One of the common themes I’ve written about over the past few years is the importance of building and nurturing relationships with your employees in order to bring out the best in those under your care. While we can appreciate what this means in abstract terms, I’d like to share the recent experiences of two leaders that helps to illustrate the benefit in bringing this approach to your leadership.
The first story I’d like to share comes from the high school where I serve as Chairman of the Governing Board. This past academic year has been an especially difficult one for this school community. For starters, the school was dealt with major cuts to its operating budget as well as to its staff which, taken together, had a drastic and noticeable impact on the school’s daily functions.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, the school year began with the teachers stopping all extracurricular activities in order to protest the government’s unwillingness to address teachers’ needs in the classroom. So to say this year was a challenging one for the school would be an understatement.
Earlier this month, our principal made the announcement that she was going to take a sabbatical next year to give herself time to regroup so she could continue to give her best to the school and its students. When she shared the news with her teachers and staff, she expected people to be discouraged and even frustrated given all they’ve been through this past school year.
What she got instead was a unified, impromptu response from her team. A response that had her fielding questions from her staff about what they could do to keep things running in her absence and how to help her transition back when she returns.
In my conversation with her about her decision to take a leave of absence next year, she admitted that one of the reasons why she felt good about giving herself this time was because of the overwhelming support she received from her staff to mind the store until she returns.
The other story I’d like to share is that of my friend Rob* who I met through a collaboration with my leadership firm. For the past 15 years, Rob served as the marketing director for a company that creates educational programs for senior leaders and managers. Rob is the kind of guy who very quickly goes from someone you collaborate on a project with, to a friend who you share stories about your family before you roll up your sleeves to work.
A few weeks ago, Rob sent me an email saying he’d love to arrange a time to chat and catch up on things. After our usual routine of sharing stories about our kids and family, Rob told me that he had recently been fired from the company he had spent the past 15 years working for.
Rob went on to explain how his company had hired a new CMO last year and while Rob did his best to work with his new boss, it became clear to him that this CMO was more interested in tearing Rob down than helping him to succeed. So after several months of working under this CMO, Rob was called into the conference room on a Friday afternoon and summarily dismissed from his job.
For the first few days thereafter, Rob tried to figure out what he should do next, given how a career change was not something he had in mind.
On the advice of his wife, he decided to reach out to his network mostly to garner support and encouragement, and possibly some advice on what he could do next. But as he started sharing the news with his network of past colleagues and friends, he was surprised by the similar response he got from each of them. In almost every case, he was given offers of assistance and ideas for potential job leads, and in a few cases, even being offered to have interviews arranged with the hiring personnel at various organizations.
Within a few short weeks of reaching out to his network, Rob was offered a new job as a director at a financial investment company. At the end of telling me his story, Rob admitted that he’s now looking forward to what’s to come in this new and exciting chapter of his career.
Now the reason why I wanted to share these stories is not only because they are heartwarming and wonderful to hear – especially in our current environment where it seems like every day there’s another reason to hang our heads in despair. Rather, the reason I’m writing about them is because they share a common connection in terms of what we can create through our leadership.
Again, although these are two different leaders operating in completely different work sectors, when faced with a challenge that they had no answer for, both of them were greeted with the same response from their team and from their colleagues – how can I help?
This simple, four-word question reveals the abundant power to be found in nurturing relationships with those you lead, and with those you collaborate with. The power of relationships is that it allows us the freedom of knowing we don’t have to go it alone [Share on Twitter]; that we don’t have to tuck our chin into our shoulder and push forth into the unknown all on our own.
As I’ve written in previous pieces, the key to succeeding at leadership is not making it about you, but focusing on those you lead [Share on Twitter]; those who we’ve taken on the responsibility to guide and support in their collective efforts. It’s in these moments of feeling the weight of that responsibility that we can truly appreciate how our leadership should look outward, and not inward.
Again, let’s examine the common thread found in the stories of these two leaders – one whose in need of taking a step back to regroup and re-energize, and the other who found himself cast out from a company he had dedicated 15 years of his talents and expertise to help grow.
The hopeful and inspiring outcomes that both of them attained was not a result of being focused on what mattered to them. On the contrary, it was a product of their efforts to lead others by reaching out with the question: how can I help?
Not because they expected anything in return, but because they appreciated that this was the job of a true leader. This was how we inspire those under our care to bring their best efforts to the table. And when people see that genuine desire to help others, to care for the challenges they face, is it really that surprising to see them turn around and offer that same helping hand to those they follow when it’s their time to need that supportive hand?
One of the truisms of modern-day leadership is that as leaders, we can’t expect to have all the answers. Of course, the corollary to that axiom is that leaders shouldn’t be afraid to ask or accept a helping hand from those they lead. After all, how can we help those we lead to grow if we don’t value their ability to offer a helping hand? [Share on Twitter]
How can we encourage our employees to challenge their perceptions of what they can do, of how they can contribute, if we don’t recognize their ability to help us beyond the tasks and responsibilities assigned to them?
That’s where the dynamics of relationship-building comes into play as it ensures that our interactions are not simply transactional, but are mutually beneficial over time. Where those efforts we make to help others succeed comes back into play when they lend us a hand when we need someone to lean on or garner support so that we can carry on and move forward.
It’s the reason why both of these leaders were met with offers of help – through their leadership, they demonstrated that their focus was not on their own personal gain, but on helping those they lead to shine; to become valued members of their team and organization.
And therein lies a valuable lesson every leader should take note of – we all want to know that what we do matters; that it makes a difference and has value [Share on Twitter]. By accepting the help of those we lead, we serve to reinforce that need.
When these two leaders shared their respective stories with me, I wasn’t surprised by these outcomes because the way their staff and colleagues responded to them in their time of need was not just a reflection of their leadership, it was also a reflection of the kind of people they are.
Here’s hoping that their example inspires all of us to move beyond the easy path of only looking out for what matters to us and widening our view to encompass the needs of those around us. Who knows – if we’re fortunate enough to be as good as they are in their leadership, we just might inspire those under our care to do the same.
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