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Getting Real — 4 Ways to Inspire the People You Lead

The first time I met “Jay,” I sat across the desk from him in his executive office at Visa. I was struck by the 10th-floor view and how stark his office was — just two plaques, both noting Visa awards, and a list of To Do’s pinned on his bulletin board.

I was there as his new leadership coach, and we jumped into his objectives: the scale of his global responsibilities were expanding rapidly, and he knew that, in addition to increasing his capabilities with analytics, building employee trust would be a key factor for success. As we discussed trust, I described how we each have “privacy curtains,” and we each make the choice for how much we slide those open for others to see who we are, especially in the workplace. He responded with a hearty laugh and said, “In my case, it’s an IRON curtain.”

For Jay — just as it has been for me and so many others — becoming more transparent and bringing more of yourself to work is hard. It’s hard because, for over a century, corporate culture has dictated that to be “professional”, we must separate our business and personal lives. Making a shift to be more “real” with those we lead is uncomfortable. It feels risky. But in learning how to inspire people and be effective leaders, we must take that risk.

Competence and connection are the core elements of GP Strategies’ view on inspiring leadership . GP Strategies’ ongoing research on how to inspire employees underscores this: in 360 feedback data collected for thousands of managers and executives, the majority of leaders get higher ratings on the competence items than on the connection items.

That may not be surprising — remember that century of conditioning in the corporate environment? What is compelling, however, was a revelation in a different part of the data: feedback givers were also asked to give overall ratings for how inspiring, and how effective the leader was. The leaders who were rated highest overall were not the ones who scored highest in the competence items, but rather, the ones scoring highest in the connection items, particularly trustworthiness.

As it turns out, revealing more of ourselves and being real at work are key ingredients to great leadership . For people like Jay who don’t come by these behaviors naturally, is there any potential to make that shift? The good news is, yes, there is. We can identify trust-building behaviors and begin trying them out. They may not be easy at first, and they’ll require experimentation and practice, but they are skills that can definitely be learned.

Here are 4 ways to get started on building employee trust:

  1. Share your Story
    When Kirsten Wolberg arrived to lead IT as CIO at Salesforce.com, she began her first divisional meeting with a personal story. A colleague approached her afterwards to give her feedback, “That approach with stories might have worked at your last company, but this is a different culture here. Stories won’t go over so well.” She thanked him for his concern and counsel — and promptly ignored it. She began every meeting with a story, sometimes a work anecdote, other times about growing up in Alaska, or Saturday Shabbat with her kids, relating the story to a key message she wanted to convey. She became a much beloved leader, and upon departing, her tech employees shared with her that what they always looked forward to about her meetings were the stories she shared.
  2. Have the Hard Conversations
    Scott Kriens recounts one of the first tough conversations he initiated a few years in as CEO of Juniper Networks. Up to that point, they’d been riding a wave of success and there had always been good news about company performance. Now, they’d hit their first real crisis and would need to let people go. Scott was dreading the conversation. It would have been easier to communicate via memo or have the CFO explain the rationale with numbers. Instead, he decided to show up fully for that conversation. He shared how painful the decisions were for him personally, and he made the space for people to respond and ask honest questions. Afterwards, one employee reflected back to him that “that was one of the best meetings we’ve ever had,” and others sent emails saying they were willing to take a pay cut to help. That’s when he learned how hungry people are to have an authentic conversation, even if — especially if — it’s a tough topic. Scott’s takeaways? Don’t avoid it. Don’t sugar coat things. Go all in.
  3. Wear Your Values on Your Sleeve
    While doing consulting work at Pacific Gas & Electric, I asked, “Who is an inspiring leader around here?” Several managers mentioned the same VP. How did they describe her? “She always says, ‘Be safe.’ ‘Do the right thing.’ ‘I care.’ Those are her personal values and it’s genuine.” Why was that inspiring? Because she had the courage to share explicitly what was important to her (not the norm in many corporate environments). The greater act of courage, though, was going on record with her values publicly, which is ultimately an invitation for people to judge whether or not she was consistent with her walk and her talk. Was she? You bet. They gave examples of her taking a stand for safety even when costly, and giving her own time and energy to celebrate a team’s contribution or arrange meals for an employee with an ill spouse. When a leader shares his or her values, and then demonstrates them by their personal actions, people notice—and they are inspired.
  4. Admit Your Mistakes / Be Vulnerable  
    Michael Knight was the head of the Central US for Charles Schwab, and his employee satisfaction scores were dipping. He decided to enlist someone from HR to facilitate. He gathered his team and said, “I want to know your honest feedback about what I can do better as a leader. I’m going to leave the room and you can say ANYTHING.” Twenty minutes later, when the HR partner emerged from the room, he exhaled and said, “Phew, it’s over.” She was actually coming to get more flip chart paper. After an hour, when he was invited back in, it was a humbling moment to see all the phrases on the walls around him: ”Michael gets defensive when …” and, “It’s only about results.” He took it all seriously. He made changes.  And he saw the impact.  His region’s results steadily rose to the top.  The people who worked for him talked about the things he had demonstrated during that meeting – humility, commitment, and courage – for years to follow.

Remember Jay at Visa?
I went on to work with him for 6 months as a leadership coach on how to inspire his employees. And despite his skepticism about opening his “iron curtain,” he committed to trying on some new behaviors in order to build employee trust. He added things to his office walls and bookshelf that reflected his interests outside of work as well as his cultural heritage.

Before, he would only initiate meetings with colleagues on a “need-to-know” basis, scheduling meetings when they had objectives to tackle or a deadline that needed trouble shooting. Instead, he began inviting peers to coffee just to get to know them more. I sat in on his staff meetings and watched him begin taking time to share little known facts about himself. He was awkward at first, but it was evident that his team began to engage with him differently as he continued to experiment with how to inspire his employees.

A year after we began working together, Jay got a promotion to a critical VP role. While he had initially been skeptical and afraid that trying on the new, more authentic behaviors might weaken his credibility, in the end, they actually increased it. His reputation as an impactful leader within the organization had grown; he had become more visible and more trusted.

Competence and connection matter when you are trying to inspire people. Opening the curtains and getting real is learnable. In Jay’s case, and for most of us, it takes courage. But the returns are well worth the risks.

About the Authors

Christy Tonge

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