Bridging Leadership Lessons from the Workplace and Those Experiences Shaping Today's Youth and Tomorrow's Leaders
While I’m publishing this on Halloween, it isn’t meant to be scary like the H.G. Wells classic, The Invisible Man or like the forgettable comedy, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, but a continuation from last week's blog, 3 Leadership Gaps to Close in 2024.
Employee engagement has been a challenging factor that continues to decline for companies across the globe. Studies by Gallup show a decline to a 32% engagement level in U.S. workers in 2022 with only two in 10 employees feeling connected to their company culture. In a December 2022 report published by Hubspot on Hybrid Work, found that only 34% felt a strong connection to their coworkers.
I spoke about this at the IMPACT Leadership Summit in October and I highlighted 4 things you can do as a leader to be more visible:
I chose to set expectations when I first made my introduction. I would call every potential employee that we intended to make an offer to and explain my expectations for them as a future employee, which became the basis of my 3 Pillars of Impact. Before they started work, they knew who I was and what I stood for as a person.
I started writing a column for the company's internal newsletter and then established my own blog. I wrote about leadership and personal experiences at work which helped them relate to me as they learned about insight on specific situations. We used videos to give updates on big and little things we called Operations by the Numbers.
You need to be more than your title; you need to open up and give them a glimpse of who you are as a person. In the blog, I also shared life lessons from the personal side. Challenges I faced as a father and husband. I shared my failures, some of which were painful and embarrassing, but by being vulnerable and transparent, I demonstrated that it was okay for them to struggle as well.
I began mentoring people across the company as well as former employees. While we had a formal internal mentoring program, I also elected to do informal sessions as well for those who wanted a safer and more personal connection. A former leader in HR, Amy Skyles, started a micro mentoring program which was similar to “speed dating” that allowed a broad interaction between a variety of people that opened the door for future discussions between employees and leaders.
I created and gave formal training directly to employees on topics that I felt were critical to future success like Leading Change, Planning with the End in Mind, and the 3 Pillars of Impact. By sharing experiences in such a manner, it enabled me to interact directly with employees from across the company, connect with them in small group settings, and hear their feedback directly.
ENGAGE WHERE THEY ARE
You can’t build the connections from the comfort of your executive lounge or from your office. You need to walk where they walk. Connect with them by engaging them where they work.
We started the Tsungani (Cherokee word for excellence or above all others) that was essentially our weekly meeting to promote Operational Excellence. It didn’t take long before groups from across the company were attending as we focused on awareness and alignment. Because of the broader appeal of the meeting, we changed the name to WIN the Day and used these meetings to connect employees to the larger purpose of the company vision.
In Operations, we implemented Gemba walks that we converted to virtual during the pandemic to help maintain connections. It continued to expand including groups and teams from outside of Operations as the value became apparent to employees and management.
Our Waste Watchers program, which combined Kaizen with Lean waste activities, became a must see monthly event that would be attended in person as well as virtually as employees shared the ways they eliminated waste and would capture the financial impact. The highlight was the addition of the 2 second lean videos, which became a fan favorite as the employees competed on entertainment value so they could receive recognition at the year-end Oscar style event.
TRUST & INTEGRITY IS BUILT FROM YOUR ACTIONS
The first three ways that I wrote about being visible are examples of the actions that employees see. It’s the walk to the talk that is sorely missing from most “leaders” today.
Every engagement you have, every connection you make is an opportunity for you to showcase and build trust. To demonstrate and reinforce your integrity.
Or it’s the opposite.
You don’t engage. You disconnect because you don't share yourself. You reinforce the lack of trust in leadership because your actions are not visible. You don't walk the walk.
The days of blind trust and position authority are over. If you want an engaged workforce, you need to be an engaged leader. It’s the connections you make as a leader that makes you visible Beyond Today.
I recently gave a talk on the 3 Pillars of Impact with the focus being on leaders actually walking the walk and putting the Pillars into action. During the talk, I spoke about the challenge facing leaders today is closing the gap between the vision of the organization and where the employees are operating. While this leadership gap has always existed, heading into 2024 highlights the evolution of the gap.
We talk about the “post covid” impact as if the virus was the cause for a lot of the changes, but this really wasn’t the case. We have a generation hitting the workforce that grew up with social media and influencers. A generation who had been given phones and devices since grade school and were raised by bulldozing, helicopter flying parents. It wasn’t covid, it was us.
People Need to Make an Impact
This has always been the case for employees, but the difference is this generation wants to make the impact now! They don’t want to invest their time and work their way up following a leadership development plan. They could already have hundreds of thousands of followers on social media - more than your company. It is more important that THEY make an impact than for the COMPANY to make the impact.
Furthermore, the impact they seek isn’t necessarily something you will find in a KPI or productivity metric. It might be on the intangible side of relationships or possibly, not even something that will show up in the business plan. The role they play at work may be their avenue to make an impact on the community, the environment, or an industry working group.
Work Ethic has been Redefined
We sit around in our meeting rooms complaining about how this younger generation doesn’t want to work. They don’t put in the hours to learn; they just want it handed to them.
But how different is it to us when we were younger? The Gen Xers grew up with Gordon Gekko dominating Wall Street and the IPOs of the Tech Stock Boom. We all wanted instant success as well. Now, there are electronic gaming scholarships to colleges, YouTube gamers are worth millions, and teenage influencers can make or break a product depending on the way something makes them feel or look.
They are still dedicating countless hours to their craft, but what they see as valuable is different from what is our definition. We are still viewing the world from our perspective and OUR definition. We view it from how we experienced life and not from the way life is today.
Overcoming Invisible Leadership
I said earlier it wasn’t covid. It was our response to covid and the ripple effect of that response. Shutting things down and then compensating regardless of output redefined value. We paid people to stay home, not to produce. The government went full throttle with this approach. As leaders we became invisible, both literally and figuratively, not only because we moved to a remote environment for being non-essential, but because we abdicated leadership responsibilities.
We allowed our employees to move into a work from home mode without maintaining expectations of what productivity means. We failed to demonstrate leadership coming out of the pandemic when we allowed the “new normal” to gain a foothold because we were too weak to fight the battle.
As we face high turnover rates, lower employee engagement, an inflationary economy with low productivity, it all comes back to our ability as leaders to connect the employees to the vision.
Close the Gap by Making Connections
If we think about the 3 leadership gaps highlighted above, all of them fall back on leadership and our ability to make connections. How do we connect what the company needs to what the employees need? It’s no longer about the security and pay of a job. Jobs are everywhere. How do we help employees find their impact or align their impact within the company framework?
How as leaders can we provide focus for the employee to connect them to their strengths to help move the company forward? Is the story of the WHY resonating with them so that they want to put the effort into the work or are you focusing on the company and hoping that they will make the connection on their own?
As a leader, are you visible? Or are you seen as some ancient ruler type of figure making your money on the sweat and blood of the workers? Do you walk where they walk? Do you talk like they talk? Is your WHY connected to their WHY?
We are dealing with not only an eclectic workforce but also a hybrid workforce where building connections is more difficult than ever. That is the challenge to us as leaders. That is the leadership gap that must be overcome.
The connection to the employees can’t be delegated. It can’t be assigned to a title or an organization. It can only be done by us, as leaders, making a conscious effort to build connections with the employees to close the gap to take us Beyond Today.
I am an avid sports fan and we have spent an exciting summer with our 15-year-old son trekking across the nation watching him play basketball. The thing about competitive basketball is that you see it mirror both the best and worst of society. You see the excitement of youth, the thrill of competition, and the bonding of friends and family. But you also see ego, politics, and some of the moral dilemmas we are facing today. It’s easy to get caught up in the negativity, so sometimes you need to refresh your outlook.
Overall, there is so much more positive about the experience and that is where we need to focus and celebrate. We need to foster, share, and inspire positive outlooks so that our light will shine on others.
I love learning; especially when it comes at unexpected times from unexpected people. It is even more special when you have the opportunity to learn from one of your children. Because of our youngest son, I felt the need to share a couple of reminders on how you can refresh your own outlook on life.
SOAK IT IN
Recently, we accompanied our son on an unofficial college visit to Iowa State. It was an amazing visit as the coaching staff showed us their impressive facilities and spent time sharing their culture and philosophy of the program.
When my son was asked what he enjoyed most about the visit, he responded with a smile on his face, “walking onto the court at Hilton Coliseum.” With all that we saw during the tour - the impressive facilities, the Stark Performance Center, Jack Trice Stadium, reviewing film with the coaching staff - it was the simple act of walking onto the floor of an empty stadium.
The power of the moment was lost on me until we saw the photos taken by their photographer. It was then that the impact was on full display in the child-like smile on my son’s face. He stood there with the familiar feel of the hardwood under his feet like he had felt thousands of times before in gyms all across the U.S., but the size, the tradition, the echoes of past celebrations, culminated to captivate his thoughts and his dreams. The picture of him soaking it all in was an incredible reminder that in the fast pace of life, we need to take the time to soak it all in.
DARE TO DREAM
As we continued to look through the pictures and reflect on the events of the weekend, I was brought back to a previous blog I wrote called Little Wonders, Big Impact. But our son isn’t a little kid. He is a 6’3” 15-year-old who is still growing, who has felt pressures and challenges that a teenager shouldn’t have to face. The stress that puts butterflies in the stomachs of the parents, but somehow fosters excitement and hope in him.
He is enjoying the moment. Besides soaking in the experience, he also has the audacity to double down on his dream. The focus in his eyes as he watched the Cyclone hype video on the Hilton Magic. It made me wonder what was going through his head at that moment. I reflected on watching him as 4-year-old shooting baskets on the hoops hanging on the door in the hallway. He would keep score using an app on our iPad. Watching him run up and down the court in our backyard, talking to himself, announcing the game he was playing in his head. The 15-year-old boy, who is becoming a man, has found the secret power that so many of us have forgotten… Dare to Dream.
In 2010, I wrote about Not Losing Site of the AHA Moments. Of course, it was written for us, the adults, because somehow as we get wiser, we also seem to regress. It was an incredible gift that my son gave to me unknowingly; to not forget the importance of soaking it all in and to not lose the “dare to dream” mindset of your childhood. It is the innocence of youth and the potential for the future that takes you to your dreams, Beyond Today.
I recently celebrated my 30th work anniversary at the same company. It has been a glorious and amazing journey of personal and professional growth. Starting off as a part-time employee out of college whose main job seemed to be making photocopies, I was able to work in various roles across the company including being a member of the executive leadership team.
It was suggested by our marketing group that a great topic for my blog would be to reflect back on lessons from the last 30 years and share 30 lessons I learned during that time. I am honored to be able to share these with you.
I hope my coworkers are up for the challenge and journey to make it to their own 30-year anniversary. For those of you who work elsewhere, I wish you the best in your own endeavors and enjoying the pursuit of your own anniversaries.
Instead of jumping to another job to grow, take the chance to extend your growth with the company that has committed to you. Take the chance of committing to being part of something bigger than you. Take a chance to help build and be part of a legacy.
I am not my job, and my job is not me. It is part of what has shaped me and my family, just as my family and life has helped shape my job. It’s not just a job, it’s a choice to pursue a life of purpose. To show my kids that being an active participant in your team isn’t only for high school sports, but for your future life as well. I hope these lessons over the last 30 years will be passed on to others to help guide the next generation Beyond Today.
Tom Brown - a husband and a father who is simply trying to make a difference. Using my experience as a Manufacturing Executive to connect leadership from the boardroom to the hardwood to help teams grow and develop to make a difference in the lives of others.