LARRY STERNBERG is a Talent Plus Fellow and on the Board of Directors. He has designed and conducted training programs on a variety of topics for thousands of executives and managers and has served as a facilitator for numerous organizations to articulate their mission, vision, and values. His areas of expertise include selection, training and development, employee engagement, empowerment, self-directed work teams, strength management, and leading change.
KIM TURNAGE has spent her career figuring out where people naturally excel and connecting them with opportunities to stretch those talents. A natural teacher and coach, she works as a senior leadership consultant with Talent Plus, helping global client partners with the selection, development, retention, and succession planning of top leadership talent.
Make People Significant
Sawubona is an African Zulu greeting that means, "I see you." It goes far beyond the rote, "Hello," or, "How are you?" so many of us say every day. Sawubona says, "I see deeper than the surface. I see your personality. I see what makes you unique. I see you as a person with dignity, worthy of my respect."
Ngikhona is the traditional response to sawubona. It means, "I am here." In the Zulu culture, the call "Sawubona" says, "I see you. You are a person." And the response, "Ngikhona," says, "Because you see me, I am here." There is a question underneath that greeting: If you do not see me, do I exist? Indeed, the Zulu proverb "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu" means, "A person is a person because of other people."
Although not often discussed, the longing for significance is a basic human desire. Everybody wants to know that they are significant-someone truly cares about them, their existence has meaning, they matter, and they are making a noticeable difference in the world. So as a manager, helping employees (each and every one) become more significant makes a big difference in their lives. If each person you manage knows that he or she is truly significant to you, you dramatically increase their engagement and the likelihood of retaining them.
So how do you demonstrate that a person is significant to you? Dr. Shalom Saar is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing. A renowned authority on leadership, Dr. Saar taught me that caring and time are key factors in making people significant. They are related. The more I care about you, the more likely I am going to give you my time.
Genuine caring is not merely some feeling you have. Unless that feeling results in action, it has little value to the other person. Genuine caring means extending yourself to meet that person's needs, to support them, and to help them succeed.
Demonstrate to employees that you are their ally, not their judge. Demonstrate that you are fiercely interested in helping them succeed in their jobs, but not merely because that will help you. If you truly care about a person, you will extend yourself to help them simply because it benefits them.
Expressing genuine interest in your employees is a powerful way to demonstrate how much you care about them. Focus On You can be a great place for you to start, but do not stop there. Human relationships grow organically. This kind of growth cannot be accomplished solely through programs or through the use of tools, no matter how good they are. It takes daily commitment and repeated interaction to cultivate the strongest relationships. This insight about daily interactions applies to any relationship. Think about marriage, for example. It is good to express your love and gratitude on special occasions, such as your anniversary. But how you treat your spouse every single day is much more expressive of your true feelings than how you respond on your anniversary. So as a manager, find out what each employee values in life, understand their aspirations, and show interest in what is going on in their personal lives. Dr. Hall, who defined relationship as the response one person makes to another, taught that you can never know enough about another person, provided that you want to know for the right reason, which is to benefit that person.
In cultivating the close, positive relationships that make people significant, your authentic, spontaneous daily interactions matter most. And those interactions, accumulated over time, positively affect people's engagement, retention, and growth.
In addition to daily interactions, showing up for major life events powerfully conveys significance. If you are cultivating close, positive relationships, employees are more likely to invite you to attend their major life events. Showing up makes a huge difference. This is a really big deal. It shows people that you care about the things they care about. This is what friends and family do. Be there for these occasions. Visit employees in the hospital. Celebrate engagements, promotions, graduations, the completion of major work projects. Be there for funerals too. Witnessing the events that matter most to your people adds to their sense of significance. We have seen it in action. We work for a company in which the most senior leaders (president and board members) rearrange their schedules and go to great lengths to be present at these types of events. Going to that kind of effort makes a major statement about other people's significance to them.
Being present for major life events powerfully conveys how significant that person is to you.
Remember, Dr. Saar emphasizes both caring and time as key factors that demonstrate how significant a person is in your life. Spending time with people, not just on special occasions but on a daily and weekly basis, makes them more significant. Make yourself easily accessible. Give people your time when they want it.
Think about your relationship with your own manager. How easy is it for you to see her? Does she fit you in only when it is convenient for her, or does she show a higher sense of urgency to meet with you? Whatever her typical response is, what message does it send about your importance to her? How does that make you feel?
Now imagine for a moment that your very best customer or the president of your company came to her workplace unexpectedly. No appointment. No advance notice. How would your boss respond then? Would she not rearrange her schedule to speak with that person right away?
We can see this in personal life as well. When you invite someone to spend some time with you, that person's response sends you a clear message about how much he or she really wants to spend time with you.
As a manager, what can you take away from all this?
The more important someone is, the more likely you will meet with that person when he or she wants to meet, not merely when it is convenient for you. Your employees know that, by the way.
How easy is it for an employee to speak with you one-on-one? An open door is the best approach. Unless you are actively involved with a customer or another employee, meet with that employee in the moment, right when he comes to you. If you cannot meet with him when he wants, do you have a sense of urgency about getting together as soon as possible?
No matter how sincerely you believe that you have no space in your schedule to meet with him until next week, that person who wants time with you knows that, if he were important enough, you would meet with him as soon as possible. Whether you like it or not, you are sending a message.
When one of your employees wants to meet with you or speak with you, that person has a need at that moment. When you interrupt what you are doing to listen to that need, you are demonstrating that person's significance to you.
The Administrative Assistant
Almost 30 years ago, I accepted a position as corporate director of human resources for a prominent hotel company. During my initial introduction, the president and two of the vice presidents informed me that, regrettably, my administrative assistant needed to be fired because of a poor attitude. The person who preceded me in the job, they said, should have done that before he left.
As I got to know her, I soon realized that she had excellent skills and knowledge for her job. I noticed, however, that to be at her best, she needed at least 30 minutes of my time every day just to discuss what was going on in the company. She would not have been able to articulate that need, by the way. I had to discern it. The former director did not give her this time, and that was the root cause of the attitude problem.
I decided to give her the time she needed, and the attitude problems completely disappeared.
You may be thinking, "This principle about giving people time sounds good in theory, but I simply can't get my work done if I practice an open-door policy."
That might be true, but don't fool yourself. When you do not make time for people on their terms, you diminish the likelihood of retaining them because the message is clear: I have more important things to do than to listen to you. Conversely, when you make time on their terms, you have the potential to enjoy significant gains in their performance, productivity, and engagement.
When you do spend time with people, what you do makes a difference, too. One-on-one time with the people you manage is a time to forget about multitasking.
What Larry Learned from Darryl Hartley-Leonard
When I was with Hyatt Hotels, Darryl Hartley-Leonard was the executive vice president. He was a genius at making people feel significant. I did not meet with him often, but here's how it went when I did. I would sit across his desk and he would pick up the phone and ask his assistant, "Please hold my calls while I'm with Larry." He could have asked that earlier, but he wanted me to know it. He would then sweep things aside on his desk so that there were no objects or papers between us. And for the time we were together, he focused only on me. He did a lot of listening. He was not rushed to conclude the meeting so he could get to the next thing. He made me feel like the only person who mattered...