Q. What makes a good business leader?
KEVIN: The great leaders truly care about their people as much as they care about the output their people produce.
The most astute leaders, in my opinion, understand something that seems a little counterintuitive, and that is that if you’re checking daily on the output of your company – on what it is ‘doing’ – then you’re wasting time.
What you’re company is ‘doing’ is really a lagging indicator of what you’re people are capable of.
Whether you are measuring how much fish you sold that day, or how delighted the guests are at your hotel, or how satisfied your riders are on your buses, they are all lagging indicators.
Leading indicators include:
- how connected to your company’s wellbeing people are feeling
- how they feel about their connectedness to the company
- how they feel they are making a difference.
I ask leaders to be very clear on caring about the wellbeing of their people. It sounds a little worn, but it is a very important aspect of what great leaders do.
Q. In your blog You can do better, Captain Roth obviously cared about you and all the people in his command. Can a business leader be ‘taught to care’ about their people?
KEVIN: Yes and no, but I am not certain they have to in most organisations. Let me clarify…
If it is true that to coach you have to care – and it is – it is not true that to get results you have to care.
There are a lot of managers out there who are productive without caring about their people very much.
They mix up mental toughness and drive – which are compelling and honourable – with squeezing the lifeblood out of their people. Short-term gain, long-term pain in terms of:
- staff turnover;
- uninspired 9-to-5 employee mentalities, and
- poorly functioning teams.
People quit their managers far more than they quit their companies. Companies don’t even know the costs, they just remain less viable and less profitable.
In their defence, I often see managers who are simply unaware of how they impact people. Once they find out, and are taught how to ‘care’, they can flourish.
Also, intelligent or especially driven individuals can be tricky in that they have been given kudos their entire lives for their ability to produce, or for their personal intelligence and capabilities. Put these guys in a situation where they have to produce through others and it can be a train wreck. They reach their limits because they are incapable of moving people. They are incapable of making others trust them. They get to a certain point, and then they get found out.
If they want to learn to care, they can, but if they don’t want to change there is nothing you can do.
Q. As a leader, if there was only one thing I could do to engender a positive culture in my organisation, what should that be?
KEVIN: I’m going to steal the answer from my friend John Catoe, who recently retired after many years in the transit industry, working with major transit properties in the US. John, in turn, learned this lesson from business educators Stephen Covey and Tom Peters.
The ‘one thing’ you should do is adopt the principle of leading and managing by walking around – that is to say, by being visible and available.
It doesn’t mean you don’t shut your door occasionally or that you have to be available every moment, but every single leader I have met that has moved me and has been successful wherever they go, has embodied this idea.
It’s an idea illustrated by the story of the surgeon and the janitor (Chapter 2). That surgeon would be successful in any organisation because he made sure everyone in the organisation understood the goal, and that this goal was more important than any title or role. In this case, the goal was to save lives whether they were an accountant, an administrator, a janitor or a surgeon. The story speaks to organisational clarity.
The reason they all understood was that he was actively sharing that message all day, every day. He clearly engendered a culture that ensured everyone who came into the organisation learned “this is what we do”. That kind of clarity is priceless.
Small companies, large or in between – it doesn’t matter. When every human in the building knows they have a central core value and mission, decision making becomes much easier.
Q. When walking around, being a ‘visible and available’ leader, should I talk or listen?
KEVIN: By walking around I mean ‘communicating’, which usually means a combination of both talking and listening.
As an employee, I want to be inspired by the words and actions of my leaders.
As a leader, I know for a fact I’m going to learn a lot more if I allow people to tell me what is going on. For instance, the person in the back office taking complaint calls knows what is going on in that business – they know what is not working. I don’t need a whole lot of time to listen to them and find out what we need to change to give us a tangible bump in our ability to serve our clients.
So you communicate by both inspiring through your words and actions, and doing a lot of listening.
Q. The title of your Surfer dude blog refers to sales advice, but the lesson he delivered was actually much broader. How does the surfer dude’s advice apply to leadership?
KEVIN: I wrote this funny little story a few years ago about an experience I had buying backpacks. I still receive hundreds of hits a week and have friends from all over the world because of it.
The surfer dude was genuinely interested in my wellbeing. He said “this backpack is the s**t and won’t move while you are bouldering”. He knew I bouldered because he cared enough to listen before offering advice. As Stephen Covey said, “seek first to understand, then to be understood”.
The surfer dude was authentic, passionate, optimistic, told a hell of a story, listened and communicated well. Would these characteristics help most leaders? I think so.
If you would like advice or support about any aspect of business management – including leadership and developing a positive business culture – contact the JPAbusiness team on 02 6360 0360 (Orange) or 02 9893 1803 (Parramatta) for a confidential, initial discussion.
James Price has over 30 years' experience in providing strategic, commercial and financial advice to Australian and international business clients. James' blogs provide business advice for aspiring and current small to mid-sized business owners, operators and managers.