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Timothy R. Clark: Organizations rise or fall on the ability of leaders to connect with employees

Published: Sunday, May 20 2012 11:27 p.m. MDT

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H.L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” I’ll try not to over-reach with my point, but I do believe organizations largely rise or fall on the ability of leaders to connect with employees before they direct them.

I was in San Francisco this week working with a software company and a crackerjack team of software engineers. These particular engineers develop some of the world’s leading applications. In my discussions with them, I learned that other bay-area technology companies are constantly trying to poach talent from their team. All the big players, such as Google, Apple, Facebook, HP, eBay, Symantec and others, come calling with attractive offers and generous compensation packages. And yet this team, with the exception of a couple of defections, has managed to stay intact.

When I asked why, I learned that it came down to a strong culture and leaders who connect with their employees. That is something you can’t buy. I also learned that these software developers work extremely hard. They have short product-development cycles, and there’s a lot of pressure to produce and meet market expectations. And yet for the most part, I didn’t encounter the rebellion, resistance and resentment that builds up under these conditions. I saw just the opposite: The employees weren’t curling up like potato bugs; they were rising to meet the challenge.

Connecting is first a motive before it is a skill. Robert Greenleaf introduced the concept of “servant leadership” into the lexicon of leadership. He wrote, “A new moral principle is emerging in which followers will 'respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants.'” I agree with the principle, but it is an ancient principle not a new one. There was another leader long ago who said, “And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.” That is the defining statement of servant leadership, and there have been leaders who have adopted the principle since, including George Washington who would sign his letters, “Your most humble and obedient servant.”

Moving from motive to skill, there is also confusion about how to do this. How does a leader create that deep and meaningful connection that draws out the trust, loyalty and discretionary effort of people? Some mistakenly believe you have to be an extrovert to do this well. Not so. More than half of being connected is listening. For some people, words tumble out easily, but it’s not necessarily an advantage — if you know what I mean.

Another misconception is that leadership is about impartiality, stern, humorless judgment and rock-bottom neutrality. This is hokum. Leadership is about relationships and performance — in that order. It is about human connection before it is about raw brainpower or intellectual brilliance. Interpersonal skills are critical. If you talk too much, monitor your dialogue and pull in on the reigns. If you don’t talk enough, the best place to start is to do two things: Smile and ask questions. People love to talk about themselves, and if you show genuine interest in who they are and what they care about, you will quickly form personal bonds of affection.

I’ve heard many leaders say they wish they had better interpersonal skills. My response is that you can develop them. Remember Frank Tyger’s statement, “Wishes cost nothing unless you want them to come true.” So here’s my call to action: Identify one thing you can do to make more meaningful connections with those around you. Connect before you direct. Show more empathy, ask more questions, listen, smile, stop talking, put your smartphone away and give someone your undivided attention. Drill through the rock of your own patterns of inertia and make one small change.

A lot of people still believe that leadership is about looking and sounding brave. I think leadership is more about connecting with people and then motivating them to achieve unusual things. How do you do this? It has nothing to do with fear or intimidation. In fact, history is not kind to leaders who are not kind to their followers. It may be hard to change, to improve the way you connect, but you can do it. Just remember Edward R. Murrow’s statement, “Difficulty is the one excuse history never accepts.”

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. He is a former two-time CEO and earned a doctorate from Oxford University. Email: trclark@trclark.net.

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