Sharing Information: A Counterintuitive Key to Success

I’ve always been a big believer in sharing information. As a college professor, I used to give out the final exam on the first day of class—and spend the rest of the semester teaching students the answers so they could master the material and get an A.

The same principle works in business. If leaders want to build a culture of trust, responsibility, and mastery, they need to share information with people. Giving team members the information they need enables them to make good business decisions.

Sharing information sometimes means disclosing information that is considered privileged, including sensitive and important topics such as future business plans and strategies, financial data, and industry issues or problem areas. Providing people with more complete information communicates trust and a sense of “we’re in this together.” It helps people think more broadly about the organization and the interrelationships of various groups, resources, and goals.

By having access to information that helps them understand the big picture, people can better appreciate how their contribution fits in and how their behavior impacts other aspects of the organization. All of this leads to responsible, goal-related use of people’s knowledge, experience, and motivation. While this runs counter to the thinking of a lot of top-down managers, the philosophy is based on the following premise:

 

People without accurate information cannot act responsibly;

people with accurate information feel compelled to act responsibly.

 

In an example close to home, The Ken Blanchard Companies, like many businesses, was negatively impacted by the events of September 11, 2001. In fact, the company lost $1.5 million in sales that month. To have any chance of ending the fiscal year in the black, the company would have to cut about $350,000 a month in expenses.

The leadership team had some tough decisions to make. One of the leaders suggested that the staffing level be cut by at least 10 percent to stem the losses and help get the company back in the black—a typical response in most companies.

As with any major decision, members of the leadership team checked the decision to cut staff against the rank-ordered organizational values of ethical behavior, relationships, success, and learning. Was the decision to let people go at such a difficult time ethical? To many, the answer was no. There was a general feeling that because the staff had made the company what it was, putting people out on the street at a time like this just was not the right thing to do. Did the decision to let people go honor the high value that the organization placed on relationships? No, it did not. But what could be done? The company could not go on bleeding money and be successful.

Knowing that “no one of us is as smart as all of us,” the leadership team decided to draw on the knowledge and talents of the entire staff. At an all-company meeting, the books were opened to show everyone how much the company was bleeding, and from where. This open-book policy unleashed a torrent of ideas and commitment. Small task forces were organized to look for ways to increase revenues and cut costs. This participation resulted in departments throughout the company finding all kinds of ways to minimize spending and maximize income. As the company’s Chief Spiritual Officer, I cheered people on by announcing we would all go to Hawaii together when the company got through the crisis. People smiled politely, although many had their doubts.

Over the next two years, the finances gradually turned around. By 2004, the company produced the highest sales in its history, exceeding its annual goal. In March 2005, our entire company—350 people strong—flew to Maui for a four-day celebration.

So the next time you’re stuck, consider sharing information. You might be surprised by the positive results.

Developing Your Leadership Point of View

One of the most important things you can do as a leader is to share information about yourself with your team. Communicating your purpose, values, and expectations is the best way to create an authentic relationship with your staff. Creating your Leadership Point of View is a great way to start.

I read Noel Tichy’s book The Leadership Engine (Harper Collins, 2007) and talked with him about his research on effective leaders. He told me he found that the most successful leaders have a clear, teachable leadership point of view and are willing to share it with others. My wife, Margie, and I were so fascinated with this idea that we created a course called Communicating Your Leadership Point of View as part of the Masters of Science in Executive Leadership program offered jointly by The Ken Blanchard Companies and the School of Business at the University of San Diego.

In the class, we ask students to think about key people who have influenced their lives—such as parents, grandparents, coaches, or bosses. What did they learn about leadership from these people? Then we ask them to remember key events that were turning points for them. How did those experiences prepare them for a leadership role and what did they learn? The next step involves identifying their personal purpose and values.

The critical task in the process is putting all this information into a story format that can be shared with direct reports and colleagues. People relate to and remember stories. It would be easy to read a list of values to your team, but that isn’t very impactful. Sharing stories about actual events is a more personal and authentic way to communicate. Stories paint a picture that allows others to see the consistency between your values, words, and actions.

We have had such a great experience with this exercise in class that we are now using the same process with our clients. It isn’t an activity to rush through. You need to spend thoughtful, reflective time thinking and writing about the people and events that helped shape who you are as a leader.  When you share your Leadership Point of View with people on your team, they’ll have the benefit of knowing where you’re coming from and a clear understanding about not only what you expect from them but also what they can expect from you.

Give it a try. I guarantee you’ll rediscover some of your core beliefs about leadership. When you share information about yourself with your team, you’ll build a trusting, respectful relationship that will help everyone flourish.

Learning from Failure

“Success is not forever and failure isn’t fatal” is one of my favorite quotes from my friend Don Shula, former head coach of the Miami Dolphins football team and my coauthor on the book Everyone’s a Coach. This philosophy drove a great deal of Coach Shula’s behavior during his long career as the winningest head coach in NFL history.

Don had a twenty-four-hour rule. He allowed himself, his coaches, and his players a maximum of twenty-four hours after a game to wallow in that game’s outcome—to fully experience either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. But once the twenty-four-hour deadline passed, they had to put it all behind them and focus their energies on preparing for the next game.

A colleague recently shared with me how she used this technique at work to turn a big mistake into a learning moment. One of our sales teams used an Excel spreadsheet saved on a shared drive to track revenue and bookings. The database provided an easy method to run reports by type of product sold, sales by person, and other key categories. Everyone on the team was able to access the document easily any time they needed information—that is, until the day one team member accidentally deleted the entire file! When the employee shared this news with her boss, she thought she might actually be fired.

The manager had a better idea. She calmed the employee down by asking her to start brainstorming how they might recreate the data. Together they came up with a few options: ask the IT department if the file had been backed up so they could just request a copy; check to see if anyone had copied the file onto their desktop, or recreate the file from scratch. This activity helped the employee start thinking in a positive manner instead of beating herself up. The manager did one more thing: she gave the employee permission to go ahead and lament her mistake as much as she wanted to—but only for twenty-four hours. After the required time, they would meet again to discuss next steps and to talk about what they both had learned.

What a difference a day makes. At first, the manager and employee were discouraged to find out the IT department didn’t have a backup—but then they discovered the manager had saved a copy of the file to her desktop a week earlier. So the employee needed only to update a week’s worth of data and the database was back in business.

Of course, the employee learned to be extremely careful when closing a shared file. But the biggest learnings proved to be the foundation for an ongoing trusted working relationship:

The employee learned:

  • she could be honest with her manager;
  • her manager trusted her to solve problems;
  • she and her manager worked well as a team; and
  • twenty-four hours is plenty of time to feel bad about a mistake.

The manager learned:

  • the importance of keeping her cool in the face of disaster; and
  • how to empower her employee to turn a problem into a victory.

As a result, their respect for each other grew and they went on for years, sharing successes and treating every challenge as a learning moment.

Give the twenty-four-hour rule a try. Celebrate successes but don’t get a big head—and don’t get too down on yourself when you don’t succeed. Keep things in perspective and remember: success is not forever and failure isn’t fatal.

Why Isn’t Every Leader a Servant Leader?

My wish is that someday, every leader will be a servant leader. Unfortunately, the human ego can make it difficult. There are two ways we let our ego get in the way of leading with a serving heart and mindset.

One is false pride—thinking more of yourself than you should. You push and shove for credit and think leadership is about you rather than those you lead. Leaders who operate with false pride spend time doing a lot of self promotion. Another way the ego gets in the way is through self doubt or fear—thinking less of yourself than you should. You become consumed with your own shortcomings and are hard on yourself. Leaders who operate with fear spend time protecting themselves because they don’t really believe in their own talents.

Managers with either of these ego afflictions are not effective leaders. Let me explain what false pride and self doubt look like in action.

Managers dominated by false pride are often seen as controlling. Even when they don’t know what they are doing, they have a high need for power and control. When it’s clear to everyone they are wrong, they keep insisting they are right. In addition, they don’t support their staff members very well. When things are going well and people are feeling upbeat and confident, controllers tend to throw a wet blanket over everything. They support their bosses over their people because they want to climb the hierarchy and gain more control and power.

On the other side of the spectrum, fear-driven managers are often characterized as do-nothing bosses. They are described as never being around, always avoiding conflict, and not very helpful. They tend to undermanage even when people are insecure and need support and direction from a leader. This is because do-nothing bosses don’t believe in themselves or trust their own judgment. They value the opinions of others more than their own—especially the opinions of people they report to. As a result, they rarely speak up to support their own people. Under pressure, they tend to defer to whoever has the most power.

If any of this sounds a bit too close for comfort, don’t be alarmed. Most people have traces of both false pride and self doubt. The good news is that there is an antidote for both.

The antidote for false pride is humility. According to Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, there are two main characteristics that describe great leaders: will and humility. Will is the determination to follow through on a vision, mission, or goal. Humility is the capacity to realize that leadership is not about the leader—it’s about the people and what they need to be successful.

The antidote for self doubt is unconditional love. If you have kids or are very close with other family members or friends, you know that your love for them doesn’t depend on their success. You love them unconditionally whether they are successful or not. Loving yourself as a leader will help you operate with confidence and put self doubt to rest.

The best way to start serving others is to be open to the concepts of humility and unconditional love and practice them until they become habit. When that happens, you are well on your way to becoming a servant leader.

Understanding Servant Leadership

I’m spending a lot of time lately thinking and writing about servant leadership. Although much has been said and written about the topic, I still run into people who don’t quite understand the concept. They tend to think it is about the inmates running the prison, or a leader who tries to please everyone, or some religious movement. But I’ve found servant leadership to be the most effective way to inspire great performance and to create great human satisfaction.

If you take a look at the companies that embrace servant leadership, you’ll notice one thing they have in common—they are all leaders in their field. I’m talking about companies like Southwest Airlines, Chick-fil-A, Disney, Nordstrom, Wegmans, and Synovus, to name a few.  Leaders in these companies understand the two parts of servant leadership:

  • The visionary/direction, or strategic, role—the leadership aspect of servant leadership; and
  • The implementation, or operational, role—the servant aspect of servant leadership.

All good leadership starts with a visionary role that establishes a compelling vision that tells you who you are (your purpose), where you’re going (your picture of the future), and what will guide your journey (your values). In other words, leadership starts with a sense of direction.

Once leaders have shared the vision and people are clear on where they are going, their role shifts to a service mindset for the task of implementation—the second aspect of servant leadership. In this role, the leader does all they can to help their team members accomplish goals, solve problems, and live according to the vision.

I have a great example of this.  My daughter, Debbie, who is now our company’s VP of Marketing, worked at Nordstrom when she was in college. After she was there a week or so, she came to me and said, “Dad, I have a strange boss.”  When I asked what was strange about him, she said, “At least two or three times a day he comes to me and asks if there is anything he can do to help me.  He acts like he works for me.”  And I said, “That’s exactly what he does. He sounds like a servant leader.”

Nordstrom understands that their number one customer is their people—that’s why Debbie’s boss was acting as if he worked for Debbie. He was giving her the responsibility to serve their number two customer—people who shop in the store. Servant leaders know if they take care of their people and empower them, their people will go out of their way to take care of the customers.

At Nordstrom, the vision is clear—they want to create a memorable experience for their customers so they will keep coming back. Leaders and employees alike understand their role in implementing this vision. That is why they are comfortable with going to great lengths to keep customers happy.

One of my favorite stories about Nordstrom came from a friend of mine who wanted to buy some perfume for his wife. He approached the counter and asked for the perfume.  The woman behind the counter said, “I’m sorry, we don’t sell that particular brand—but I know another store here in the mall that does. How long will you be in the store?”  My friend said he would be there about 45 minutes, so she told him she would take care of it and to come back. She left the store, purchased the product, gift-wrapped it, and had it ready for him when he returned. She charged the same amount of money she spent at the other store. So even though Nordstrom didn’t make any money on that sale, they created a loyal customer who—along with his friends—would tell that story for years. And how do you think the salesperson felt about herself that day?  I’ll bet she was proud to be able to serve her customer so well.

I hope these stories help you understand how servant leaders create an environment that gives their companies a competitive edge. Remember, the key to being a servant leader is to start with a clear vision, then shift into the service mindset with your team to help them perform at their highest levels. You’ll improve engagement and morale, build a loyal customer base, and create a secure future for your company.