Simply Effective Leadership

During a monthly senior management meeting, I was once asked by the President of the company how I became such a good manager. The question caught me off guard (it took me a minute to realize he was being serious) so my answered really sucked. I was flattered but embarrassed at the same time. (As an introvert, answering questions on the spot in front of a large group, without having had time to think, often leads to embarrassment. Anyway…) After the meeting, I gave it more thought. If I had to boil down the major contributors to my unique leadership style, it would be my psychology background and a library of management books combined with painful lessons learned along a colorful career path.

I’ve tested many theories in various roles and in different environments, with mixed results. What worked well in one situation would fail miserably in the next because the variables changed. Very few techniques are universal, only working case by case. My conclusion: stick to overarching principles and don’t get hung up on specific techniques or methods. The right techniques can be called upon as needed depending on the people involved and the situation at hand. The trick is to have enough experience and practice to instinctively know what to use and when.

There are certain things I put into practice regardless of whether or not I’m in a leadership position. They seem to be effective in any case and I like to practice them at work as well as outside of work. These simple practices tend to have very predictable outcomes for me. Even better, they’re a natural extension of who I am. Below are a couple examples.

Acknowledgment

Many managers I’ve worked with were inconsistent with who and what they acknowledged, so whenever I was in a management position, I decided to be different. Where other managers focused on calling out mistakes, or what needed to be better, I made every effort to spend more time recognizing a job well done and what was working well. What seemed to make even more of a difference is that I started with each person as an individual. I always kept in mind that every person on the team was unique. Everyone had their own style, their own story and different priorities. What was important to one may mean nothing to the other. It didn’t matter what was good for the company unless I could find a way to tie it into the goals of each individual.

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

This might seem overly simplistic, but one thing I picked up early on was the importance of remembering people’s names. Especially as I’ve gotten older, this gets harder and harder with every new person I meet, but I continue to practice remembering someone’s name after only one meeting. The next time I see that person, I always greet them by name. This seems to make an incredibly strong impression for two reasons:

  1. I care. When many people bump into me after we’ve only met once, I often hear, “Hi…,” “Hey Buddy,” “How’s it going?”…or something along that line. It’s when someone says, “Hey Donn” that something special happens. I feel important, at least important enough for her or him to remember my name. And so this is how I want everyone to feel after I meet them. Because we’re all important and we all like to feel special.
  2. It’s unexpected. When it comes to remembering names, most of us don’t expect others to routinely address us by name unless we already have a good relationship. I try to do it every time and from the very beginning.

One time, at a company party, I had the chance to ask someone from another team why they would always look away and avoid eye contact every time we passed each other in the hallway. I was curious because I would always say, “Hi Laura.” This seemed to make her feel uncomfortable and she would hurry past. (I thought maybe it was the “creepy” factor.) Anyway, she said something like she wasn’t sure how to act because I was a Vice President and had absolutely no reason to know who she was, much less greet her by name. That’s sad but I guess many would consider that normal.

Follow Through

As a manager, it is one of my pet peeves when someone doesn’t follow through. So I try to make sure I lead by example so I’m not one of those people. Now, it’s one thing not to follow through on a big project or a major initiative. I’m mainly talking about the simple everyday things.

For example, if I’m stopped by someone while I’m rushing to a meeting and I tell him I’ll catch up with him later, I make sure that I actually do. Sure, they would probably understand if I didn’t. We all get busy and there is always some other priority calling for our attention. But by keeping my promises, even the ones made in passing, I do for others what I would want others to do for me.

Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

I could go into additional details but for now I’ll stop. There’s a lot more that goes into my management approach that varies depending on the company and the role. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems, even with these two practices. It took a lot of effort for me to get good at remembering people’s names. And to this day, I still catch myself not following through all the time. That’s ok though. There’s something about simply making the effort. It sends a message to others that you care, even about the little things. I’ve found these little things can bond teams together and inspire great work. At that point, you don’t need to manage. You can focus on leading.

There are many influential leaders out there and I’ve been fortunate to work with some great mentors. They taught me the essence of timeless leadership principles and I put my own spin on them. What matters is that whatever methods or principles you follow, they’re effective. Then add your personal touch.

What simple practices have worked well for you?

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