I often have coaching conversations with individuals seeking to become better leaders. Most of the time, these conversations focus on the skills they need to develop to be successful. Common skills that people ask about include effective communication, decision-making, strategy, time management, and other more job-specific skills.
The leadership skills that I recommend individuals focus on vary based on the situation. After having many of these conversations, I began to ask myself a more general question.
What one skill should all leaders learn to be more effective?
As the end of summer approaches, my attention has naturally turned to the beginning of a new school year. There are supplies to be purchased, new teachers to meet, and schedules to coordinate. My thoughts, however, have been focused less on the tangible activities related to a new school year and more on the growth of my children.
This growth becomes particularly evident in light of the milestones they are reaching. The first day of kindergarten, new classes and subjects, rapidly increasing grade numbers. The progress is much easier to see when there are clear markers that can be observed, as opposed to the progress during the school year that often goes unnoticed.
A number of years ago I met with several leaders to determine a strategy for improving the performance of their operations. The discussion started with the high-level goals of the organization and the general direction of the team. As the conversation continued, the topics became very granular, with even minute process details being dictated by the senior leader in the room. He had a very specific plan for the operation that he wanted to see implemented.
After discussing the details of the new process, the topic of conversation turned to rolling the changes out to the staff. As a team, we all agreed that getting staff input would be a valuable part of the improvement process. There was less agreement on what that staff input should look like.
The senior leader described a series of meetings with front line staff in which it was the job of the area leader to present the new process and ask for staff input. He stressed that the point of the meetings was to make sure the staff “feel involved” in the process. He wanted their buy-in, while still making sure it was his process that was implemented.
My heart sank at this. He missed the point. Having control of the situation was more important to him than involving the staff in a genuine way.
Most people agree that one of the keys to organizational success is having an engaged workforce.
Over the years, the understanding and terminology around employee engagement has shifted. From employee satisfaction in the 1970’s and 80’s, to employee commitment, then employee engagement, and now sustained engagement.
Despite these changes in understanding, the basic approach is still the same. Use some form of employee survey to gather the opinions and thoughts of your team, develop an action plan to address deficiencies, rinse, and repeat.
Unfortunately, the results have been similarly stagnant. Despite decades of work, employees are still remarkably disengaged. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work.
Why is that?