Last Updated Jul 21, 2011 10:12 PM EDT
That's advice I would give to any executive seeking guidance on how to connect more authentically with employees.
Mike Rowe is the host of Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs where his job is to interview people doing tough jobs involving all kinds of unpleasantness like inspecting sewers, working a pig farm or mining coal. Rowe's persona is that of the average Joe â€" down to earth, folksy and approachable. His forte is what he does for people he interviews â€" he puts them at ease so they feel comfortable speaking about their jobs. (At the bottom of this post, you watch his TED talk.)
And this is what leaders can learn from him. Rowe, in effect, makes the camera disappear and this puts his subjects at ease. That is the job of a leader. One need not adopt Rowe's "just us folks" manner, but it is wise to adopt his ability to make others feel comfortable. For a leader this is vital, especially for senior leaders. The higher one ascends in the corporate kingdom, the more one risks being cut off from what is really happening. Learning to connect one on one with people in an authentic manner is a gift, and here are some ways to cultivate it.
Be the first to speak. Too often I have seen CEOs stride through a row of cubicles or a shop floor without looking from side to side, and if they make eye contact with some employee, they stare back without hint of a smile. That sends a strong signal to an employee "you don't matter." Rather, find ways to converse. Get ready to speak up.
Keep it light. The conversation opens with a light note, something about the weather or the work they do. Smile as you speak. Once you have built a sense of rapport, you can continue the conversation. And here is where exceptional leaders truly shine, they can make the person they are speaking to seem like the most important person in the world. That builds the self-esteem of the employee and affirms his or her faith in the leader.
Ask good questions. Once a leader has made the employee feel at ease, she can ask questions. I remember hearing a senior executive talk about her favorite part of the job being going out to the stores and talking to store managers and their assistants about what was selling. She delighted in it, and it was clear from her demeanor that she make people want to speak up.
Listen more than you speak. Once a leader has opened a line of dialogue, it is important to drop rank. Listen to what the person is saying. So often it is said that what CEOs fear most is not what they know, but what they don't know. Speaking to front line employees is a great way to find out what customers are saying, how products are performing, and how corporate initiatives are faring. That requires an ability to clam up and listen.
General Dwight Eisenhower had this gift as supreme commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe. There is a famous photograph of Ike talking to the famed Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division who hours after that photo was taken would fly over the English Channel and drop at night into Occupied France. In the photo Ike can be seen smiling and was dramatized in Countdown to D-Day Ike played by Tom Selleck (sans mustache). Ike engages the paratroopers in a lively banter asking about home and all things like. In short, Ike connected with his men, and they respected him for it.
The one to one authentic connection is essential to creating genuine followership, and it behooves leaders at every level to cultivate it one colleague at a time.
Here is his TED talk about his work:
- Is Your Staff Too Nice?
- Corporate Retreats Don't Have to Be a Waste of Time
- Larger Than Life Leadership Lessons from a Big City Mayor