Strong leaders must pay attention to—and protect—employees, themselves, and their organizations
The day we got Jazz was a tough one. We still had Misty, who was aging fast, and we had just lost two-year-old Abby to a freak accident. We’d been to the pet store and shared our story with a shelter volunteer. “I have the perfect dog for you!” she said. “Please come back next Saturday and meet Jasmine.”
We entered the expo where my hubby went straight to the volunteer and met Jasmine. However, I was overwhelmed; there were hundreds of dogs that needed help. I got lost in the enormity of the need. (Please, spay your pet!)
I made my way back to Paul, who saw my confusion. “Here, honey,” he said. “Take Jasmine for a walk.” I took this adorable five-month-old Border Collie mix and trotted her around the store; this dog never took her eyes off me the entire time. By the time we got back, she had her forever home.
Jasmine was always in protection mode. At night, she lay on the floor, usually near the door. Once, the air-conditioning repair guy stepped too far past me into our house without my permission. Jazz brought him back to me with a little nip to his posterior. She didn’t break his skin, but she grabbed the back of his jeans. Like all herding dogs, she can make her point about which direction you should be going.
Our farrier in Tallahassee—a big guy who regularly deals with 1,200-pound horses—would not come through the gate the first time he saw Jazz, fur raised, on the other side, barking furiously at him. She was only six months old, but she didn’t know this person, and she was waiting for Mom or Dad to say it was okay!
Jazz has taught me a few important leadership lessons.
Focus, focus, focus
The first is, “Leaders must focus.” It’s important not to get so overwhelmed by the multitude of choices (or voices) that you forget your mission. We have so many options now with so many things; even toothpaste has hundreds of brands!
In our work, there are many choices, but for the strong leader, none is more important than how we behave with our colleagues. We have the ability to be many things to many people.
As leaders, do we maintain our own focus? When a staff member is speaking, are you really listening? Or are you trying to multi-task? Do you interrupt them to take a phone call? (Rude!) Is one eye on your email inbox?
Technically, in terms of brain function, we cannot multi-task. Inside our head we are bouncing from one thing back to the other, over and over. By doing this, our brain is up to 40% less effective, causing mistakes or hurt feelings.
Active listening may be one of the most difficult disciplines we have to practice as leaders. Like Jazz, we can look at our employees and really focus on them. Pick your head up from the desk, move your eyes from the computer screen, and put the phone, paper, or other distractions down.
Simply, look at them while they are speaking. This can be difficult. Do you have a notification bell on your email, ringing every time there is a new message? Turn it off! You might even minimize all the screens on your computer to reduce distraction. Or turn the screens off.
Next, clear a space across your desk so that there is no implied barrier between you. Close up files and move them aside. Use body language; lean in, nod, smile, and gesture!
In our work, there are many choices, but for the strong leader, none is more important than how we behave with our colleagues.
Verbal cues let the person know you are engaged: “Oh?” and “Uh-huh?” are two ways to keep a person talking. Ask questions and comment on various aspects of your exchange, such as, “Wow, I bet that was hard to do!” or, “Great idea!” as you go along in the conversation.
This may seem rudimentary, but the most basic and important things we know to do often are the ones that get lost in the hurriedness of life. Unfortunately, we tend to ignore the polishing of these basic skills, which are assumed to be done naturally. We are born knowing how to hear, but not how to listen.
Attend to details
The second lesson from Jazz is to address your own set of needs, your training, and your time to think and process. Jazz knew the cool, dark corners of our home. She knew just where to lie so that, when we moved around the house, she could still see us. I could go into the kitchen, living room, or dining room without her having to take her eyes off of me, allowing her to rest.
Have you scheduled your own training time, your rest, and your time to think? Do you allow such time for your employees? In fact, do you insist that they take that time?
In addition to attending to their personal needs and those of their employees, leaders also need to attend to their teams. Helping your staff keep their eye on the ball takes a great deal of effort and involves a number of steps.
First, update vision and mission statements. Then, create language around the vision and mission that empowers your internal code. Standardize everything to the three or four core values and missions you develop.
Don’t just brand your product; brand your mission. Virtually everything you do—internal documents, external news items, meeting agendas—can be organized or communicated around those concepts. This helps focus come naturally; it also helps to create a habit.
Even accountability is enhanced, because everyone will always know what direction to go. Day to day, your team can check their activities against the vision, values, and mission statements of the organization, to be sure they are using their time wisely.
Serve and protect
The third lesson from my sweet black dog is to take care of one another. Vigorously protect those you lead—from others, and from themselves.
Your best employees need most of your attention. We all tend to have the same bad habit of spending more time on our marginal employees, hoping we can fix them. Unfortunately, this means we don’t have the time to develop the ones who actually deserve our time.
Since we often allow the marginal employees to continue in their position too long, we actually punish the good ones, who end up carrying more than their share of the load. Because they are the good ones, they will continue to shoulder the load until they have deprived themselves of rest and refreshment; they may even burn out, give up, become ill, or develop a negative attitude.
It is fine to spend time trying to bring poor employees into the fold or up to speed with training, attention, or even trying different assignments. But know when it’s out of balance.
Address process. Be aware of all the distractions that are in the way of getting work done, even if this means eliminating certain unnecessary processes, or giving new life to those that are old. Stale procedures—those that can be classified as “the way we have always done it”—can easily rob you and your team of both efficiency and effectiveness.
Technology can have this effect, as well. If all you have is a hammer, everything will look like a nail. Keep your systems current. The old rule of driving all work down to the simplest, most cost-effective solution still stands. If someone is doing work that can be automated (or delegated), it’s inefficient.
This does more than affect the bottom line. Your staff will be demoralized over time when they see the impact on their day, simply because you won’t make the investment. Most folks want to do a great job, and you reward them by allowing them to do so when you provide the proper tools.
Jasmine’s 12 years with us were too short. But the memories and lessons live on for me. I hope you’ll receive these as your own, too.
Lisa Harrington is executive vice president and chief marketing officer at IRMI. She is the author of “Taking in Strays: Leadership Lessons from Unexpected Places,” a book from which this article was adapted. Connect with Lisa on LinkedIn or email her at lisa.h@IRMI.com