Last quarter we were engaged to shadow an executive at one of the company’s quarterly ‘open floor’ meetings. This was his opportunity to hear what’s going on with various departmental employees, especially those that interface with their customers. His opening question was, “Tell me your number one aggravation with the company.” At this meeting, he was astonished to learn that the customer service staff unanimously stated that their leaders were too rigid in their management style. Several of this group affirmed, “We all want to achieve our department goals, but our managers roll over us like road machinery in the process. Why can’t they listen more and transport us to success like bus drivers instead?”
Situations like these can cause wide spread defensiveness, resignation; and, resentment. Left unresolved, key employees will depart seeking an environment where their expertise is appreciated and acknowledged for continued growth. Or, the current workforce will cease to be innovative in their work pursuits and perform only enough to keep their positions.
Some years ago, a similar situation occurred for the CEO of Think Finance, Ken Rees. He told this story, “As a startup CEO, without a lot of resources, you’re involved in the details of everything. As we grew, I was lucky to bring in a really talented executive team, but I was driving them crazy. Everything I did as the head of a small company was hurting my ability to be successful in a larger company. We brought in an executive coach to work with us. He helped me discover that I was being a bulldozer and needed to be more of a bus driver! Subsequently, we created the Bulldozer Award, a plastic toy bulldozer. Each quarter we give this to the people who are pushing things forward, without rolling over their staff.”
How do you practice leadership so that you are not seen as a bulldozer? Use any of these practices:
• The bus driver leader can be on target without being too rigid in management style. The former autocratic style from the 1950’s will not serve the newest generation of workers. The latest ‘gen tech’ crowd is accustomed to information sharing and welcomes participation in projects. The leader that ignores or rolls over their input will provoke resentment from this group.
• Listen intently for conversations with confusion or constant disagreement between team members. Bus driver leaders listen for repeated phrases that may be an indication at underlying problems that the group is experiencing. They immediately address rumor or gossip with genuine conversation, stating the real facts around issues and what they do know.
• Bus driver leaders keep their commitments. These leaders care about the values and career development of their staff. They coordinate actions with them for current concerns and develop growth plans that will take them into the future. And, they know when to re-negotiate the original plan. Their staff sees them as fulfilling their commitments even when unexpected industry events occur.
• Be engaged with your people & foster cooperation. Leaders that are consistent and trusted are able to release company teams from conventional problem solving rules. Think about how you open meetings & set the mood for anticipating the realities of the team, in their time zone. If the opening is, ‘Is everybody here and let’s get this done?’, then how do you think the others feel about being appreciated for attending a 4am or 5am staff conference? If you open the meetings with verbal appreciation for being up at this hour (Buenos Aires, London, Beijing) you are demonstrating generosity in leadership. The notion of generosity will gain trust that you are sincere in your interest.
• Establish sessions for the staff to voice their opinions about new company policies or management decrees. Almost any blanket edict that excludes the input of the people who are most effected by that new policy will be perceived as negative, causing decreased morale. Workers will not feel as they have been heard about the concerns they have consequently, there can be no positive outcome for them. Companies that are just dominated by rules create a culture of compliance and snuffs out innovation.
When you think you may be the ‘bulldozer’ leader, ask yourself:
• How can you influence your employee’s work behaviors without controlling them?
• How will you validate your staff’s values? Will you become known for the practice of ‘managing by walk about’, encouraging others to know their colleagues for more than their job functions?
• What vision are you asking others to commit to? How compelling can you be so that others feel the same passion you have?
• How will you handle dissatisfaction in your team? How can you look for opportunities to add value to their work lives?
• How will you emphasize the purpose of your group, and possibly those of other departments for the company’s collective goals? How can you uncover ways to strengthen the company’s larger vision to those involved in the effort?
“Finding a good bus driver can be as important as finding a good musician.”