I have yet to meet a successful entrepreneur, executive, or business owner who has a ton of free time on their hands. Most leaders I know are moving quickly from one thing to the next. Even those with recent, fruitful, exits are usually on to the next project. It’s true that less than 1% can move at the clip necessary to build and grow and a successful organization, but there are unintended consequences we should be aware of while we’re running around with our hair on fire trying to take over the world.
A frenetic pace is usually the primary contributor to falling out of touch with our people. One on ones get canceled or continually re-scheduled, all-team meetings seem to never fall at the right time, and the leader’s laser focus on growing and improving the organization wins out over the day to day management of the team. Feedback loops close, turnover starts to affect the bottom line, and one day we look up and realize that we don’t really have a pulse on how our people are doing. When it comes to performance, most healthy organizations have clear metrics, but when it comes to how people are feeling about their work and experience under your leadership the metrics often aren’t so clear.
I spent two years working for a large privately-held home builder building and selling new homes. I took a job there because a business I had started wasn’t performing as I hoped and with a growing family we desperately needed stability. This company was annually ranked in the top 20 of Fortune’s 100 best companies to work for. I figured that I may as well go learn as much as I could from a great organization if I wanted to build a successful one myself someday. I started the two-year countdown on my first day, and exactly 730 days later I left to start Core Ventures. I learned a ton in those two years about organizational development, team building, leadership training, and corporate culture. I held three different roles inside my two years and consequently had five different managers largely due to some major transition at the top of the organization.
I remember coming home one Friday evening after a long week absolutely exhausted. I was leading the company in sales and on pace to set a quarterly record. I was working long hours, focusing my energy on driving revenue and keeping customers happy. By all accounts I was “crushing it,” but something was off and I couldn’t put my finger on it. My team was excited, my clients were thrilled, and the prospect of setting a quarterly revenue record for a 2 billion dollar company with a 30-year track record of success was getting real. I reflected on an interaction I had with my then manager. He had canceled our weekly meeting (too busy) and called a day later to check-in. In our brief, maybe 5-minute conversation, he made two comments that rubbed me the wrong way. The first, regarding the record-setting sales clip, “Sounds like we’re just priced too low.” The second, “Just make sure you don’t drop any balls.” He wasn’t wrong. There’s no question our price point contributed to the sharp increase in volume and the increased load would undoubtedly make it more challenging to stay on top of the process for each new client. It took me a bit to figure it out, but I finally started to hone in on what was bothering me. It wasn’t a lack of encouragement or affirmation of my success, and it wasn’t his “gentle” reminder to keep customer experience at the top of my priority list. It was the simple fact that I did not know where I stood with my manager. Was he pleased with my performance? Was he concerned I was moving too quickly? Did he think I was doing a good job? Was I doing a good job? I have never been prone to anxiety and rarely lacked confidence in my abilities, but the uncertainty was eating my lunch.
I promised myself that I would do my best to never let my employees walk in uncertainty about where things stood with me. If things are going great, they are going to hear it. If things are getting sideways they will know what I think about the situation. If I believe there are areas where they need to improve, I will carve out time to discuss those in detail and help them formulate a plan that will maximize their abilities. This path demands availability. Leaders running organizations who don’t have time for consistent, quality one-on-ones with their people don’t have time to run an organization. If your people do not know where they stand with you they are likely carrying a boatload of anxiety into their work each day. Anxiety usually leads to over-analysis, and over-analysis leads to paralysis. Paralysis runs counter to productivity and innovation and that is how organizations die.
So, leaders, are you making time for your people? Are you communicating consistently and clearly with them about their performance? Do they know where they stand with you? Do you know where you stand with them? Our people are, and will always be, our greatest asset. Engaged leadership is not optional.