If you looked at how most executive leaders spend their time, you would find activities such as: attending executive leadership and board meetings, reviewing financial performance of their organization, developing strategic plans, meeting with their direct report team and the like.
My leadership style was different. Sure, I performed the traditional duties expected of me, but I realized as well that there were other things that had to be done to ensure a consistently high performing organization — plus have more fun!
These 5 activities consumed an inordinate amount of my time regularly while other leaders chose to stay with a more traditional routine.
Bear pit sessions
Seeking employee input on what’s working and what’s not working for them is a critical activity for the effective leader. Many leaders choose to delegate this responsibility to their management team; I did not.
I made this task a priority of how I spent my time, and coined the term bear pit session to describe the employee meetings I called to discuss issues in the workplace.
The purpose of the sessions was to engage people in a active conversation on such matters as:
- what’s preventing them from executing the strategic game plan of the organization;
- what needs to be changed in the way customers are served;
- what rules and policies are getting in the way of delivering amazing service experiences;
- what unmet customer needs should be addressed;
- what barriers need to be removed in order to make their jobs easier.
It was my agenda and I sought their input that I would normally never receive. I led each session on my own; my direct reports were never present because I wanted honesty from people.
And I had to take criticism on the chin; these were tell-it-like-it-is conversations which held very little back once I earned the trust of the attendees.
Dumb rules contests
One of my essential objectives was to “cleanse the organization’s environment” of stuff that made little sense to people; the rules, policies, processes and procedures — the systems — that got in their way of doing their job or that prevented the delivery of good customer service.
Most leaders opted to do studies using systems and process reengineering experts to identify the culprits that needed change because they were inefficient and could be reengineered to lower cost.
I took a different approach. I chose to sponsor dumb rule contests and involve the people who actually used the systems and enforced the rules & policies in the performance of their jobs. They were the best source to identify the candidates that needed change because they made their jobs difficult and/or annoyed customers.
The suggestions offered by employees — particularly from the frontline — were awesome! And we had a team of managers who were held accountable to schedule and implement the ideas with the greatest impact.
Skip level employee engagement
This is another twist to getting close to people doing the job without the filters of layers of management getting in the way.
This was my route to the truth. I have my managers the heads-up that I was going to be speaking to their employees directly on occasion.
I told them my purpose was not to undermine them but rather to get a better appreciation of how people doing the job felt; the individual problems they had and their views on how things could be achieved.
I also told them that if they were uncomfortable with my style then perhaps they need to find a more parochial leader.
This process worked miracles for me and my performance. I was able to get ahead of issues before they became performance effecting and I was able to help people perform their roles the way they wanted to: the right tools & training and fewer roadblocks.
And as a side benefit, it gave a perspective on how well my managers served their people and equipped me with the information I needed to help them do their jobs better.
VP for a day assignments
“Walk in my shoes” for a day was an offer I regularly gave to a variety of employees in my organization; people who championed valuable projects that proved to enhance the performance of the organization and other high potential individuals who were the leaders of tomorrow.
This was a recognition for those who stood out and provided an invaluable contribution to fulfilling our strategic intent.
I did this once a month, and I structured the day to provide as realistic perspective of the type of issues I was typically engaged in. There is always a risk in being “too cheesy” so I tried to leave plenty of time for extemporaneous activity if I could.
The role was to engage my guest in whatever the moment was offering. They weren’t there to simply look and listen, they were there to offer their point of view on whatever subject was being discussed.
They loved the opportunity; they told their friends and colleagues of their experience and they became influencers of opinion in the workplace. And many of them achieved rewarding and successful careers.
Customers before anything
I always planned weekly customer meetings; I scheduled them early to avoid any conflict with internal meetings.
But of course things change and inevitably my boss would call a meeting that conflicted with a scheduled customer meet.
It was risky but I never put the customer off in favour of complying with my boss’s request that I meet with him or attend an executive meeting. I ALWAYS kept my promises to customers even if it was an uncomfortable and unheard of choice.
My boss at least understood (even though he may not have agreed with) my choice and agreed to support me.
My peers, on the other hand, thought my choice was reckless and not in my own personal career interests.
Turns out that with a great boss you can both stand your ground on principles and have a rewarding career (because customers always show their appreciation with their loyalty).
I’m not saying other leaders should follow me, but I encourage you to step out and find your own unique signature to practice your craft at an even higher level than is possible through traditional leadership doctrine.
Find your own way.
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