By Steven D. Goldstein
If you were able to covertly drop into most companies, almost every day you could see executives who have no idea what is happening in their distribution centers, managers who had no idea they were losing customers until it was too late or global corporations who have fallen backward in their industry for no apparent reason.
Obviously there is no one simple explanation for these various scenarios, but I believe most problems can be traced to a lack of engagement—on one or more levels. In fact, lack of engagement is the biggest issue most leaders have to face. For a leader, as well as for the organization as a whole, being genuinely engaged is the key to achieving and maintaining successful results.
The unfortunate truth is that most organizations suffer from some amount of underlying disengagement. Whether it manifests as inadequate flow of information, employee-management disconnect, being out of touch with the marketplace and its customers, operational problems or just general entropy, a lack of engagement is at the core of most dysfunction. This is an issue that seems to be as elusive as it is pervasive; it’s not always so easy to locate and confront. But becoming cognizant of the disengagement that exists within the organization is the only way for a leader to start eliminating the many blockages–blockages that not only get in the way of his and his team’s ability to address fundamental operational issues, but also hinder their ability to carry out important new strategies.
To be an engaged leader, in my experience, means assuming an active, roll-up-your-sleeves style that fundamentally takes an outside-in view of everything in the organization. It means being totally present; it means looking in places where it’s easier not to look. It means being aware of what’s really going on—and not only looking, but seeing. An engaged leader is one who is interested in finding out what his employees think about the business instead of solely relying on his management team and reports. An engaged leader interacts in an authentic way with customers to find out what their buying experience is really like and whether they buy out of habit or out of conscious choice. An engaged leader has the confidence and courage to admit that everything is not working perfectly. It also means being hyper-inquisitive–asking questions, and then asking more questions. It means redefining how you see problems. It means being comfortable with constantly creating and leading change. It means communicating well and motivating everyone to win.
Of course different leaders have different personalities; their companies have unique issues, challenges and opportunities. Every company has its own character, history and trajectory. But no matter what the specific circumstances, an increase in engagement will inevitably cause positive transformation — often in wonderful and surprising ways.
There are five basic principles of engagement:
Adopting an outsider’s perspective leads to creative insight and problem solving. One of the most difficult challenges for leaders is to learn how to look at things in a new light. When you are inside the system, doing the same thing day after day, year after year, it can be extremely hard to change your perception about how your company (and you) are operating. You actually, in some ways, have become part of the problem.
Especially in large organizations, systems and programs tend to become deeply entrenched; there are rules and processes that were set in motion years ago that no one ever gives a thought to. They just become set in stone. We have to remind ourselves they are not set in stone – it only looks like stone. Learning how to see with objectivity is the essential first step.
Interacting with employees and customers on a regular basis is the key to success. Authentic communication at all levels and the encouragement of feedback is how you find out what’s really going on. The answer to unleashing the power of your team–and to delighting your customers–lies outside the conference room. It is astounding how much valuable information can be obtained by simply talking to the people who really know the every day inner workings of the company. One enlightening conversation with someone who interacts with customers on the phone is worth 100 meetings with fellow managers, yet rarely do leaders ever ask these employees what they think. Without a doubt, the vast majority of big decisions I have made to help turn companies around had their roots in understanding what employees told me they needed in order to please their customers.
Focusing on two or three pertinent metrics in any situation facilitates action. It’s important to present simplified targets that every employee in the company can embrace and rally around. When beginning to engage with people, keeping it simple is the best course. The surest way to get everyone on the same page is to find the relevant numbers or facts that every employee in the company can quickly understand and act on. Unbundling projects into smaller elements–getting people to really understand what the most essential factors are–is crucial to motivating a team.
The more people know, the better they can do their jobs.
Knowledge is power, and good information flow is of the utmost importance. Too many companies employ tools and practices that serve to convolute rather than to clarify. Information that is relevant and timely needs to be shared as widely and efficiently as possible within a company. Targeted tracking of key performance indictors is also needed, along with an accurate evaluation and full dissemination of the results.
Whatever speed you are going is too slow. When people in a large organization are not fully engaged, it creates slowness. Time is the enemy in today’s global marketplace; in this fast-paced world, decisions need to be made more quickly and executed in shorter time cycles than they were in the past. It’s vital to get quick wins and learn from failures fast and to learn to be comfortable with constant change. Like successful startups, you need to have the ability to shift almost instantly to meet changing demands. Waiting is never an option; companies cannot assume they have endless time to evaluate, plan and launch new initiatives.
These five principles are the building blocks for engagement and are the best tools a leader can have. They are the foundation of all my leadership techniques and strategies—from how to cure complacency to how to radically improve the never-ending stream of meetings that plague most large organizations.
Engagement is where it all starts.
Steve Goldstein is a proven leader who has held executive positions with leading global brands, such as American Express (Chairman and CEO of American Express Bank), Sears (President of Sears Credit) and Citigroup, as well as several early-stage enterprises. He currently works in the private equity industry as a Senior Advisor with the consulting and advisory firm Alvarez & Marsal, serves as Chairman of US Auto Sales and serves as a Senior Advisor to Milestone Partners and an Industrial Advisor to EQT Partners (a global private equity firm based in Stockholm).
He has also advised CEOs and private equity owners providing counsel on performance improvement with their companies in addition to acquisitions and merger integration opportunities. He has served on numerous boards, such as: American Express Bank, Jafra Cosmetics, Union Bancaire Privée, Pay-O-Matic and Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City. Steve has been an investor, advisor, and interim CEO for more than 10 venture backed e-commerce companies. Steve holds a Bachelor’s degree from City University of New York City, and an MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business. He lives in New York City.