This post is by Jane Perdue, founder of Braithwaite Innovation Group and a leadership and women’s issues consultant. Jane is @thehrgoddess on Twitter and can also be found doing e-learning at Get Your BIG On.

As leaders, we’re immersed in metrics — perpetually measuring and evaluating business performance and looking for the next improvement. Yet one metric that gets scant attention in some organizations is employee engagement. A 2010 Gallup report finds that 71% of employees are disengaged, up 4% year-over-year. That’s a disturbing number.

However, there’s a one-word, cost-effective solution for bolstering employee commitment: connecting.

Connecting is good for individuals and for business. It’s a little dated, yet back in the late 1990s, Sears discovered that a 5% increase in employee satisfaction produced a 1.3% positive bump in customer satisfaction, yielding a 0.5% increase in revenue growth. How? With leaders transcending “it’s all about me” and instead building connections and relationships.

All work gets done by and through people, so connecting with them should be high on a leader’s priority list, right alongside strategizing, budgeting and planning the next acquisition. As Doug Conant and Mette Norgaard write in “Touchpoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments”: “Each of the many interactions you have during your day is an opportunity to establish high performance expectations, to infuse with greater clarity and more energy and to influence the course of events.”

Besides knowing one’s own strengths and weaknesses, there are three constituencies where fostering real connections (not just clicking a “like” icon!) pays big dividends: One’s own work team, others within the organization and the wider world.

Try one (or more) of these five ways to build meaningful associations with these groups:

  1. Be honest with yourself and with others, and own up to your mistakes. We’ve all seen too many examples lately where leaders lie, cover up and then lose all credibility. Leadership development author John Baldoni offers a helpful nugget for handling these situations: “Demonstrate through words and passion that you have done what you think is best. At the same time, do not be defensive. Act with honest confidence, even when you admit mistakes.”
  2. Be generous with your time. Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking you’re too busy to meet people for coffee, chat for a few minutes after a meeting or take in the occasional networking event. People want affiliation, so be the one who gives it to them.
  3. Take some advice from Tony Schwartz, president of the Energy Project, and view the world through “a reverse lens.” Of course, we want to get the sales report to the boss as soon as we can; yet when a colleague drops in unexpectedly, think of it as an opportunity to engage and influence rather than as an interruption.
  4. Champion and/or adopt others’ ideas. Being open-minded and practicing reciprocity belong on every leader’s playlist. If you want people to play in your sandbox, you must play in theirs from time to time.
  5. Be an information and connection broker. Share information (what you can), introduce people, make recommendations, pass along the names of articles and books, etc. Being viewed as a subject matter expert or the “go-to” person for ideas boost both personal and professional connections.

Make it a practice to connect at least once a day and avoid becoming out of touch and short-sighted by focusing only on short-term tactical situations.

Image credit: zudy-box via iStockPhoto.com

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30 Responses to “You don't have to be a CEO to connect”

  1. Leigh Steere says:

    Jane, thanks for this post. Thought you might like this story: Years ago, during an onboarding session, a facilitator said, “If you ever do something new and different, the CEO would like to receive a copy.” Jaded from a prior large-company experience, I made a mental note of it—thinking, “Yeh, right. I bet that stuff goes into File 13.”

    A few months later, I created a document with some new thinking in it and sent a copy to the CEO, who was in a different office, several states away.

    Much to my surprise, I did hear back a couple weeks later. And it wasn’t some canned email. The CEO had critiqued the document, noting what he thought was interesting and offering feedback to think about as I took the idea forward. It was detailed and down-to-earth. What struck me most is that a busy leader—and complete stranger—had taken time out to help me develop professionally.

    This exchange did three things. First, it gave a kick start to my engagement level. Second, it created permission (and an environment of safety) for future dialogue. Occasionally, I did send an email with a question, idea or concern, and I always got a patient response.

    Third, these exchanges gave the CEO a good idea of what was going on throughout his organization. My guess is he wouldn’t have learned much by participating in “Undercover Boss” that he didn’t already know.

    When he announced his retirement, I reached out to say thank you. In that conversation, he explained he had made a point to connect with people daily throughout the organization. If memory serves me correctly, I think he was connecting with about 40 different people each day from all corners of the company. That may seem like an impossibly large number, but think of how many emails and texts we receive each day and how many publications we scan. Could some of that time be redirected toward connecting with others, not just accomplishing tasks?

    • Get Your Leadership BIG On! says:

      Leigh – I love to hear stories like yours! I'm big fan of Gary Hamel, management expert and founder of Strategos. In his HBR post, Moonshots for Management, he characterizes important work like task completion and relationship building as seemingly irreconciliable trade-offs that leaders must master if they are to be successful. What your CEO did – connecting with people at all levels within the organization – shows (to me, at least) that senior leaders can do both…if they choose to do so. It's also great to hear that you took the initiative to stay in touch and share your ideas with your CEO.

  2. Chuck Hebert says:

    Jane,
    Thanks for sharing this post. I agree with much of what you wrote. At the end of the day, I believe that people are loyal to people – not to a company. As a leader, there is so much to be said for really connecting with people. Whether it is taking the time to write an email to recognize effort, or to provide feedback, or just to say hi and get to know those that work for you and with you, will help drive that loyalty. Goes without saying, it should be authentic.

    Thanks again for the post!!

    • Get Your Leadership BIG On! says:

      Chuck – thank you for your kind words. You are so, so right: bosses are the both the number one reason people will join an organization or leave it. If more executives could create the kind of authentic alchemy Leigh describes in her post, I'd bet that employee satisfaction metrics would start to turn around.

  3. Great post, Jane. I'd make one important addition — make it a point to say "Thank you!" Sincere, specific appreciation and acknowledgment of employee effort goes quite a long way in building connections.

    • Get Your Leadership BIG On! says:

      Thank you for your kind words about the post! Your 6th addition to the how to connect list is a stellar one, It, too, is cost-effective. Speaking from my experience, people never thought twice about willingly going the extra mile for a boss who expressed thanks and gave recognition. I hope every leader reading this exchange follows your advice and says "thank you" to someone today…and tomorrow.

  4. Aleweb Social Marketing says:

    Hi, Jane. Great post! I totally agree that leaders need to connect. I had one manager awhile back who mitigated his poor management skills by building great relationships! One thing he did was he made a point of taking each of his employees to lunch on or around their birthday. The one-on-one time with him, being treated as a valued person and being recognized simply for being alive was great! The result was, when he made poor choices that affected the rest of the team, we were all inclined to do what we could to help because he'd taken the time to lay solid foundations with us. It's no excuse for him being a bad manager, but it did make it easier to live with for a time! :-)

    • Get Your Leadership BIG On! says:

      Tara – thanks for sharing and for your kind words! Your story is a great example of how understanding employees can be toward a boss who has task completion issues yet who takes/makes the time to connect. We cut them some slack rather than regularly roast and toast them. I'm hoping your story had a happy ending for that boss and his team!

  5. Will Lukang says:

    Hi Jane, Excellent point on "Be honest with yourself and with others, and own up to your mistakes" and "Be generous with your time". It is a shame that some leaders think that they can get away with telling a lie. It all goes back to your core values and what you believe in. If we have more leaders who are honest, then this world would be a better place.

    Your second point pf being generous with your time, is really essential in connecting with your people. I think leaders must visit the workplace of their people to connect and mingle with them. This is the best way for them to know and learn about them. Spend a few hours each day to visit and mingle with your constituents. You'll be surprise how much you learn about them.

    Thanks,

    Will Lukang

    • Get Your Leadership BIG On! says:

      Will – big thanks for your kind words and thoughtful observations. All work gets done by and through people, yet too many bosses treat people akin to a filing cabinet. (I always use that example because once I had a colleague who said her boss made her feel like a filing cabinet, a utility piece of equipment with no thoughts and/or feelings that could be replaced at will.) Employees thrive on connection, so your suggestion that leaders spend time right where the real work happens is spot-on.

  6. Deb Costello says:

    Hi Jane,

    Thanks for this post. I read it and then watched this TEDTalk on vulnerability which has a few things to say about leadership and connection as well. It's 21 moniytes, but when you have some time, i think you it will give you some fuel for thought, perhaps personally as well.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4Qm9cGRub0

    I hope you are well. Deb

    • Get Your Leadership BIG On! says:

      Smiles and thanks, Deb, for stopping by to share! I simply adore the TED talk by Dr. Brene Brown – it's one of my favorites, and sounds like it may be a new fav of yours, too. Connecting does require a willingness to be vulnerable. Yet being vulnerable can lead to strength. There's much to be learned there…lots of "fuel" as you call it (like that phrase!) for becoming strong by allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

  7. Get Your Leadership BIG On! says:

    Mary Jo – thanks much for your kind words! Connecting to build relationships does require an investment of time, yet it's one that pays big dividends that you've obviously seen happen. Too bad the job performance of more leaders is evaluated primarily on hard business metrics. What gets rewarded gets done.

  8. Get Your Leadership BIG On! says:

    Dan – you've hit (as always) on another one of those both/and polarities so critical to leadership success. Being able to give, without the expectation of receiving anything in turn, is the authentic, generous starting point. Giving over and over and over again with no reciprocal time in someone else's proverbial sandbox is being a doormat. A leader with character both gives and takes. Thanks much for sharing!

  9. MJ Saras says:

    Thanks Jane for this great reminder about connections. At CEOptions, our philosophy is "we're all connected and no one wins unless we all do". A key leadership skill is being able to observe when you're connecting or disconnecting with others. With many tasks on our plates these days, we often are thinking of what's next while we're having conversations and interacting with others. While we think, they don't notice, that's so untrue. Thanks for the 5 points reminding us of making sure we're truly connected in with others–and guess what, when you do, we all win.

    • Lead BIG! says:

      MJ – sounds like your firm's philosophy is using both head and heart practices to lead….love it, wish more organizations embraced similar principles! Being mindful of our own behaviors as well as those of others (and providing peer coaching, feedback, etc. when things are out of whack) are real drivers of employee engagement. Thanks for sharing your practices…good stuff!

  10. Lead BIG! says:

    Sue – your addition to the list is an excellent one, thank you so much for that! Your additions to Tony's suggestion give the employee engagement work a boost — asking open-ended questions, listening and being authentic — are where the real strength comes in. 45 meaningful seconds for yourself and others!

  11. Guest says:

    This has some choice words of wisdom and I would like to pass it along, in print, but there is no option to reformat for printing out a copy. What a shame.

  12. [...] However, there’s a one-word, cost-effective solution for bolstering employee commitment: connecting [more...] [...]

  13. Good post. Connections are also not created via a flat screen. Email stands for escalation and error. Nothing replaces face-to -face communication or at least voice-to-ear. Imagine the connection that is made when we actually call someone to say thanks, to acknowledge what someone did, or to ask for input. Let's also not forget the forgotten skill of sending a hand-written note. The fact that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has hand-handwritten over 3000 letters to families of killed and wounded soldiers speaks volumes about the deep connection he has made with the rank and file.
    In short, connection points are technology driven but heart driven.

    • Lead BIG! says:

      Eileen – I love your point about the importance of face-to-face and/or voice-to-ear communication. Picking the appropriate communication channel is so crucial to connecting in the right way. These days, I view receiving a handwritten note like a gift!

  14. dLook says:

    Great post Jane!
    I think honest and being open to ideas and innovation, new things in general, will help an individual develop and connect.
    Please check out Built to Adapt – http://bit.ly/jHRRer
    Would appreciate your feedback.

    • Lead BIG! says:

      Thanks much for your kind words!

      Your point here and on your site, as I interpret it, is that rigidity leads to lack of connection (and forward business progress, to be sure!). I agree. Part of connecting is being open to new ideas, concepts and points of view that enrich and/or challenge one's own viewpoint.

  15. Geoff says:

    Very nice post. You have reviewed behaviors that we should practice every day.

  16. A very timely post. Every manager, director and CEO needs to learn the art of connecting. What employees are most unhappy about is: "nobody tells us what's going on". In fact it's not just "telling", employees want to be listened to – to feel respected. Listening to the staff (and other people) is an art. Managers and CEOs need to tune in to employees' concerns and views, and to get instant feedback of how they are perceived by the workforce. Are they up for the challenge?

    • Lead BIG! says:

      Dragon Leader – you pose an excellent question: is it going to be top-down, command and control, do-as-I-say communications; or will it be a two-way collaborative process in which others can, at a minimum, provide feedback/input that's truly considered (versus just lip service). Great add to the discussion…thanks much!