Empty slogans and tired jargon don’t do the trick. To be a great leader you have to make a personal connection with members of your team.
I’ve attended a lot of leadership courses over the years and have learned much about how to lead organizations. What I didn’t learn in those courses was how to be great a leader.
Throughout the programs, I learned how to build teams, how to motivate people to achieve exceptional results, how to provide feedback, and even how to project an executive presence. Some of it was really good, foundational information that all leaders should have. Some of what I heard was worthless garbage peddled as profound.
I spent 15 minutes in one leadership course learning how to shake hands. As someone approaching AARP eligibility, I think I’ve got the handshake thing figured out. Apparently, the instructor was unable to discern from the gray-haired crowd of senior executives that the lesson was a waste of everyone’s time. I left the course during the lunch break and didn’t return.
Sometimes, I hear those in leadership positions spout the vacuous lines of carnival barkers and snake oil salesmen. Lines such as, “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” are like fingernails on a chalkboard. I realize it may sound profound to some, but to real leaders, it reeks of Leadership by Bumper Sticker, and that’s not an effective approach to leading others.
I wouldn’t be so pompous as to call myself a great leader. I’m simply passing on some things that have worked for me that are not taught in leadership courses.
- Keep track of important dates. Is someone in your organization graduating from a program or about to earn a professional certificate? Put the date on your calendar and either plan to attend the event (if invited), or pay the person a special visit to personally congratulate them. Work anniversaries are another great addition to your executive calendar. Recognizing that someone has been with your firm for 41 years is a big deal, but so is recognizing that someone has been there for two.
- Celebrate life events. We all have important events in our lives, such as birthdays, weddings, births, promotions, graduations, and more. Celebrate those events publicly, but also commemorate them privately. Share a cake with the office, but also include a personal touch.
Each month, I would write and sign notecards congratulating each employee on their birthday. In a 400-person organization, that’s an average of more than 30 cards each month. It’s a lot of work, but they were appreciated by my team and were personally rewarding for me. A word of caution, once you start a program such as this, you must be diligent about doing it every year, because your employees will remember when you miss their birthday.
- The lost art of writing. I wouldn’t say I’m old-fashioned. I’d say I’m classic, in that I appreciate the art of writing. I enjoy sending and receiving letters and notecards. For me, a letter or thank you card in my hands will always beat a well-written email or text message.
During my Air Force years, for new parents, I would mail a letter to the new baby welcoming him or her to the organization. In that letter, I would provide a brief summary of that day’s events: “On the day you were born, your mommy helped load 435 passengers and 34,000 pounds of cargo on eight airplanes that flew all over the Pacific.” I later found out that many of the parents kept those letters as a keepsake along with the baby’s first footprints and lock of hair.
If you have young employees, consider sending their parents a letter. This may sound odd or a little invasive, but it’s amazingly powerful. I would write letters to the parents of my new employees telling them what their son or daughter is doing for the company. It helped the new professionals connect with the company, because their leaders took a few minutes to recognize their contributions. Don’t forget to include your business card with the letter so the parents can reach you.
- Read the sports page. For many people, sports are a way of life. Many people follow their favorite sports teams and love to share the latest scores, statistics, and game highlights.
Spend a few minutes each morning reading the headlines in the sports page of your local newspaper or check out the home page on espn.com. See which team won the latest game or who had the fastest time. I’m not suggesting that you fake interest in sports. I’m recommending that you take time to understand what’s important in your employees’ lives and find a way to stay connected with them.
One area I can’t cave into is the celebrity world. I don’t care which Hollywood personality is seeing whom, nor will I ever care about what somebody wore to a movie premier. Some people find enjoyment in that, but as a strategic thinker, I have bigger thoughts to ponder. You’ll have to decide what works for you.
There are many distinctions between leaders and great leaders, but you won’t learn many of the techniques at your run-of-the-mill leadership course. Avoid the programs that speak in the language of bumper stickers. For the architects, engineers, and consultants, I’ll shamelessly promote Zweig Group’s The Principals Academy program as the best in the AEC industry. We provide industry professionals with practical information about what works and what will make you a great leader.
Bill Murphey is Zweig Group’s director of education. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.