Looking in the Mirror of Leadership

Mike Grogan
Posted: 07/21/2009

As a business leader it is essential that you look in the mirror, or more precisely, look in several mirrors. Failure to do so can lead to several unhappy outcomes. For example, a business leader might be the last to know that a key employee is fed up and planning to leave the company. Similarly, a dependable customer may be looking for a new supplier without your knowledge, while you continually reassure yourself that all is well.

Another cost of failing to engage employees in honest two-way dialogue might come in the form of missing a key insight, such as an improved process or new product possibility. Finally, unexamined leadership can contribute to a culture of complacency and entitlement.

Self-Assessment

So, if you’re ready to take a deeper look at the circumstances of your business, the place to start is the mirror of your own perceptions. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Overall, how is the business doing? What is the evidence for this? (Hint: Look at revenues, profits, customer satisfaction, retention of key accounts, etc.)
  • How am I doing as a business leader? What is the evidence for this? (Hint: Look at morale, turnover, the performance of others, the quality of employee input to discussions, etc.)
  • What are my two to three greatest strengths as a business leader?
  • What are my two to three areas most in need of improvement?

While many people might squirm at the thought of such pointed questions, a self-aware business leader committed to a successful business will find it relatively simple and easy to answer those questions.

The follow-up questions about evidence are meant to stimulate objective answers to the questions. "I feel like things are going well," is less compelling and believable than, "Revenues are up, profitability is higher and employees are often arriving early and leaving late without being asked. So it seems we’re doing well."

While the mirror of self-awareness is of vital importance, it is not the final word. Good business leaders need to see how their leadership appears to others, especially employees. Without these external data points, it is possible that the business leader is oblivious or self-delusional, either overly optimistic or overly gloomy about the company and leadership performance.

Ask Your Employees

Before asking questions of employees, it is important to create an appropriate and safe mood and posture. Genuine curiosity and openness work better than a perfunctory check-the-box attitude. Here are a few sample questions to ask employees:

  • Overall, how do you think the business is doing? Tell me more about your view. (Don’t prompt them. It will be interesting to find out about their benchmarks for performance.)
  • What do you like most about your job? What do you like least?
  • Compared to the best leader you have ever worked with, how am I doing?
  • What are my two to three greatest strengths as a business leader?
  • What are my two to three areas most in need of improvement?
  • If you could change one thing about me, what would it be?
  • If you could change one thing about the company, what would it be?

Follow Up

Armed with that feedback, what’s next? The answer depends on how closely, or not, your self-perception differs from the consensus view of employees.

Even if there is close alignment, a business leader seriously committed to improvement needs to circle back with employees and describe the key insights and commitments to change. Otherwise, employees will dismiss the initial conversations as insincere and a waste of time.

Imagine how your staff would feel if you came back after the initial feedback sessions and said something like this:

"Thank you for your candid feedback on how we’re doing as a company, and how I am doing as a business leader. This was an enlightening process for me. As a result of comments from you and others, here are the three things I intend to do differently from this day forward [list the three]. As a company, we are going to look at a couple of new initiatives, including [fill in the blank]. I am counting on you to continue to give me feedback, both positive and negative, with regard to these areas of improvement and anything else you might see."

So, if you tend toward the image of an ostrich with its head buried in the sand, it’s time to pull your head out of the ground and take a look around. There are many things worth seeing.

Mike Grogan
Posted: 07/21/2009

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