It’s not a tough sell to suggest that, more than anything else, senior leaders want their organizations not just to be successful in any one moment or in modest ways, but to maximize the potential of all of their assets always and ongoing. In honest moments, you know you can’t simply command that to happen. Instead, you have to have your entire team pulling in the same direction, conscious of the same goals and contributing all they can. To this point, I’m confident you’re with me. Here’s where it gets dicey.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if you’re a senior leader be aware: there’s a disconnect between you and your employees, and it’s eating away at that ‘maximum potential’ ambition of yours. No doubt there are exceptions among you. In truth, it’s very few, making it a safer bet to consider yourself among the disconnected. Since you’re unlikely to do that, here’s a test, one that only requires you to do a little simple visualizing. Don’t worry. You’ve lived this scene a thousand times.
Picture yourself in a meeting with one of your employees, someone you called on to come and report on the state of things. It’s a non-virtual day, so imagine they come to your actual office – the one at the top, in the corner, with the view (literal or implied). When they arrive, you’re sitting behind your big desk. They come forward and cautiously pull up one of the less comfortable and lower chairs across the desk’s wide expanse. Sure, it’s an image perhaps with a tinge of Hollywood, but chances are you made it quickly in your head.
The point of this visualization really begins now and with this question: Did you summon your team member to your office to learn “about” or “from” them? That’s the true test. And the answer shifts everything, including the odds of your organization being resilient, adaptable, competitive and consistently successful in a deeply uncertain world.
Giving up outdated modes of engagement
Part of the reason the “meeting in my office” visualization manifests the way it does for most leaders, is that far too many of our beliefs about what it means to lead are deeply outdated. Yet, those old beliefs and assumptions still permeate everything, from the physical to the factual, from tasks to relationships. The image above screams “one” – as in, one leader, one person as strictly a data reporter, while the other assumes the role as the sole source of ideas, solutions and insights and just needs others to give them the data and get back to work. This dynamic, even if just imagined, shape all else, including any true learning or collaboration that takes place in such exchanges. Which brings us back to the “about-or-from” question.
Far too many senior leaders see their team members as sources for learning “about” – about the organization, about progress on the plan, etc. Exchanges defined by this view are ultimately reports and driven by closed-ended questions, such as, “Did you complete Assignment X?” or “Why didn’t Y happen as planned?” By default, any answers that follow stay within the tight boundaries of this traditional and top-down leader-employee exchange. Yet, a conscious goal to learn from is very different.
The “about-or-from” framework is borrowed from biomimicry, which is the practice of looking to nature and its extraordinary efficiency and effectiveness for ideas and innovative solutions. Take the example of observing a conical seashell. Seeking to learning “about” the shell, we might see that its design follows a golden ratio spiral, that it has spiny edges or that it’s a member phylum Mollusca. But when we shift our exploration to learn “from” nature, we see the same features as a powerful form of least-energy growth, a way to signal strength and a warning with non-verbal cues or a chance to explore this shell and its occupant’s roles in the context a larger ecosystem. If shells could talk as two humans can, as leader and employee can, imagine the power of the exchange driven by a conscious choice to learn from.
A new vision of employee connection
Reimagine the leader-employee exchange once more, this time consider placing yourself not just outside the C-suite, but perhaps even outside. Maybe you and your fellow team member are moving down a park lane or forest path. Then imagine yourself as the senior leader asking something different than the “did you” or “why didn’t” traditional exchange allows. Perhaps you ask, “Tell me what surprises you about your work, good, bad or both,” or bolder still, “Tell me what this organization does from your vantage point.” Maybe, just maybe you posit, “If you were in my shoes, what would you change?”
The point here is not to put words in your mouth, but ideas in your head. The truth is that there’s a good deal you’re likely missing if you operate solely in “about” mode. Shifting your thinking and language to learn “from” your team members is a powerful leadership tool. Want to engage your employees? This is how you begin to actually do it.
Larry Robertson, named a Fulbright scholar in 2021, is the founder of Lighthouse Consulting and works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. He’s the author “The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity,” “A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress” and the new “Rebel Leadership: How To Thrive in Uncertain Times.”