Do you know where you are going? I sometimes ask people the tired question about where they see themselves in five years. You would be surprised at what I hear back. Many haven’t really thought about it. Many more have only a vague sense of what they want their future to look like. Look, it’s not that you need to have everything crystallized, but if you don’t know where you are going, then how can you help your team members chart their own course? Yeah, I know. Some people will say, “not my problem.” I would proffer that it should be your problem. At least in some way. Leaders get the best from their people when they help those people plan for their future. And, breaking news, that plan may not include working on your team. Great! Now we are finally being honest. Every professional I have met wants to improve. Help them chart the course. If you get to keep a superstar for 2-3 years before they move on, it will be a great 2-3 years. Over time, you will earn a reputation as a real pro. Superstars like working with other superstars.
I just finished reading Turning the Flywheel by Jim Collins (highly recommend). This is a short book that builds on the flywheel concept he first illustrated in his earlier book, Good to Great (also highly recommend). This sentence from his new book struck a chord with me: “To build an enduring great organization…you need disciplined people, who engage in disciplined thought and take disciplined action to produce superior results…” What resonated with me is that the people you have “on the bus,” as Collins would say, is where everything starts. It’s what matters first and foremost. No thing can become what it can ultimately become without the right people. So, as leaders, if we want to realize our thing, whatever that is, then our people should be our primary focus. And, if we assume that position, then another question arises: “What does it mean to make my people my primary focus?” Aha! This is where the rubber meets the road. This is why we get the big bucks. Because this is where we tie our philosophy to our daily actions.
A ping pong table? Great! Free lunch? Sounds good! Flexible work arrangements? Wow! I haven’t found anyone who doesn’t love perks (me included). But perks have a shelf life. And, their shelf life is much shorter than you think it is. The reason? We turn perks into expectations faster than water turns into ice on a cold night. Once we expect it, the upside vanishes. (BT Dubs, if lunch is ever cancelled, we get indignant!) So, tune up the perks, but don’t expect that to be your great differentiator. They may help you get people, but they won’t help you necessarily keep them. Here is one strategy to try instead, if you are trying to retain. Start systematically investing in your team members’ professional development. Help them chart a course of professional development over the next few years. Help them think through their longer term goals. Write it all down. Then, find training opportunities that align with their goals. It should be unique to the person, never canned. Regularly, encourage them, help to guide, and celebrate their achievements. Personal and professional growth is a much more robust differentiator.
If you are familiar with Dr. Abraham Maslow, then it’s likely because of his work in human motivation. The “hierarchy” starts, as it should, with the physiological. Air to breathe, food to eat, water to drink. We naturally satisfy that stuff first. From there we work to ascend up to what he calls self-actualization. The achievement of one’s full potential. I believe we are in a time where more of us are looking to self-actualize through our work (yes, I know, first world stuff). Meaning, they are looking for their work to advance their higher purpose. Some work does that better than other work, but the takeaway is that work is not just work anymore. Now, it’s easy to be the armchair cynic and say stuff like, “they should just be lucky to have a job!” But, you and I both know we are in different times now. The astute leader will be able to see how Maslow’s motivations are overlaying our modern life, and she will do something about it. The question becomes, “how I can help my team members in their own self-actualization process?” Self-actualization can only be done by the individual, but it can be accommodated, in part, by the leader. If we care enough about it.
Iron-clad communication tip! Ready? Here it is: As the communicator, converse at the same altitude as your audience. Let me break this down a bit. People naturally settle on a certain altitude when they are communicating. Whether this be at work or in life outside of work, some of us love to worm our way through the weeds. Others prefer to be high enough to see the curvature of the earth. Many of us are in between. None are right. None are wrong. The trouble is when you are a weeds person who is talking to a 10,000′ person. Or, when you are a 10,000′ person talking to a 50,000′ person. Or, when you are anybody communicating to anybody else who is not at your altitude. Here’s what happens: We are speaking our language, but the other person is bored because you are admiring every dandelion, or they are lost because you are detailing the weather patterns over another country. Quickly after the disconnect manifests, the frustration sets in. “Don’t they know how important these details are!?! (low altitude)” Or, “Can’t we just get to the heart of the matter!?! (high altitude)” The key for future leaders? Discover your audience’s altitude and modulate your communication style so you are on the same plane. Remember, leaders bend as much as possible for the ultimate goal.