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Posted on Jun 21, 2011

It All Starts at the Top

Sunrise Mountain - Franchise HelpIn the last month or so I have run several leadership programs for "top talent" at a number of client companies. The folks that attend these classes are the people that the leaders of their respective companies have identified as their "high potentials" -- the best of the best on their teams. I look at people like this basically as "voluntary employees," or, in other words, they are so good at what they do that if they quit today they would have an equal or better job tomorrow with any of a number of available business opportunities in the world today, which means there must be something about the company they're working in and the leader they work for that makes them want to come back every day. In order to better understand what is keeping them so loyal and engaged, I always ask these sort of groups what they look for in a leader that they would willingly follow and give 100% of their effort to. Here is exactly what they told me:

Lead By Example. "We watch everything the leader does and listen to every word the leader says. Then watch to make sure that they are congruent. The best way to lead and motivate me is to be a living example of the way you expect me to behave."

Loyal to the Team. "Times are tough and we are working harder than ever, so it is critical that I truly believe that my leader has my back; that he or she is looking out for me and fighting hard to do everything they can to support me."

Level with Me. "Tell me the truth. Be completely honest and as transparent as possible. I promise that I can handle it. The more information you share with me, the better job I can do of keeping the company strong and growing. Hide information from me and all I can do is sit at my desk and worry."

Be Empathic. "Realize that my entire life is not wrapped up in the business: I am an employee. I have other things going on, like my family and my own personal life. One of the best ways to keep me motivated is to understand and support the idea of work-life balance."

Empower Me. "Give me the training, resources and support I need, then let me go do my job. Micro-managing me means that you do not trust my competence or my judgment, but either way it means you do not trust me. And if you do not trust me, then why did you hire me?"

Show Me the Way. "I need to know what your vision is for where we are headed. The more clear and vivid you can communicate that vision to me, the better job I can do at working my tail off to achieve it. Without a clear vision I have no way to prioritize my work, make fast decisions or measure my performance. Show me the goal line and I’ll start running."

This feedback correlated nicely with one of the most influential research studies ever done on the topic of leadership and employee engagement. In their seminal work, the Leadership Challenge, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner looked at more than 25 years of surveys and interviews to determine what followers want in their leader. Rather than drag you through all of the data, the findings of the study essentially say: I want a leader who will tell me the truth (honesty)-- who has a clear picture of where they are trying to the organization (vision) --- has the skills (competence) to get us there successfully, and is excited (passion) about going with me.

Sure there are some other great short-term motivators like money, time off, flex-time, awards, recognition, gift certificates, and I recommend doing ALL of these. But for lasting motivation one of the MOST important factors is having a highly engaged and highly motivated leader. Yes, it does all start at the top.

John Spence is the author of “Awesomely Simple – Essential Business Strategies for Turning Ideas into Action.” He is an award-wining professional speaker and corporate trainer, and has been recognized as one of the Top 100 Business Thought Leaders in America.

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