A number of my keynote speeches and seminars are conducted with, and at, businesses of all sizes and varying disciplines. And I find that when it comes to “Always Be Closing”, there is no better place to find successes and issues that are in need of correcting than in the workplace. Much of what happens here has a direct effect on management and employees, and seeps into our personal lives. It does indeed affect our image and ability to lead.
Not long ago I was contracted to work as an Image and Leadership consultant with a large firm that could not figure out why their office culture had become so toxic. Despite having a very small staff and paying their people well, the staff attitude bordered on what it must have been like on board pirate ships when they were 2 months out to sea with no fresh water, few rations, and a plank over the starboard side that was getting more use than normal.
It was shockingly evident in when in conversation with more than 2 dozen of the employees, a hard line thread emerged.
A dysfunctional, disenchanted collection of veteran and aspiring professionals who were demoralized with no guidance.
No leadership. Not a single shred. All pointing to the individual in charge at their office.
But he should not be the sole focus of blame. The company higher management was failing in so many levels, they had become blind to what they were doing to the people who were dedicating their skills to this effort. And to the company bottom line.
There are certainly more than just 5 ways to rebuild what has become a stagnant office culture. In some cases we could go into triple digits and just be talking about the relationship between the on-site management and a select group of employees. But in this case, let’s just go with 5 easy steps to, at the very least, start the path to getting the max out of both management and staff.
1. Don’t put a leadership novice in charge of the staff.
Management at this company was seeking someone to do nothing more than carry out the wishes of the CEO. In the old days my Grandfather would have called him a “bag man”. So they fired those individuals with knowledge of their industry and placed in charge an individual with zero management experience, no people skills, one who had never led a group in a business sense, and was content to merely bark orders and collect his paycheck. After numerous complaints to Human Resources about this person, the company claimed they were sending him to “management training”, promising to make him better at his job. In the end, as I later discovered, it was all lip service to keep the employees contained. Another round of firings, and they had weeded out those who could spell trouble for the company. And it was mostly due to putting someone in charge who had never learned to lead, never wanted to learn, and was willing to be little more than a figurehead. Management failed to get behind and groom the right people for the job, and in each stroke helped to chip away at any possibility of creating a solid working atmosphere.
- Hire knowledgeable and skilled individuals who know what it takes to be a leader and let them do their job.
2. Stop talking AT the staff and start talking TO them.
More than once I observed how the local office manager talked to the staff. That was the problem. He never talked TO them, he talked AT them. This goes back to one of the first lessons I learned as a radio/television broadcaster. Talk TO the people on the other end. Imagine looking into their eyes and connecting with them. I recall the first time I did a TV sportscast, a wise veteran sage told me to imagine someone on the other end of the camera, someone special, and talk TO them. That someone was my Mom, and save for the fact my Mother knew absolutely nothing about sports, it worked perfectly. This individual I’m using as an example in the previous paragraph is not unique. Too often I witness and I’ll wager you do as well how not only primary managers, but secondary managers and even fellow workers talk to their co-workers as if they are only their for amusement and a space-filler. These are people whom the company has hired to deliver their best, and the company representatives treat them as little more than cannon fodder. It happened in the business we’re using as example here, it’s happening every day in plenty of firms of all sizes. Management can and should be firm. I’m not suggesting every get chummy and become best friends. But when you talk TO someone and not AT them, you gain a better understanding of who they are, what their abilities are, and how they fit into the overall team scheme. They, in turn, trust their management, believing them to be concerned about their best interests. It makes for a better person and a better workplace.
- Remember the staff is not there to be human punching bags. They are there because of their skill, and it’s up to management to foster it and make it work for the company and the individual.
3. Ensure the site management doesn’t pick favorites.
And here you thought “Teacher’s Pet” was left behind in grade school, didn’t you? WRONG. Our unskilled and somewhat frosty manager used as our example for this post had selected two people as his “pets”. Both, not very surprisingly, were young, impressionable, eager to please and happy to have a job at this stage of their careers. As I observed the office and in speaking to the staff, it became apparent that the manager was using these employees in order to gather information on the rest of the staff and seek out those who would challenge his “authority”. Problem for him was, the staff knew it and so did the pets. It made for very tense conversations and created a level of distrust that stayed just below the surface of every day life on the job. Managers who do this are insecure in their own position and are often seeking out people they can use as later excuses when something goes wrong. The “fall guy”, as it were. Upper management needed to be more aware of what was happening in the office and put a stop to it. That certainly was my suggestion. You cannot create a solid working team at any level unless you have the faith and trust of every employee in your charge. That means treating everyone in a professional manner and not seeking out acolytes. From the employee standpoint, it’s critical for them to recognize what’s happening and not allow themselves to be so used by one or two individuals.
- Treat everyone with the dignity and respect they have earned, and becoming the “Boss’s Pet” will put you on a leash that will only get tighter with time and threaten to choke any creativity and credibility.
4. Provide reasons for direction other than “It’s what the boss wants, so just do it”.
Our test subject manager here had become famous for using this line or a derivative of it. It creates nothing more than an office of automatons going through their day as zombies. It stifles creativity and camaraderie. And it often leaves employees wondering what they’re not being told about their job status, company status, and what their future might hold. They have no leadership, allowing panic and despondency to set in. Let’s set the obvious bar here that employees at every level do not need to know every facet of company business. That would only create chaos and sow more discord. But the reason you hire good talented people is for their creativity, their ideas, their imagination that will make them better at their craft and in turn make your company more profitable. Shutting down that creative flow is ego maniacal and detrimental to the growth of the workers and the company. The varying derivatives of this, including one I heard in conversation from the manager telling an employee, “Well, if you want to know how to help this company grow, just go read our website and what we’re posting there because that will tell you everything you need to know”, are just as insulting and detrimental. People then are left to understand their ideas have no value, their skills are not appreciated, and they have no future for themselves and their families working in such an atmosphere. Get to that point and you may as well close the doors and sell the land for a cemetery.
- Constantly foster ideas from every worker at every level, encouraging them to utilize their skills at making themselves better first, and the company second. Lead, and teach them to lead.
5. Don’t keep the door closed.
Once more with feeling for our over-matched individual so poorly prepared for leadership and not desiring to change. During my time at the firm and in subsequent interview, I watched and was told how this individual always went into his office and shut the door. Granted, we all need alone time and when you are in charge, there are phone calls, conference calls and meetings that need to be held in private. But when the door is always closed, it sends a message to the workers. It shuts off communication, creating a barrier wall between manager and employee, and it in effect is telling everyone “LEAVE ME ALONE”. Managers, more than anyone, need to have interaction with employees. They need to be out there constantly overseeing, teaching, and learning themselves about the people and what they bring to the effort. We’re not talking about inviting everyone out for dinner and a movie, rather sending a subtle message about being approachable and professional. People can and will learn to knock on the window or the door frame before entering. People can understand not to interrupt when there’s a phone or personal conversation. And they don’t need to be treated like minor parts in the machine that are being sent subtle messages about the possibility of being replaced in a moments notice. Perception is a powerful thing, and when people seeking to be part of something perceive they are being told they are just bodies on the other side of the door, there is no reason to think they will want to keep their bodies in a place that would prefer to ignore them than lead them.
- Leadership means being out in front at all times, being accessible when the call comes for assistance, and being there to assist and teach before being asked.
It’s not that hard. All it takes is the desire to lead by example. Management ensures the right person is leading and has all the tools necessary to do the job. And that person understands they are more than anointed. They are there for very important reasons.
Reasons that reverberate into both professional and personal lives.