What Your Leader Wants You To Know
When I think back on the turning points in my company’s history, I find it amazing—and humbling—to think that many of those things did not happen because of me. They happened because someone in my company had the courage to speak up.
I’ll never forget the day a member of my leadership team, Maria, walked into my office and told me she needed to speak to me . . . alone. She had been working at my company for a couple years by this point, and I could tell by the look on her face that whatever it was that she needed to tell me was big. She closed the door, looked me straight in the eye, and said that she didn’t feel I was holding people to the core values on our wall. Woof. She was right. Shortly after that, I called a company-wide meeting to talk about our values and identify the ways we could better live them both as individuals and as a team.
The time that Tim, a developer in my former software company, called a meeting with me will never escape my mind either. He could see the writing on the wall. Our software startup wasn’t having the kind of success we had predicted it would, and he knew we needed to get out while we could. Not doing so would put us into more debt and would cause more heartache in the end. It’s because of him that we closed the company. I wasn’t brave enough to make the choice on my own.
And I’ll always remember the moment that Amanda, who is now our Chief of Student Maid, told me she felt the policies at Student Maid instilled fear in our students. A team member had told her she was too afraid to call out of work even though she was really sick; she thought if she did, she’d lose her job. It’s because of Amanda and that conversation that we changed our approach to accountability. We looked at each and every policy and made them more human, more compassionate. Student Maid is now known for its family feel and a culture that’s built on psychological safety—but were it not for Amanda’s feedback, we would have never made that transformation.
I will never forget these people and the impact they had on the trajectory of my company. Maria, Tim, and Amanda had the courage to lead me. And I can think of many other people who did the same over the years. Not all were big moments, but I still won’t forget them: The people who were brave enough to tell me they wanted more in their roles. Those who had the courage to give me feedback that hurt at the time but helped me grow and become better at my job. Too often we forget that our leaders are human beings, and that they need to be led too. The truth is we need to lead each other.
These days, I spend most of my time outside my company helping organizations transform their environments into places where people feel cared for and where they love coming to work. What I notice is a huge disconnect across the board: Those at the “top” of organizations want to empower their people to take real ownership of their roles and recognize the potential they have to make an extraordinary impact in the organization. And those who aren’t at the “top” are waiting to be led. They have ideas. They notice areas that need to be improved. They recognize practices that are hurting the company and the people in it. Yet they’re waiting for permission to do something about it.
If this sounds like you, here’s what your leader wants you to know:
If you have an idea, present it: It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been here. We want your ideas and we want to see what you see. Sometimes we are so far removed from the day-to-day of the business we can be out of touch with what’s really happening in the organization, so your perspective is incredibly valuable. It doesn’t matter how big or small your idea is, and it doesn’t matter how attainable or unattainable it may seem. The worst we can say is no, but maybe we can find another solution together if that’s the case. Don’t wait for us to ask you to share your ideas with us—you might be waiting a long time because we don’t always think to ask. We’re busy, just like you are. Request a meeting and be persistent until you get one.
If you want to spark cultural change, spark it: You—more so than us—have a better grasp on the culture and the areas in which we need to improve. From our viewpoint, sometimes all we see are rainbows and butterflies. People aren’t always willing to share how they really feel with us. The best way to transform a culture is from the ground up. If you want to spark change, gather your colleagues together and spark it. Don’t ask for permission—do it, and then tell us about it later.
If you’re disappointed, say it: We know there’s got to be something we can be doing better (probably many things). We need you to be brave and tell us. Why? Because so few people tell us, and if you feel this way, there’s a big chance many other people do as well. How are we supposed to grow as leaders if no one has the courage to point out where we’re failing? We need feedback too. We need it more than anyone.
If you need a boundary, set it: We know we push the limit sometimes. We ask you to stay late and come in early. We email you on the weekends. We ask you to take on more work because we trust you and you’re really good at what you do. But that doesn’t always mean you have to say yes. It doesn’t mean you have to answer on a Saturday. Sometimes we are so passionate about our own work that we unintentionally abuse the boundaries of those we work with. The bottom line is we don’t want you to burn out. We want you to be able to do what you need to do outside work so that when you come back, you can be at your best. We won’t get our feelings hurt if you have to tell us no. In fact, sometimes we need you to remind us that we need breaks too.
If you want something, ask for it: We aren’t mind-readers. If you want a raise, tell us. If you feel you’ve outgrown your role, speak up. If you want to work remotely, say it. It doesn’t mean the answer will be yes, but the conversation isn’t likely to happen if you don’t initiate it. We want you to be happy, so if there’s something you need in order to be more fulfilled, we absolutely want to know. But you have to take ownership of your happiness. Putting the ownership in our hands is a recipe for disaster.
If you’re waiting on something, demand it: We know we over-promise and under-deliver sometimes. We know we tell you we are going to have you what you need by Wednesday, and now it’s Friday and you still don’t have it. Yes, we’re busy, but it’s no excuse. If you need something from us and we are holding you up because you don’t yet have it, remind us. We may have forgotten. We may have not realized it was a priority. We may not recognize we are preventing you from taking the next steps. Or, we might be completely overwhelmed and need you to help us get it done. Either way, hold us to our promises.
And most of all, remember that we’re human. We aren’t perfect and we do make mistakes. All the time. Please don’t put us on a pedestal. We need you to help us. We need you to be honest with us. We need you to lead us. It’s the only way we can build something great together.
(PS: I know not all leaders think this way. Maybe you’ve tried all of the things above and you’ve been met with nothing but resistance. If you’ve done all you can and your leader isn’t doing their part, you have every right to leave. And you should. You deserve better.)
Hope this helps.
Photo credit: Pete Longworth