Make a Difference or Make an Exit

By Hugh Blane, President, Claris Consulting

Don’t get me started! My internet service provider (ISP) can’t accurately and effectively change the name on my account. How inane! What’s so hard! Five months, six hours, twelve phone calls, three faxes and two modifications to the service I have today and yet, I’m told it will take a few more days to make the final changes. Worse still, they tell me that my cost will increase 400%!! This is called service. Like I said, don’t get me started!
Does anyone at this company recognize how difficult it is to do business with them? Does anyone at this company really understand how incredibly frustrating this situation is for me? Does anyone at this company recognize that they’re making a significant impression on me – just not a positive one?

Leaders – don’t set your employees up to fail!

You can’t have happy and loyal customers with unhappy and disloyal employees. The relationship between happy and loyal employees and happy and loyal customers is direct. I’m not happy nor am I loyal and I’m waiting for the first chance to bail because of the interactions I’m having with the company’s employees. I don’t fault the employees; I fault the people who lead these employees.

In the world of work, there are leaders who make a positive difference in the lives of their employees. In turn those employees want to make a positive difference in their customers’ lives. It’s the law of reciprocity at work. When one creates an environment where people come to work to do the best work possible and to make a difference psychologists describe the effect as a sense of efficacy.

There are also leaders who make a negative difference in the lives of others and in turn their employees unwittingly pass that negative experience on to their customers. Far too often managers and leaders are clueless as to how to create a culture where people come to work wanting to do their best work and to make a difference. I believe most employees come to work with a high degree of self-efficacy, but too often they encounter managers and leaders who behave in ways that drive out individual effectiveness faster than AIG can spend government bail out money.

Let me be blunt – it’s time for managers and leaders to recognize that if they are not making a positive difference in the lives of those they lead it’s time for them to either make a significant investment in their leadership and personal development or make an exit from the leadership ranks and return to being an individual contributor. It’s really that simple.

Two people in particular made a significant difference in my life and taught me the importance of making a positive difference in the life of those around us. My junior high school track coach; David Litton, saw in me the raw talent for running and coached me physically and psychologically to be a better athlete and a better team member.  He invested time in listening to my hopes and fears of joining the track team and found a way to link being on the track team with what I wanted most as a new student at Homewood Junior High School.

Billie James, my high school guidance counselor recognized the difficulty I was having with school, friends and family and at 3:00am wrote me a five page letter telling me of all the potential goodness she saw in me – she entitled the letter “Prizing Hugh”. Billie went above and beyond the traditional boundaries of high school counselors and left an indelible mark on my personal and professional life.

Both David and Billie provided me with much needed confidence, insight, discipline and hope.  Thirty some years later, the seeds planted by both of them have deep roots in my world of work. From them I learned that encouraging and positively influencing those around me is rooted in caring for another person and being willing to help. In our busy and fractured professional lives, we have the same choice as Billie and David –to shed light into those places that remain darkened, to plant seeds of hope where there is despair, and optimism where there is uncertainty and fear. If we do so there is a significant impact on productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction, and employee retention. I wonder: If I send this to my ISP, will someone read it?

How did Billie and David shed light? They shed light in their interactions with me. The word light is a pneumonic for how each of us can positively influence others. Light stands for…

Listening…Billie and David listened to understand and not simply to respond. They suspended any judgment for what I said and simply were fully present to my hopes, complaints and concerns. I wanted to know that I had been listened to and understood. Sure, my parents listened to me but through a different prism. In their hope of making me a stronger adult, my parents listened to correct my faulty thinking and, unintentionally, left me thinking I wasn’t really being listened to but rather I was being listened to only long enough to tell me where I was wrong – which sounds resoundingly similar to my experience with my ISP.

Integrity…David and Billie aligned their values with their behavior. John Wooden, the famed UCLA basketball coach, once said “Sports doesn’t build character – it reveals it.” This quote was later changed to a leadership context and reads: “adversity doesn’t build character it reveals it.” When I think back to how Billie and David acted towards me I can unquestioningly see alignment between what they said they believed and what they did. There was alignment and I saw them as credible and trustworthy. There is the same alignment with my ISP. They value their own internal processes at the expense of their customer experience.

Generosity and gratitude…Billie and David were generous people. In their roles both had lots of kids to look after and yet they still found time to let each student know they were important and valued. In the midst of all they had going on I never felt rushed when talking with them. I don’t think they thought about it as being generous, they were simply being themselves. And in the midst of their generosity toward me I learned the basics of being grateful. At twelve or sixteen I didn’t call it gratitude…I called it “nice” and “cool.” Thankfully at my thirty year high school reunion I spoke with Billie and expressed my gratitude for her letter. While she was touched by what she called my generous memory, what was “cool” was how I could thank her personally for planting the seeds of generosity and gratitude and how deep the roots she planted thirty years ago have grown. My ISP on the other hand leaves me feeling rushed and that no one is interested in making me feel important and valued.

Heart to heart connection…David and Billie built relationships based on resonance. They genuinely cared about the students they taught and saw each student’s hopes, dreams and aspirations as theirs also. They took it as their responsibility to plant the seed of courageousness in me and cultivated the belief that with focus, hard work, and discipline my hopes, dreams and aspirations were absolutely possible.

Telling the truth…Billie and David didn’t pull any punches. They told me what I needed to hear, but did so in a way I could hear it. In hindsight, I think they were master communicators. I’ve met people who say that they are “brutally honest” and believe that this is virtuous. I’ve found such people have more brutality in their message than honesty, and that’s mostly they deliver their message in ways that works for them and not for me. Telling someone what they need to hear in ways they can hear it involves being grounded in wanting to be generous, aligning your behavior with your values and listening to the other person in order to know how best to talk with them. Can corporations do the same?

It’s simple – performance, innovation, growth and commitment deteriorate when leaders lose sight of their role of making a positive difference in the lives of those they lead or manage. Leaders shape and form their organizational culture everyday and in ways that are best likened to the apple not falling far from the tree. Are you making a positive difference in the lives of your employees – especially those who have direct customer contact? If not, you’ll not see an appreciable increase in the performance, innovation and collaboration within your team or organization.

On the other hand, if you desire to make a difference, shed light in every interaction with your employees. You’ll not only transform your employee’s hopes and aspirations for their work into something real and tangible, but you’ll also transform the customer experience into something positive and worth talking about. A positive opposite of my soon to be former ISP.

Copyright 2009 Hugh Blane. All rights reserved.

Hugh Blane is President of Claris Consulting. A subject mater expert in leadership and influence, Hugh is a senior level consultant and coach who has worked with thousands of people in a variety of organizations including Starbucks, Microsoft, Spacelabs Medical, Texas A&M University in Qatar, Pepperdine University, KPMG and Costco.