As 2013 comes to an end and 2014 appears on the horizon, business leaders are thinking about how to take their company, division or department to the next level. Those leaders wanting to ‘kick it up a notch’ are thinking about processes, goals and objectives. They are looking at how to improve their staff performance, organizational structure and sales and marketing strategies. While that is all good, perhaps it is also time for some self-examination. The top brass might start by considering its own impact on the team.
After all, just how much impact does a leader or owner of a business have on the success of his or her team, staff and direct reports? Can the employees of a business or division be just as successful functioning on their own as with a leader interacting with them? Just how necessary and important is the top leadership to a team’s productivity? That depends on their involvement and presence. It turns out that one of the best ways an executive leader can help a department succeed is by being present and available.
Being ‘Present’ is a Present
Studies have shown that there is a measurable difference in a group or team’s results when there was senior leadership involvement. A study done by Stacia Garr of Bersin & Associates in August 2011 entitled High-Impact Performance Management looked at the effect of senior leader involvement on performance. Garr found that of those organizations with very frequent executive engagement, 81% had strong business results – and none had below-average business results. Only 35% of organizations with infrequent executive engagement had strong business results.
Unfortunately, though, most senior leaders did not seem to understand the impact they could have. The Bersin research found that only 11% of senior leaders “very frequently” coach their employees and 15% of leaders discuss the importance of coaching and development with employees “very frequently.” Ironically, most organizations (70%) claimed that they had a coaching and development performance management philosophy – but very few leaders were actually modeling that behavior. Also, according to survey results, managers’ inability to effectively coach their employees was the number one challenge.
Another study done in December 2009 by Anita L. Tucker, an associate professor in the Technology and Operations Management unit at Harvard Business School, looked at the role managers play in process improvement. She found that while managers play a critical role in process improvement, research showed that many improvement efforts actually failed precisely due to insufficient management involvement.
Since less was known about the mechanisms to foster management involvement and their impact on the organization in order to predict success, the study addressed this gap with a field experiment suggested by Toyota’s problem-solving process. Three related process improvement activities were tested:
(1) interacting with workers to learn about problems,
(2) ensuring that action is taken to address the problems, and
(3) communicating about actions taken.
Sixty-nine randomly selected hospitals participated in the experiment. Of those, 20 were selected arbitrarily to engage in the three activities for 18-months. Survey results showed that identifying problems had a negative impact on organizational climate while taking action had a positive impact. The results suggested that solving problems as they arise (e.g. Toyota’s approach) with intense and substantive actions was much more productive and effective than gathering information about large numbers of potential problems to solve (such as done in incident reporting systems). Providing feedback about actions taken negatively impacted frontline workers’ perceptions. Qualitative results suggest that communication can backfire when managers go through the motions of process improvement activities without making a sincere effort to actively listen, be involved and resolve staff concerns.
No Magic Formula
Consider the parable of the Charm. A business owner once asked a wise man for help improving an unprofitable business. The wise man wrote a ‘charm’ on a piece of paper and sealed it in a box which he gave to the business owner. “Do not open the box but take this box to every worker in your business every day for a year,” he told him.
The business owner did so. On the first day, he carried it into the store in the morning and asked the store’s supervisor about the level of Quality Control on manufactured goods. Later, when he carried the box to the production area, he saw that the Production Manager was in his office reading the newspaper. They discussed the need to be visible on the factory floor. During the afternoon, he carried the box into the Engineering Shop. The business owner found the Engineering Supervisor trying to balance the department’s budget. He helped him by showing an easier way. Every day, as he took the box around his business, he found things to discuss with the staff and help them improve their performance.
At the end of the year, he returned to the wise man. “Please let me keep the lucky charm for another year,” he begged. “My business has been a hundred times more profitable this year than ever before and my staff is happy.” The wise man smiled and took the box. “I’ll give you the charm itself,” he said. He broke the seal, lifted out the piece of paper and handed it to the business owner. On the paper was written:
“You cannot be a leader by being invisible. Your results are obtained through your employees. By coaching your staff, you are treating them with respect and allowing them to grow and improve. It is your constant personal communication with your workers that will help them develop.”
Being Present is More Mental than Physical
Being present is a crucial business skill. Little can be achieved without being active and involved. Being present can mean being physically in the room… in the space. But with the world of telecommuting, being present can mean being available by video conference, phone or email…. in other words, being available. What it really means is being present mentally. That involves actively listening and taking in information, engaging in dialogue and offering insight and guidance.
What does that look like for a business leader? If an executive or director is in a department meeting, the focus should be on the conversation that’s happening in that moment. It involves listening to what people have to say and processing it. It does not mean sitting there with a glazed look, fading in and out of the conversation, only to have an employee ask a question that cannot be answered because of inattention. For those that have trouble staying ‘in the moment,’ it can help to take notes in order to stay on track and not begin thinking about something else.
If a manager is meeting with a team member, the manager should turn off or silence their phone or tablet. Laptops should be closed, especially email accounts. All distractions should be eliminated so that the complete focus is on that person.
As business owners and leaders start planning for 2014, they should begin by looking inward. It is important to understand that one of the most important aspects of leadership is active engagement and involvement with those on the team. Being present – mentally connected and available – is an essential part of coaching, guiding, mentoring, managing and directing. The success of the department, division or company begins with its leaders being truly available and engaged.
Quote of the Week
“The greatest gift you can give (yourself or anyone else) is just being present.” Rasheed Ogunlaru
© 2013, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.