Everyone still snickers about "the e-mail." A manager who'll remain nameless had fired off the following gem:
"Last year, a number of individuals would arrive late to sessions, chat with those around them, leave the room, and check e-mail throughout. Needless to say, this is very disruptive to your peers. Even more, it is rude to our presenters, who've spent hours preparing. This year, I expect you to conduct your business around the agenda. There are few situations that can't wait for an hour or two."
You can imagine what happened: The manager arrived late to sessions, sent e-mails, took phone calls, and loudly slipped in and out of sessions. His actions completely undercut his own message. Soon enough, his people were back to the same behaviors. They got the message all right: His proclamations were all for show. No one took him seriously.
As a manager, the last thing you need is a reputation for being "all talk." You may deliver soaring rhetoric, but it has little lasting impact if your team pegs you as a hypocrite or lightweight. In fact, their perception of you colors how they interpret everything you say. If your words don't match the reality, they simply ignore you. Or worse, they subconsciously imitate you.
Bottom line: It may be time for an image makeover. So before you rifle off that speech your team will riff later, consider the following:
Ask around. Budget some time to speak with department leaders, clients, and the rank-and-file who work with your people daily. Identify areas for improvement, along with soliciting potential solutions. Keep an open mind, since you may be part (if not the source) of certain problems. If your team has issues, having the news come from other sources—using specific examples—as greater resonance. Most importantly, get off the high-and-mighty pedestal and publicly outline how you'll personally change—and hold yourself to it.
Self-evaluate. What you don't know can hurt you. Look at your day-to-day routine. Do you get right back with people who contact you? If not, should you be surprised if your people are known for poor responsiveness? Examine your conversations with others. Who does more of the talking? Do you pinpoint the underlying issues driving the conversation…or do you take their words at face value or rely on preconceived notions? If you're not listening and probing, your team is probably working off assumptions, too.
As managers, we sometimes lack self-awareness, and it can be our downfall. Before we can lead, we need to get our personal houses in order. In particular, we must recognize our weaknesses. When we're blind to our flaws, we ignore them in others, or even view them as strengths. Your conduct gives your team the green light to behave the same way. Always know what you're projecting. Your words can never be in conflict with your actions.
Act. You may have reached management by consistently making your number. Or, you may have known the right person at the right place and time. Either way, you're now a leader, and you're expected to act like one.
What does that mean? It means you must set the tone and communicate your expectations over and over again. As a leader, you are the inspiration, the one who gets people to act as they should by being an example. Leadership is about accepting no less than excellence from your team (and yourself) at all times. And that means being willing to do everything you ask your team to do.
If you're not ready for such responsibility, step aside for the greater good. There's no shame in recognizing your limits and giving yourself time to measure up. The only shame is holding on for the wrong reasons, ultimately producing more harm than good.
Follow up. Think you can just bark orders and have people instantly drop their bad habits? Dream on. It isn't enough to make a speech or drop an e-mail. Those dog-and-pony shows quickly fade from memory. To get results, keep critical issues on your team's radar. Recognize their progress and quickly address any signs of complacency or regression. In other words, hold your people accountable. There's an adage in business, "Whatever gets measured gets done." Build these measurables into their competencies and evaluations, and provide extra reward for those who follow through.
Understand the risks. There's a famous line in George Orwell's "Animal Farm": "All pigs are equal, but some pigs are more equal than others." The head boar employed these verbal gymnastics to have it both ways: His cronies could hold onto their perks while giving everyone the illusion they still had a stake and a say.
We've all witnessed our leaders acting contrary to the mission. At worst, we've seen it become about them, where a lack of communication, transparency, and ethics are swept under the rug. And we know how it inevitably ends: The performers leave, the sycophants ape their leaders' conduct, and everyone else tunes out or keeps their mouths shut.
Don't fall into that trap. As a manager, you oversee highly skilled, accomplished, and creative people. That's why you hired them. These people work for you because they believe you provide the highest caliber of leadership. And they should settle for nothing less. They are looking to you for direction. When they challenge or push back, it often stems from one thing: You aren't acting according to your standards.
And maybe that's your wake-up call—it's you, not them, who has the real problem.
SMM columnist Jeff Schmitt works in publishing in Dubuque, Iowa. He can be contacted at email@example.com.