How A Healthy Dose Of Humanity Makes Better Leaders – Steve D Goldstein

How do you become a better, more engaged leader? How do you fix the problems in your company when the business seems stuck? Do you want to gain a new perspective into your own company?

Then start having real conversations with your employees at all levels. Today.

You’ve probably seen the popular television show “Undercover Boss.” CEOs and powerful leaders from the world’s largest brands dress up in elaborate costumes, wigs, makeup, and totally alter their appearance. Why? So that they can approach their most junior employees in order to get honest feedback. The result? By the end of the show, they have typically have a cathartic, eye-opening experience that motivates them to make positive change in their business. As a viewer, you can also bank on the fact that each one of these episodes will be packaged with shocking revelations, tears, and a substantial monetary bonus for the hand-picked employees who interacted with the disguised leader. Life changing, right?

But do you really need to go through all of that to have a life changing business revelation?

To me, the whole premise of the show is laughable. In my opinion, you don’t need to go undercover on a reality show to become a better leader. You need to go and have honest conversations with your employees.

When leaders try to see what works and what doesn’t in their company, little do many know that the most constructive and helpful answers lie within the minds of their employees. By speaking to junior level team members, the insights that they provide will present a brand new perspective about your operation. But, you surely don’t need a disguise to do it, much less a nationally syndicated television program, to understand what is going on in your own company. Instead, you need real, honest, and in some cases, raw conversations. To put it frankly, take off your boss hat and be human, just like the folks you are speaking with are.

Several months ago, I was working alongside a CEO whose business had installed a new sales management application. We decided to visit several stores to learn how the employees were handling this operational change. Arriving as ourselves – with no disguise, they knew exactly who we were, and were expecting us. When I asked a few employees how they liked the new system, they smiled…but that smile. The smile that meant they were holding back and being polite.

“It’s good,” one employee said under her breath.

“It works fine,” another employee said, still smiling that smile.

I knew there were issues that we had been hearing about, but no one was volunteering to speak up.

So I asked, “Okay, now tell me what you really think.”

After a moment, one salesman named Troy stepped forward, looked at me dead in the eye and said, “You want to know the truth? It sucks!”

A hush fell over the group huddled around us. But instead of reprimanding the employee I smiled back and said “That’s great. Now tell me what you don’t like about it and why.” Shocked by my response, he revealed his distaste for the platform and together, we went over to Troy’s work station so he could explain. He started up his computer, as he does every morning, but what popped up was a complex dashboard with lots of information and options. Maybe too many options in fact.

“How does this information help you every day?” I asked.

“Honestly, I don’t use any of this stuff. It’s only here because that’s what you gave us.” He couldn’t have given us a more real answer, and I loved it. The implementation team had spoken to “some people in the field,” but clearly had not spoken to Troy — and as a result, missed some crucial user-related elements that were necessary.

I asked him what he would like to see, and he told us exactly what was necessary to get his job done. Once again, his insights were invaluable because he was honest. And he was honest because he knew we valued and needed his input.

The cherry on top? The CEO made sure that Troy’s suggestions were implemented, which among other benefits let Troy and his co-workers know that their opinion and views mattered and that constructive criticism is highly valued and encouraged.
The other benefit? Today they are reporting more sales and productivity because they have better tools. And the reason for that is because somebody asked, listened, and actioned employee feedback. And guess what? We did all of that without a wig, disguise, or a reality show filming us!

Now, let’s take another look at that situation, this time looking into the common communication pitfalls that might have turned it into a disaster. Here are three examples that can sabotage an attempt to speak openly with junior level employees to learn their thoughts and opinions:

  1. Close-Mindedness. What would have happened is after Troy said “It sucks,” I flipped out on him? Troy probably would have regretted speaking up, his colleagues would have seen the result, and for the rest of their careers in the company, they would never feel comfortable providing an honest opinion about anything. This is where a lot of leaders fail. They feel compelled to explain and defend why the current situation makes sense even though their employees are asking basic questions. And asking questions not to criticize, but to understand. The only thing a close-minded approach accomplishes is to shut down the conversation at the most critical part, defeating the entire purpose of this process.
  2. Faking It. I strongly believe that employees are very smart and very perceptive. If you as the leader approach this as a “box-checking” activity, you will not learn anything and worse, you will have lost a tremendous amount of personal credibility. I have seen this first-hand, and it’s a more common occurrence than you think!
  3. Having Too Big of an Ego. In my new book, Why Are There Snowblowers In Miami?,I talk about the problem with some leader’s who cannot check their ego at the door. Many leaders feel they don’t need to talk to junior folks in their organization because “what could they tell me that I do not already know? After all, I am the CEO.” The short answer? They know an awful lot about your company and can speak volumes. You can learn so much from them.

Many successful leaders work their whole lives to get where they are in their career, and they should be proud of what they’ve accomplished. However, success and experiences don’t always mean you have all the answers. Step out of your office once in awhile and speak to the people that truly make your business’s success not only possible but a reality. Trust me, your whole perspective can change with a single conversation and you will find out very quickly that you enjoy these conversations. I certainly do.

Learn more in my new book Why Are There Snowblowers In Miami?: