The enormous amount of work — which is knocking peoples’ lives clearly out of balance. Many people would not consider a vacation without a laptop. Conference calls late at night or on holidays and weekends are commonplace. We heard one individual talk about e-mail received in megabytes per day! As one senior manager even told us, “no matter how much you do, it is never enough.”

4) Strong silo walls — which is producing a frustrating feeling of internal strife and competition. There is clearly more talk about collaboration than action in organizations today. Organization walls are thick as ever, resulting in redundancy, poor resource utilization, and political decisions taking precedence over customers. Is it any wonder that innovation and time to market is lagging in a number of companies today.

The Solution:

The good news is there’s a common solution that spans all of these issues. What managers consistently tell us they need from their senior managers is Vision. Specifically, managers and workers throughout the business say they desperately need a vision that is:

clearly focused on overall direction and purpose

inspiring — not just a series of financial targets

constantly communicated and referenced during important decisions

translated and connected down the ranks

Now, here’s the rub. The word vision is bantered about so freely today, that it has lost its true meaning and value for many senior managers. From our observations, most would in fact agree that vision is important. It is just less important than current financial performance.

There are some compelling reasons for senior managers to rethink their position on the importance of vision. After all, associates in every part of the business are screaming for it. Consider some of these reasons:

1) People need to know the direction their companies are going. (Remember rampant change?) They want some assurances that they are working on the right things. They want to eliminate the redundant work that frequently occurs and do original, breakthrough work. They need to know their work is serving a purpose, and is not just creating entries on performance appraisals.

2). Although quarterly performance targets might be enough of a vision for analysts, it is not enough to inspire employees to greatness. People need to know that their long hours, boring meetings, conflicts with people in other divisions and sometimes lousy bosses are contributing to something more than company profit. As one VP cited about her company, which was doing quite well financially, “people say the company no longer has a soul.” And as you might suspect, good people are indeed leaving this firm.

On the other hand, workers do understand profit and financial objectives. They know how important it is to “make the numbers.” Although they will always have moments of complaining about unfairness or lack of entitlements, they know there will always, absolutely always, be financial pressures. That’s why it is called “work.” Senior managers – have some faith that your people recognize and accept this.

Workers understand Wall Street, but they live their lives on Main Street. They like to know what they do makes a difference. Think about these examples. In one wireless communications company with whom we work, increasing revenues in foreign countries is a very clear and very stressful objective. But the people are going after it, not just because that’s what they are paid to do. They feel a tremendous sense of pride knowing they are giving people in countries like China the ability to communicate for the first time, to keep in touch with distant friends or ailing parents. The associates in a retail optical company are working relentlessly to meet their breathtaking growth and profit targets, which have been astonishing. But you should hear the pride and joy they express when describing the number of less privileged people around the world who for the first time, have the gift of sight, because of their company.

People want to be inspired and quite simply, numbers are just not enough!

3) The final reason for vision may be the most important of all. People in the company need to know that senior management, is “in.” They need ongoing evidence that people at the top are committed to a common future, not just more sizable executive compensation or additional power.

In most organizations, middle managers do not get to deal much with senior management. But one thing is certain. The actions of an individual executive or a senior team gets magnified 1000-fold — particularly if they involve turf issues. Senior managers will often be seen as working independently instead of for the good of the total enterprise — especially if there has been a parade of constantly changing faces in the executive suite.

People become inspired and driven by visions that are clear, communicated and connected throughout the business. Vision gives the employees the confidence that the entire company is aligned and working together, rather than a series of independent silo’s competing with each other. And boy is there a lot of that!

Vision enables all associates to come to work everyday with heads held high, knowing how their day to day tasks contribute and make a difference. That’s helpful to your facilities people, who have the often thankless jobs of keeping your plants and offices livable, your programmers who live in the world of complicated computer code, and everyone else who draws a paycheck from your company.

Everyone’s work is pressure-packed these days and people want to be able to justify why they come to work. How much longer do you believe people will put up with the hours, the stress, fickle and demanding customers, and sometimes crazy bosses just so the company can make more money. Especially when there is an abundance of outside companies that offer a chance for more meaningful work along with the tough goals.

A couple of last notes to all of you who are senior managers. First, we find that people at all levels truly do understand how tough your work is. They know you do not have all the answers and are constantly debating strategic direction. They know you have tremendous responsibilities, and that your decisions have massive impact on many peoples’ lives. They also know financial performance is vital — to you and the continuing health of the business. They want to help you.

Finally, vision is not about the “exact wording” on a wallet card or wall plaque. It is about the future – a future where achievements are rewarded and rewarding. As leaders of the business, you have an obligation to take your companies prosperously forward. When there is no vision, your people often hold back, for very good reasons. However, when you clarify the direction you want people to go and inspire them to accomplish things they have never done before (or thought possible), you will be amazed at the amount of help they will provide.

International Leadership Associates Ā©1999

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