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Learning To Focus On What Matters Most


One of the things that I enjoy about speaking at conferences and at various organizations is the opportunity to meet new people. In the case of the MHLC conference I spoke at last week, it was being able to meet up with friends I made from speaking at this conference for three consecutive years, as well as meeting colleagues in the leadership sphere who I had previously only connected with by email and on the phone.

Being able to spend time with these good friends was certainly one of my personal highlights from this conference. But there was something else that I came away pondering about, and it wasn’t my now infamous encounter with the drummer from ZZ Top (that’s a story for another time).

Looking back at the numerous conversations among those attending this conference, there was a couple of times where people told me how impressed they were with how well I remembered people’s names.

Now the reason why this caught my attention is because remembering names of people I just met is something I’d hardly say I’m good at, a fact I’m sure my wife will be happy to attest to given the number of times she’s had to remind me of the names of the people she works with.

The problem is that when I meet someone new, my sense of curiosity takes over and I become focused on asking questions to learn more about the person in order to develop that connection. Consequently, I end up remembering many details about the person’s life and their work – while their name tends to be a bit fuzzy around the edges.

As such, whenever I meet someone new, I do have to work at making sure I grab ahold of their name so that it sticks in my mind for more than a few minutes.

And yet, in thinking about those moments where people were impressed with my ability to recall the names of people I met a year ago, I realized that the common thread connecting them together had less to do with remembering their names and more to do with something more significant.

Something that leaders need to adopt if their are to be successful in tapping into the collective talents and experiences of those they lead.

Now to be clear, remembering a person’s name is important, but it’s only the first step in the bigger process of fostering deep and meaningful relationships with those around us. Indeed, it’s important for us to note here that knowing a person’s name only allows us to open the door to begin building that relationship. What makes all the difference is what we do next when we walk through that proverbial door.

For example, I noticed that what all these interactions shared in common was not just that I remembered people’s names, but the depth of the conversations we had. Not in the sense of being deep philosophical or moral examinations.

Rather, in the sense of how there was this genuine interest to either build on past conversations we had at last year’s conference, or simply following up on something they shared with me the day before.

In each case, what created this lasting impression on those I was speaking with wasn’t that I remembered their name. Instead, the biggest impact came from the fact that I remembered their story and asked questions to learn more. For example, I asked one person about the rescue dog they adopted last year and whether she was still showing signs of the past trauma she had endured.

And with another, I asked about their own personal experiences with an employee engagement strategy their organization uses and what they saw as the reason why it works.

Although seemingly insignificant, the fact that I was building on past conversations created a clear impression that I was not only paying attention to what these people were telling me, but that I was genuinely interested to learn more. That I wanted to discover more about them and to understand what they cared about.

This approach that I took to these conversations not only made a positive impression on others, but it also made them more invested in our conversations. In the days that followed, when I would see these people as I walked through the conference area, there would be this warm exchange of smiles and greetings, not just because we knew each other’s names, but because we had the opportunity to truly connect and learn about one another.

While this is a simple and straightforward measure, the sad reality is that many leaders are overlooking or neglecting this in their everyday encounters with those they lead.

In our rush to get things done – paired with the increasing demands on our time, attention, and resources, it’s becoming easier for us to overlook the details found in those conversations with our employees that will help us to gain a better understanding of who they are and what matters to them.

And yet, the reality is that our long-term success and adaptability is no longer dependent on our technology or internal processes, but on how well we’re able to tap into the native talents, creativity, and experiences of those under our care. Of how motivated our employees are to dedicate their discretionary efforts to the shared purpose that defines why we do what we do.

Of course, it’s easy to assume that by knowing our employees’ names they’ll feel some semblance of belonging and connection; that they’ll feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. But the truth is that we all know it takes more than knowing our names for us to feel like we matter; that what we do is important and creates value both for those our organization serves as well as for ourselves.

Indeed, many of us have had the experience of speaking with a salesperson who throws around our name like loose change to infer familiarity. The act is disingenuous and we know it.

It’s the same situation with leaders who walk around boasting how they know the names of all their employees. In both cases, our perspective is limited to ourselves – to attaining what we want as opposed to wanting to learn and understand what those around us need.

To be sure, this isn’t easy, which is why I didn’t mind telling people who said I was great at remembering the names of people I just met that I have to work at remembering them. The truth is that it does take effort to see beyond what people do to learn what matters to them. Then again, anything worth doing requires effort on our part, along with the drive to see it through to the end [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

In terms of leadership today, this means that leaders can’t hide behind the excuse of the busyness of our digital age as the reason why we can’t make the effort to better understand our employees. Indeed, to succeed at leadership, we have to know more than just our employees’ names, we have to learn about their stories, their dreams, and their aspirations.

Without question, this has become a key requirement of leadership today – after all, if you don’t care about what matters to your employees, what should they care about what matters to you?

This is what it means to move beyond the transactional nature of the Industrial Age model of leadership to the relationship-building leadership style of today and beyond. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves; they want to know what they do matters [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter] and the only way we can create this is by fostering a sense of belonging and purpose within our organization.

Indeed, the hallmark of successful leaders is not their achievements, but how they inspire us to be better [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. Of how they challenge and motivate us to not settle for the status quo, but to believe in our potential to make things better than they are today.

It’s the common ingredient found among the most successful organizations around the world; they’re guided by leaders who recognize that their job is not simply to manage tasks.

Rather, their role is to provide opportunities to develop the people they lead. To challenge their assumptions of what’s possible and what can be done, and to help them stretch their abilities to become stronger contributors to their organization’s shared purpose.

Ultimately, what we have to recognize here is that the only guarantee in leadership is found in how you show up to inspire and empower those you lead [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

It’s not enough to have a compelling mission statement to get people to care; they have to see and understand not only their role within that vision, but that those around them recognize and value their contributions in transforming that idea into today’s reality.

In other words, we have to demonstrate that level of care and understanding of others because we want to connect what they do with what matters to them.

And the only way we can achieve that is by going beyond knowing our employees’ names to being fully present in those daily interactions so we can discover what they care about, what are the challenges they see going forward, and how we can use our leadership to help them be successful in their collective efforts.

In so doing, we can in fact create that kind of workplace environment where people not only feel valued, but are committed to bringing their very best to the work they do.

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