If you build it, they will come

The mug incident

My family is a loyal one and they make sure that, wherever I work they become vested customers and I love them for it. Having said that, it also means they share their most valuable first-hand customer experience with me.

When they opened an account with the company I used to work for, my mother received a company branded mug as a small token of appreciation. (I do believe if there is nothing else we will leave this planet with, company mugs will litter the Earth long after we’re gone, but that is another story.) But, before she could leave with her new kitchen requisite, she was asked-by the slightly embarrassed but ever so polite branch manager- to sign a sheet of paper confirming that she was in fact handed a mug and it resides in her possession from now on. My mother called me right after this and she asked: does your top management not trust their branch managers? Do they think they will keep these or furnish their own household with the sorry mugs?

And she was right – albeit not the first or the last time either.

What is the message we are sending to our customers by the way we are treating each other in a company? We can claim that trust and respect are a core value of our corporation and then undermine it with something like this speaking louder than any sticker we give our employees to remind them of it.

Average Joe-the-manager or a hero

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to a business breakfast where a popular leadership researcher/blogger guy discussed the results of their longitudinal study about the self-awareness of managers.

The long and short of it was that they found that managers in small and big organisations seem to have become more aware of the elements of their managerial toolkit and in the past 5 years they have become more intentional choosing and using them. The researcher seemed very pleased and optimistic with the progress. It got me thinking about my everyday real-life experience as compared to the results of the research. 

At a time when almost all companies are struggling to recruit employees, of course the HR function is the first one to be blamed for being way too slow and having processes that frighten away eligible candidates or not being able to scale payment that would be compatible. No efforts -even paying managers a head-hunting fee- make up for the simple fact that it is the fundamental job of a manager to build and maintain a professional network that she or he can leverage on when it is time to scout for candidates. We hardly ever think of job interviews not as a strenuous chore but a great opportunity to get to know the individual or to gather meaningful market intelligence.

As opposed to the optimistic results of said research, I see managers considering yearly appraisal process to be a recurring dreaded exercise. All too many ‘I agree’ or ‘Keep up the good work’ comments turn up on these forms. Salary increases and bonus allocations usually bring out the worst -and least critical thinking and courageous- in everyone too. Questions such as: ‘Why are we giving him a bonus, if we are already looking for a replacement?’ or ‘Do you think giving everyone the same percentage of raise will help the morale and will not backfire?’ are met with embarrassed smiles and intense gazes fixated on a stack of paper lying around. Prodding honest questions such as ‘If a third of our people have left last year what do you think you should do differently?’ often get dismissive replies such as ‘The competition pays more’.

But isn’t answering core questions of the sort the very essence of being a brave manager? Why don’t we have those then? Of course there are exceptions and I have had the good fortune to be colleagues with some, but there has always been only a handful of them. The majority of mid and even top managers have daily struggles with ….well managing people. And by managing I mean looking them in the eye, caring enough to listen, being curious, celebrating success in a big and memorable way and being brave and sincere enough to break the bad news if sh***t hits the fan or finding the words to apologise while showing honesty and vulnerability. Being human.

I am still in awe of a CEO who once said: ‘I would never hire a manager who had not fired people before, because I want the empathy, the sensitivity the honesty that is needed in a situation like that.’ Sitting down with someone you worked with and telling them they are being laid off, is definitely a situation that requires courage. But so does praising someone for their efforts and openly stating that, acknowledging mistakes, trusting the people around you and having their backs all the time.

I agree this is a tall order. These are almost hero-like qualities -minus the skin-tight costumes.

I remember the first time I met a fantastic insurance sales agent who earned immense amount of commissions and he was still in his early twenties. He was admired by top management and his colleagues alike. Soon enough they wanted to “reward” him with a managerial position that he ever so gracefully turned down. He simply said, it is sales that he enjoys, he would be a terrible manager, he does not know how to do a good job of it. After numerous failed attempts to send him to leadership workshops to make up for his lacking skills, his managers accepted the fact that he forever will stay what he is, a fantastic salesperson.

In my almost three decades of being in this profession he was the only one who was clearly able to see that being good in your field (sales, programming, marketing, whatever) and being a manager are two completely different things that require different sets of skills.

To this day I see young, enthusiastic employees entering companies and invariably aspiring to be managers one day- preferably not later than 18 months, coz time is ticking-, after they learned the ins and outs of their trade. Chances are they will never meet anyone on their way who will clarify these two separate paths. And that alone creates a problem for the organisation and its culture. It builds unmet expectations, frustration, burn-out and an overall corporate fatigue that will be deaf to not only its employees’ aspirations but to its customers needs and wants alike. There goes your competitive edge….

If you build it, they will come

The question remains how to build a company culture that attracts heroes instead of average managers and customers who stick with you?

The companies that acknowledge that feelings are the basis of relating to each other and to its customers, will be the winners. 

Communicating in a no-BS way, instead of using meaningless corporate lingo, will be valued by employees and clients alike. In the overwhelming noise of empty marketing promises your no-nonsense, honest voices will be heard. Honesty, courage and meaning in your language internally and externally will be the cornerstones that will stand the test of time as it makes you relatable and attractive. 

Is it too far away from where you are now? Could be the case. But if you are passionate enough about changing for the better you can get there. No doubt, it takes immense amounts of courage. But isn’t it what makes heroes?