Effective Leaders Must Answer: Where Are We Going and Why?

Do we expect too much from our leaders? Effective leaders must be sensitive to the expectations of the people he or she leads. Followers have two types of expectations:

  1. Explicit: Responsibilities to be fulfilled as part of the leadership role (fiscal responsibility, strategy and direction, accountability and execution)
  2. Implicit: All of the unspoken expectations like competence, fair treatment, commitment, engagement, listening, inspiration, direction and meaning-making

Implicit expectations can be minefields because they’re based on assumptions, may be unrealistic, are often misunderstood and vary greatly among stakeholders. We nevertheless judge leaders’ effectiveness on both explicit and implicit expectations.

Smart leaders know they’re always being judged. Success or failure depends on whether or not leaders clarify these role expectations and keep their promises. Hidden expectations will never be discovered unless a leader asks about them.

Most of us assume we’re on the same page as others, but every conversation offers an opportunity to elicit information about expectations. You accelerate your leadership effectiveness by asking about, learning and managing expectations.

4 Promises of Leaders

Business success is not a true measurement of leadership effectiveness. A business may take off, but leaders can still fall short unless they are skilled at influencing and inspiring people for the long term.

Although followers often expect too much of their leaders, they must at the very least fulfill four promises and excel in four key competencies:

  1. Strategy
  2. Engagement
  3. Execution
  4. Leadership Development

The First Promise: Set the Right Direction

The first leadership promise focuses on strategy, mission and values, and it’s as much about people as it is about profits. An effective leader answers the question, "Where are we going?"

Stakeholders hold leaders to this vital promise because it establishes the “why” they’re in business, as well as “what” the business will and won’t do. This foundation sets direction and meaning, creating a culture in which people can thrive.

Direction and meaning set the stage for establishing a business identity and brand. Effective leaders can articulate their organizations’ unique contributions to the world. They know their people want not only a paycheck, but alignment with company values. They want to contribute to a purpose beyond profits, so leaders must ensure these values are publicized and practiced throughout the business.

Leaders are most effective when they communicate a noble purpose to every employee. Otherwise, people struggle to define why their work matters.

What’s it like where you work?

I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.

Connecting through Social Media

If your company hasn’t jumped on the social media bandwagon yet, it’s probably missing opportunities to connect with customers in new ways.
Information technology is reshaping the company/consumer relationship, often bringing benefits to both. The misuse of technology, however, can erode customer care. In the work I do with organizations and corporate coaching, I’ve heard more than a few horror stories.
Despite living in an age where technology has made always-on data connections ubiquitous, we are more disconnected from the people we impact than at any other time in history. Even with the proliferation of social-media sites, we continue to miss opportunities for genuine dialogue.
Fortunately, many companies are changing this. They know their customers crave the ability to provide immediate input on specific products and services. Consumers prefer to buy products from businesses that know and care about customers’ needs. Managers and front-line employees must listen empathically to what consumers have to say. When managed properly, social-media sites allow open communication.
A 2011 study conducted by Parasole Restaurant Holdings and newBrandAnalytics found what consumers say online increases staff ownership of the employee/customer relationship.
Indeed, technology can actually enrich relationships between customers and employees. But it requires commitment from senior managers, who must:
1. Affirm their commitment to active, empathic involvement with customers
2. Understand the ways in which current procedures and systems mediate interactions with customers
3. Promote the deployment of social networks and other technologies to help customers tell their stories
4. Encourage and enable workers and managers to hear them
Only when employees can step into their customers’ shoes can companies add authenticity to the claim, “We care for you“.
Inside the Empathic Organization
Stanford Professor Dev Patnaik has created the term “Open Empathy Organizations” for those that encourage employees to focus on empathy as part of the company mission. Success requires employees at all levels to be genuinely interested in other people, and there must be multiple ways for them to interact.
Open Empathy Organizations also provide ways for employees to buy and use the company’s products and services. Netflix gives DVD players and free subscriptions to employees, who can learn firsthand how customers experience the company.
Similarly, gardening giant Smith & Hawken boasts a large garden at its company headquarters. Leaders encourage employees to plant and tend to crops, while familiarizing themselves with the company’s products. At such empathic companies, employees begin to understand how their work plays a positive role in their customers’ lives. Staffers become more attached to the results they see at work.
Employees perform at optimum levels when they know they make a difference. When they are encouraged to demonstrate care for customers, they become more engaged and energized.
In what ways could you create opportunities to demonstrate customer care in your work? If you don’t have contact with customers, then in what ways could you see yourself connecting with co-workers with enhanced empathy? I’d love to hear from you.

Repair the Trust Deficit

Even the most competent managers and leaders will suffer a trust deficit if they fail to communicate well with their people. Misguided communications are a big cause of lack of perceived trustworthiness in bosses.
And in the work I do coaching people in organizations, it doesn’t take much to fuel the flames of mistrust.
Business professors Lynn Offermann and Lisa Rosh urge leaders to do a better job of opening up to people in a June 2012 Harvard Business Review article.
“Studies indicate that senior leaders who reveal something about their lives outside the office do so without undermining their authority,” they write, while cautioning against excessively intimate disclosures.
Offermann and Rosh offer the following tips for a balanced approach to “skillful self-disclosure”:

  • Open up. During the course of your workday, squeeze in an occasional impromptu conversation with a subordinate about interests other than work, such as children’s activities, restaurants, sports, movies and the like. Share a glimpse into your personal life while taking time to listen.
  • Empathize. Offer brief, personal acknowledgments of significant events in employees’ lives, such as additions to family, marriage, family death and serious illness. Share how a similar event impacted your life without overshadowing the employee’s circumstance.
  • Remain professional. Share information that enhances the work relationship, yet doesn’t harm your reputation. Exercise discretion; avoid over sharing.

“There is considerable evidence that leaders who disclose their authentic selves to followers can build not only trust, but generate greater cooperation and teamwork as well,” the professors write.
And this makes sense. If all a leader does is communicate corporate information in one direction to staff, there’s not much of a relationship established. What’s that saying about people not caring what you say unless you show you care?
Communications are always a two way street, even if only one person is doing all the talking. Your non-verbal expressions matter, and so does your ability to open up, empathize and act like a real human being.
What do you think? Can your leaders do a better job of sharing their human side? Or are they worried about their professional masks?

Connecting Through Empathy

Have you ever wondered why some people seem naturally quite good at sales and communications, while others struggle? It has a lot to do with the way our brains are wired.
We innately connect with others, both emotionally and physiologically, without even trying. It’s basic human nature. Yet some people are more predisposed to it than others. Empathy allows us to understand others’ feelings, thoughts and experiences.
The ability to empathize is wired into almost all human brains, and it’s a prerequisite to understanding what drives others’ intentions and motivations.
Empathy is required for all effective social interactions. So, how does it help you create a positive sales experience?
Empathy vs Ego
The intrinsic need to persuade and convince someone else – along with the resilience of ego to take the battering of rejection – has long been established as a cornerstone trait of successful salespeople. A powerful ego comes up as a strong driver of what it takes to make it in sales.
Yet ego alone is also what is failing people in sales. To get from where you are today to where you need to be in the future, you’ll need to develop a conscious maintenance of empathy.
The right balance of ego and empathy facilitates communication and boosts sales effectiveness.
The Empathy Deficit
Sometimes I wonder if we’re putting less emphasis on empathy in favor of more attention to winning. In the work I do coaching, I rarely get requests from people who want to become more empathetic. It’s usually coaching to achieve more.
Studies show, in fact, that our sense of empathy is eroding. The Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan has collected data for more than 30 years, and researchers have found that young adults are 40 percent less empathetic than their counterparts in 1979. The ability to empathize dropped steeply in 2000, and narcissism rates have skyrocketed.
Many experts speculate that these trends can be attributed to increases in Internet usage, texting, and cell-phone and computer ubiquity. Regardless of the cause, the solution lies in regaining empathy. In other words, stop playing with your Smartphone while others are talking.
I’d love to hear your opinion on this. What do you think? As a society are we becoming less empathetic?

When a Company Lacks Empathy

Some business executives dismiss the need for empathy, favoring the more concrete and defensible virtues of rational analysis. They have a point. So did Blockbuster executives when faced with Netflix’s debut.
Blockbuster witnessed Netflix’s dramatic growth in the very early 2000s and chose to do nothing. Company leaders saw the world from a solitary vantage point: atop a $6 billion business with 60% margins, tens of thousands of employees and a thriving nationwide retail chain.
Blockbuster’s management team certainly didn’t view the world from its customers’ perspective: late fees that drove renters up the wall, a limited range of movies that eschewed anything that wasn’t a new release.
Netflix’s ultimate market domination is a cautionary tale for other complacent companies. The Blockbusters of the world go belly up because they sell what they want to sell – not what their customers want to buy.
Empathy helps companies stay grounded. Face-to-face encounters with the people you serve provide context for market research and other data.
The Way Things Used to Be
Overly simplified, abstract information often carries authority inside organizations. Knowing and understanding your customers is the antidote.
“The problem with business today isn’t a lack of innovation; it’s a lack of empathy,” writes Professor Dev Patnaik in Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy.
Empathy is the ability to step outside yourself and see the world as other people do. For some companies, it’s also a rarely discussed engine for growth.
Harley-Davidson gets it right. The company hires fans and publicizes its connection with consumers. Leaders work hard to stay in touch with consumers’ changing needs.
This is the way business used to be conducted two centuries ago. For thousands of years, craftsmen made things for people they knew. Tailors, cobblers and other tradesmen understood what their customers wanted.
This approach ended with the Industrial Revolution. As more goods were mass-produced in factories, suppliers and consumers experienced a growing rift – one that we’ve been struggling to repair ever since. It’s much harder to succeed when you create products for people you don’t know – individuals whose lives seem alien to yours or who are halfway around the world.
In the work you do at your company, in what ways do you see a lack of understanding of customer’s complaints? Where do you see a need to shift attention and empathy? I’d love to hear from you.

In Your Customers’ Shoes

What’s the best way to keep an eye on what your customers need and want? I’ve been reading a lot about empathy in Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy, by Dev Pataik and Peter Mortensen. The authors make a case for better customer contact in business strategy planning.
Modern technological improvements in data-mining provide strategic plans, sales forecasts and manufacturing reports. Companies become so dependent on these models that they can lose touch with reality.
Firms use all of this information to create maps – market segmentations, research reports – of how customers use their products. But these maps are poor substitutes for actual human contact. Many managers make critical decisions based on numbers, without any personal feeling for the people they serve. They fail to spot new opportunities and innovative solutions for customers.
Nike has built an entire culture that celebrates the potential for athletic greatness in each of us. The company’s headquarters resemble an athletic center; its employees take breaks for running, basketball and soccer games. The people who develop running shoes are usually runners themselves. They possess a basic intuition that cannot be captured in any market report.
Other major companies have learned the value of empathy:

  • IBM helps customers keep their information technology up and running by staying as close to them as possible.
  • Microsoft succeeded with the Xbox because it was designed for gamers by developers who love games.
  • Apple makes computers, iPhones, iPads and iPods for people who covet cool, easy-to-use products. The company’s organizational culture reflects its customers’ lifestyles.

Business happens on the street, in stores and in homes. When companies have a real connection with end users, they come up with better product designs. Harnessing the power of empathy closes the gap between abstract data and reality.
Consumers don’t buy goods based on demographics. Nobody, for example, opens his wallet because he’s a 25- to 30-year-old white male with a college degree. As people go about their daily lives, problems arise that beg for solutions. Consumers are willing to spend money on solutions that will get the job done. Your ability to empathize with them and anticipate their needs determines whether your product or service will sink or swim in the marketplace.
It’s worth noting that Sony co-founder Akio Morita and Apple’s Steve Jobs were famous for never commissioning market research. Instead, they’d just walk around the world watching what people did. They put themselves in their future customers” shoes.
Think about it. What would be some ways you could observe actual clients using your company’s products or services? How could you walk in their shoes? I’d love to hear from you.

Real People in the Information Age

I’ve been thinking about our need to demonstrate more empathy, especially in large organizations and workplaces. I see this in the work I do healthcare coaching and consulting.
Most organizations over-rely on data, to the exclusion of face-to-face customer contact. It’s important to remember that we are intrinsically social animals, with an innate ability to sense what others are thinking and feeling.
We rely on our intuition to help us make decisions. But in large groups, contact is lost – as is our instinct for determining what’s going on outside the group. Corporations can become far too insular.
If you stay in touch with colleagues and customers, you’ll have a better sense of what’s going on in the world. You’ll also surpass competitors at spotting new opportunities.
Large institutions often choose to rely on data and market research for information on customer experiences, abandoning face-to-face interactions that preserve relationships. These businesses invariably become far removed from their customers’ day-to-day lives.
In the words of Polish philosopher Alfred Korzybski, the map is not the territory.
Harley-Davidson is one notable exception, its office a shrine to the motorcycle culture the company helped create. Offices display photos, memorabilia and banners from rallies. Customers and employees ride together. Engineers, accountants and administrative staff acquire an intuitive understanding of the customers who buy their products.
Harley-Davidson’s leaders mandate that company executives spend measurable time on the streets with motorcycle riders. While many employees don’t ride, the company nonetheless instills its lifestyle and values. Empathy is a key element of this corporate strategy.
In many workplaces, however, this is not the case. Instead of opportunities to mingle with customers, marketing departments rely on data to identify the demographics of their customers. Personas are created from marketing research and internet data to represent groups of customers.
Companies monitor pictures, Web browsing history and the ads people select or choose to click, and based on that data, they tailor their merchandise to a targeted audience.
How about in your place of work? In what ways are there missed opportunities to connect with real clients? I’d love to hear from you.

The Business Case for Empathy

[two_third_last]The more an organization can understand and empathize with the key motivators of their employees and customers, the more likely that organization will have sustainable success. ~ Chip Conley, author of Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow
In an uncertain economy, empathy may seem like a soft business skill. It can, however, serve as a catalyst for new growth, innovation and employee engagement, all of which drive profits and long-term results.
I’ve seen this happen within some of the companies I consult for through leadership coaching. The more an organization demonstrates care for its customers and employees, the greater the potential for uninterrupted growth, higher profits, improved products and happier employees. Empathy may, in fact, be the most under-appreciated and overlooked strategic business tactic.
Empathy is a powerful social force. Physiologically, each of us is hard-wired to care. Specific brain cells known as “mirror neurons” enable us to experience other people’s emotions. This capacity contributes to our levels of intuition, thoughtfulness and insight.
But what I’m finding with some of the clients I work with, like in hospital coaching, is that as we try to cope with the daily challenges of an increasingly fast-paced world, it’s easy to lose the skills of empathy. We need to reclaim our basic empathy abilities, which get lost in the shuffle of stultifying business routines. Organizations as well can learn to become empathic to forge connections with customers and employees.
“Companies prosper when they tap into a power that every one of us already has – the ability to reach outside of ourselves and connect with other people,” writes Stanford University Adjunct Professor Dev Patnaik in Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy.
We can become so focused on “getting things done,” that we forget to connect with others, our co-workers and customers on a basic human level. And organizations lose touch with their customers, which is why they’re in business in the first place.
What do you think? Does this ring true for you? I’d love to hear from you.