Are Your Leaders Credible? Are You Sure?

Let’s talk about something that impacts every organization: the perception of whether your executives do anything, and in a related topic, whether they are viewed as credible.

Every organization is impacted by this. You can have great executive talent executing at a high level but if they do it 60 hours a week from floor 37 and never connect with your employee base, the perception can become “What do these people do?”

There are four buckets every executive falls into:

  1. Works hard/does stuff; viewed as credible.
  2. Doesn’t work hard/does stuff; is viewed as credible.
  3. Does stuff/works hard; isn’t viewed as credible.
  4. Doesn’t work hard/do stuff; isn’t viewed as credible.

The gold standard is to have execs in No. 1 — does stuff/is credible. Engagement is always easier when this is the case. For the most cynical of executives, they’d love to be viewed as credible without really trying to dig in or understand what’s going on several levels below them.

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Entire TV series have been based on the disconnect — “Undercover Boss,” anyone? The CEO puts on a stupid wig, goes to the front lines (with a camera crew) and finds that special person they want to help moving forward. Everyone cries and the CEO is now aware of how hard the work is. Check. Then it’s back to the corporate jet and the Ritz.

Why am I writing about this now? I was reminded of the four buckets of executive perception recently when basketball legend Magic Johnson resigned as the president of the Los Angeles Lakers. For the uninitiated, Magic is one of the top five players in the history of pro basketball, and he’s royalty when it comes to Los Angeles. So, the Lakers hired him two years ago to return their organization to glory.

There was just one problem. Magic wanted the leadership job, but he didn’t want to have to work hard. In addition, the fact he didn’t work hard in a job he didn’t know how to do destroyed his credibility in his workplace, which for him was the community of other presidents doing work within the National Basketball Association. That fact spiraled into media coverage, which soon made fans wonder if Magic could do the job. It ended with Johnson resigning abruptly and stating that “he just wanted to go back to being Magic.”

But back to your company. Evaluating whether an executive works hard and is viewed as credible is tough for the following reasons:

  1. It’s not necessarily the executive’s job to understand what everyone does and how the sausage gets made. They have a job that’s different than the first layers of your company, and at times, just as important.
  2. Employees love to hate. Just because they don’t know what the executive does doesn’t mean the exec in question doesn’t work hard. But it might tell you they need to connect more to be credible.

How do you determine whether an executive works hard and is credible? Ask their executive peers who rely on them for services. Peers at the executive level are aware of the demands of the job. They’re slow to say, “I don’t know what he does,” because they’ve heard that before about themselves.

Next, look for the ability to connect with the masses in all-hands meetings, listening tours, etc. You know what success looks like in this area. It’s a leader committed to connecting with employees and doing it in a way that makes them incredibly likeable. Some execs just don’t have it.

Maybe they are unnaturally introverted (succession from finance is a normal path for this condition). That might be unfair, but ability to connect matters.

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Need a couple of examples of world-class ability to connect? T-Mobile CEO John Legere is known for consistently getting on the road and visiting all service locations in the company. I had the chance last year to hear JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon do Q&A in a small group, and his authenticity in communication style made me wish he would run for president.

Finally, look for command that’s related to talent management two to three levels below them. Someone trying to understand the work and add value to the way your company’s product or service gets delivered is likely to know who’s good and who’s not, and base it on tangible items clearly linked to success in the job, not politics or rumors.

There’s a lot of people at your company who think your executives don’t do anything. They might be right.

You should try to understand if you’re dealing with John Legere or Magic Johnson and take action accordingly.

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