AUGUST 16, 2023
Lead From The Front
Are you a scared leader?
It’s OK to admit it.
Most of the leaders I work with are terrified to say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, or stick their necks out.
Our country’s current environment has created leaders who “lead from behind,” and it’s been a disaster.
Out on the front lines of leadership, I see a lot of advocacy for DIEB and People of Color, but also an “allowing others to do the work.” In other words, what I don’t see is leadership accountability for the condition of their organizations.
The problem is that CEOs position themselves for “plausible deniability” – if something goes wrong, they can blame someone else or claim they had no idea.
They avoid the details of potential litigation, mismanagement, and mistreatment.
They’re not providing the tools, resources, or training to have crucial conversations, real, meaningful conversations about what’s wrong and how to fix it.
They ensure their VPs and Directors serve as ceilings, so employees’ real concerns don’t reach their desks. It’s a form of self-preservation.
Lead From The Front
One of the most important aspects of leading from the front is to deeply understand your employees’ challenges. And I’m not talking about their technical challenges, so much as their interpersonal challenges.
Remove these roadblocks, and they’ll produce more, be more loyal, and help you.
Virtual Office Hours
Before COVID, many leaders had an “open door policy” or open office hours where anyone could come to them directly. They would walk the floor, or chat people up. Where is the virtual or hybrid version of this?
We recommend our clients create virtual office hours, where any employee can come into a virtual meeting room with the CEO and share what’s working and what’s not, from their perspectives. There shouldn’t be an agenda or any formality to it, so people can be more comfortable speaking up.
This is not something to delegate.
In these open conversations, your job is to listen, not explain, rationalize, or even commit to any changes. Just to hear, ask, and acknowledge.
There are a lot of challenges that people would never share with their supervisor but that they would tell you, given the chance.
Yes, you’ll get the complainers, but you’ll also get constructive feedback. It can help if you create a rule that anyone who brings a problem should also bring a solution.
How can you overcome the power dynamic here, so people open up? You simply have to explain to your VPs and Directors that you expect accountability. Prepare – better yet involve – your HR team so they can support both you and staff with tracking and reinforcement.
And above all, prepare to be vulnerable. The truth may sting, but would you rather remain in the dark? How can you not fix what you’re not aware of?
Share what you’re challenged by. Ask your employees if they feel included by their mid-level managers, or if they fear retribution. Ask if there’s a lack of trust. Ask if they have confidence in you, the CEO. Be open about the gap between what you want and their lived experience on the ground.
If you “go there” in a non-threatening way, they will meet you halfway. I promise. I can’t promise that you like what you hear, but that’s the point.
Employee Advisory Board
Another strategy we recommend is to set up an employee advisory board, a team of people at lower levels of the organization who are asked to provide direct feedback to the CEO and executive leadership.
Ask them to tell you about “the smell of the place.” Does it stink…to them…Why?
Discuss what’s working and what isn’t. Ask about the culture you have, not the culture you think you have. Ask what they think of the business strategy. Do they even know what it is? Ask about policies, enforcement of the policies, and the reality on the ground. What decisions have been made that may be a distraction from doing their best work?
Ask – and listen – to what impacts them on a daily basis.
Get the perspective of the people doing the work, uncontaminated by the personal agendas of your executives and middle managers, and you’ll know what policies need to change, which people need to be let go, which new products will be championed by the doers, which services are a disaster.
Is it better to know, or to stick your head in the sand?
You don’t need to solve these problems immediately, but you do need to listen, both for your own knowledge and to help people feel heard.
Do this on the regular. Create a drumbeat.
By listening, you’ll create a partnership with your employees and reduce the gap between your vision and reality.
Or, as John Quincy Adams said, If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.