A blog about reputation, marketing and employee morale.

The Key to Great Leadership

Posted by Janet Smith on April 3, 2009

In my last blog post, I wrote about meeting the delightful Rick Foster, one of the authors of a must-read book, “How We Choose To Be Happy.” More than 10 years ago, Rick and co-author Greg Hicks interviewed 300-some chronically happy people and found that every one of them made the same nine choices in life…choices that led to lives to extreme happiness. Since then, Rick and Greg have continued studying and writing about extremely happy people (whom I’ll now refer to as EHP!).

You might be thinking, “Sure, I’d be extremely happy, too, if nothing bad ever happened to me.” But the book makes it abundantly clear that EHP have their share of sadness and misfortune in life, and in some cases, more than their share. The thing is, while really happy folks allow themselves to feel sad or angry or frustrated, or whatever, they don’t allow those feelings or the incidents themselves to define who they are or to control the rest of their lives.  They deal maturely with adversity. They rebound, grow from the experience, and make a choice to be happy again.

I mentioned last week that through their research, the authors also discovered that leaders who are considered (based on many measures) to be really great leaders make the same nine decisions in their lives that EHP make. Therefore,  extremely great leaders are extremely happy people.

This isn’t a great surprise, is it? Everyone has to deal with loss, tragedies, hardships, disappointments, health issues, relationship problems, and experiences with hurtful people.  And we’re all entitled to our reactions when life is difficult.  But leaders must be balanced, mature, professional and gracious regardless of the circumstances surrounding them at work or at home.  Leaders who lack resilience should get out of the way and let others do the leading. So if you want to be a great leader, make sure that you’re an extremely happy person. And if you’re not—learn how to become one. You won’t regret it.

A must-read for every leader

Posted by Janet Smith on March 25, 2009

Everyone should read the book I’m going to write about today. And if you’re a boss or a leader…you absolutely must read this book.

About ten years ago, “How We Choose To Be Happy,” was published and pretty much became an overnight bestseller. The book’s subtitle is, “The 9 choices of extremely happy people—their secrets, their stories.” Rick Foster and Greg Hicks, two successful management consultants, wrote the book after interviewing with more than 300 people who are, by all accounts, standards and measures, extremely happy.

Rick and Greg discovered that every extremely happy person they spoke with made the same nine choices in life…regardless of where they lived, how they were raised, what kind of job they had, level of education, circumstances, or any other factor you can think of.  And guess what. They’ve also found that really great leaders make those same nine decisions in their lives.

I’m typically a very happy person, but today I am deliriously happy, because I spent a good part of the day yesterday at a workshop led by Rick Foster. He is inspiring, kind, wise, insightful, and energetic. He’s also very funny and knows how to keep a room of PR/HR folks alert, engaged, and excited. I learned so much and took pages of notes that will soon be captured in blog posts. It was an amazing experience, and I’m serious—I woke up this morning with what can only be described as a happiness hangover. What a great feeling!

10 ways outstanding leaders can set outstanding examples

Posted by Janet Smith on March 19, 2009

Bosses absolutely must set an example for those they lead and oversee. Bosses with a “do as I say, not as I do” attitude create an unhealthy work environment full of mistrust and cynicism. Leaders with an elitist attitude may not pick up on the disdain employees feel for them, I can guarantee those feelings of anger and resentment are there. Loyalty and commitment from employees will be weak, and morale will be low.

Leaders frequently have opportunities and perks that are not afforded those in subordinate positions—and that’s appropriate. Among other things, these extras might include a company car or credit card, association memberships, occasional trips, long business lunches, or an office with a window. And these things are fine.

But when it comes down to the way people are treated and the way a person demonstrates integrity, there’s no special pass for the boss. The person in charge must always set an example by doing what is right.

Set an outstanding example for those you oversee by doing these ten things that outstanding leaders always do: 

  1. Start and end meetings on time.
  2. Express appreciation frequently.
  3. Say please and thank you.
  4. Give credit where credit is due.
  5. If an apology is called for…then apologize.
  6. Share as much job-related information as possible.
  7. Be honest, kind and compassionate.
  8. Pitch in and help when help is needed.
  9. Respect the privacy of others and don’t gossip.
  10. Do your part to keep the workplace neat, clean and organized.

Negativity is contagious

Posted by Janet Smith on March 11, 2009

Can’t remember where I once read this excellent quote about negativity in the workplace, but it stuck with me: Take a cheerful, positive, hardworking employee and put them in a negative work environment, and the work environment will win every time.

It’s so true. One negative person can bring the workplace down for everyone. You’re rare (and extremely fortunate) if you haven’t worked with someone who complains about everything, criticizes everyone, and in general, sees the bad side of everything. To toxic individuals, the glass isn’t half-empty. It’s empty. Let me be clear—I’m not saying we can’t have a bad day now and then, because that happens to everyone. I’m referring to the people who are unhappy, day in and day out. They’re miserable and determined to drag down everyone around them…because misery loves company, right?

As my opening quote suggests, chronic negativity spreads like a virus among co-workers and infects everyone, to some extent or another. It drains other employees of energy, loyalty, and good feelings about work. When allowed to prevail, negativity affects customer service, creativity, accuracy, and productivity. Negativity hurts an organization’s reputation and it hurts the bottom line.

As the boss, it’s your job to not allow gloomy, cynical, pessimistic employees to drain the life out of everyone else. You must deal with their downer behavior as you would any other performance issue that needs to be corrected, and here’s how that conversation should go, step-by-step:

  1. Thank the employee for their contributions.
  2. Explain the problem behavior.
  3. Ask if they are aware of this behavior, or that it is a problem.
  4. Provide concrete examples of the negative behavior that must change.
  5. Give an explanation of how their behavior affects others and why this is not acceptable.
  6. Provide concrete examples of the desired behavior. 
  7. Review a prepared, written performance improvement plan with date-specific checkpoints.
  8. Explain that if the behavior doesn’t change, the next steps will be probation, then termination.
  9. Reiterate the abilities they have that are valuable to the company.
  10. Provide encouragement and state your belief that they have what it takes to make the changes you have outlined.

You can expect the person in question to have a negative response, of course, arguing that they’re not a goody-goody, not a Pollyanna, and not one of those people that smiles all the time. They may tell you all the reasons they have for being as unhappy as they are and gosh darn it, if you had been through all that they’ve been through, you’d be unpleasant, too. And perhaps they’re right. So it is extremely important that you honor these feelings and emphasize that you are not requesting that they change how they feel. Rather, you are requiring a change in behavior as a condition of their continued employment. And under some circumstances, you might suggest the employee seek counseling through your EAP, or other resources for seeking appropriate help.

It’s not easy to change behavior, as we all know. But it’s amazing what employees can do when their jobs are at stake. So you must deal with this as a serious personnel issue-because it is.

Finally, change will happen more easily and quickly when you notice every tiny improvement and let the employee know that you noticed.  Your recognition and pats on the back are a big part of the change process.

Just Say No to Gossip

Posted by Janet Smith on February 26, 2009

I hate gossip and believe it’s extremely damaging in the workplace. I’m quoted on this topic in the Entry Level Careers column published today at examiner.com.

I always advise employees to refrain from gossiping-and those in management absolutely must not gossip.  It’s harmful to all involved-and the harm may be to your reputation. Remember that your colleagues who love to gossip about others will also love gossiping about you. Gossipers are insecure with themselves, and talking about others makes them feel more important and powerful. They will often reel you in with behavior that makes you feel like you’re a special friend and confidante-but typically, folks like this will spread rumors about everyone and anyone.

So make up your mind that you won’t provide fodder for the rumor mill.  Always dress, speak, write, and behave appropriately and professionally at work. Don’t share stories about your weekend escapades, fights with your significant other, or financial problems. Don’t tell or be a party to off-color jokes. Be a class act. Treat everyone, from the CEO to the custodian, with respect.

I’ve read about some businesses that have a ban on gossip and impose consequences on employees who talk behind the backs of co-workers, customers, or others. Sounds like a good idea to me, but some leaders may be reluctant to establish a policy like that. Every person in management should set an example in this regard, though, and make it clear that you’re not interested in being a part of conversations that involve gossip, backstabbing, or spreading rumors. If you consistently demonstrate that you don’t participate in office gossip, the gossipers will eventually stop including you in those conversations.

Employees and your brand

Posted by Janet Smith on February 24, 2009

One inadequately trained (or inappropriately placed) employee can do a lot of damage.

To wit: Once in awhile, I’ll really want to give my money to some company, because I want their product or service. I’ll have the money, and I’m planning to give it to them. But the transaction is aborted because an employee of the company can’t help me, can’t answer my questions, can’t find the item I want, can’t explain the difference between two similar products, can’t give me the exact price of something, can’t tell me if the purchase comes with a guarantee, or can’t provide me enough information to inspire confidence in giving that business my money.

At the moment, I’m irritated with the employee. But that irritation quickly expands and morphs into a completely negative view of the company itself. After all—it’s the company that either hired the wrong person for the job, or didn’t provide the person with adequate training.  So even if the company’s products or services are phenomenal, and every other person working there would have provided me with exquisite service, I now have a very, very low opinion of the company. If someone asks me what I think about that company, I’ll tell them about my disappointing experience.

During that conversation, I’ll communicate much more than my negative opinion of that company. I’ll communicate my perception of that company’s brand.

Here’s a good quote from Drew’s brand communication and design blog: “Brands that are successful communicate the same core message and level of service throughout all customer interactions.” He lists 10 (plus a bonus) free do-it-yourself branding tips for businesses—and they include employee education, telephone protocol, and removing the word “no” from your company’s vocabulary. The bonus branding tip is to empower your employees to be able to take care of customers.

And here’s another bonus. When you train, educate, involve, communicate with and empower your employees, you not only strengthen your brand—you increase employee morale.

So you screwed up. Admit it!

Posted by Janet Smith on February 16, 2009

President Obama said three words recently that almost made me cry with joy. In my opinion, these three words (or other words that have the same meaning) can significantly elevate a leader’s esteem in the eyes of his or her followers.  When employees hear their boss say these words, they typically become more loyal and want to work harder. But although every boss has plenty of opportunity to say these three words, few rarely do.

The words?  I screwed up.

I’ve frequently said, and will continue to say, that a class called Humility 101 should be a required course in every MBA program. There are just way too many bosses and people in leadership positions who mistakenly believe that they will lose respect if they acknowledge that they made a mistake. They believe it will make them look weak.

But on the contrary, leaders actually demonstrate and convey great strength when they humbly acknowledge of an error, apologize, admit that they don’t know an answer, or own up to making a lousy decision.  Assuming a leader is competent and isn’t apologizing for something every other day, these actions are all indicators of real, true human beings who accept the fact that none of us are perfect, we all bungle things from time to time, and everyone has strengths and weaknesses.

Leaders who can admit their own shortcomings inspire people to work harder and to be more creative, because they aren’t terrified of making a mistake.

I was wrong. I’m sorry. I screwed up. Important words that leaders and every single one of us should use when called for.

How do you know if your employees are happy at work?

Posted by Janet Smith on February 5, 2009

Question: What’s the best way to know for sure if your employees are happy at work?

Answer: Ask them!

Except, of course, it’s not quite that simple. If you ask the typical employee with a healthy respect for the boss and a strong desire to keep his job if he’s happy at work, he’ll almost certainly say “yes,” regardless of how he actually feels.

So you really can’t ask that question. But what you can do is regularly ask employees other questions that will give you insight into their level of job satisfaction while demonstrating that you really care about how they feel.

I’ve already blogged about the most important question a boss should ask, and that is: What can I do to make your job more rewarding, interesting, and satisfying? That question should be posed at least quarterly. And here’s a list of some other questions you should ask from time to time.

  1. How do you think our customers would describe our company?
  2. What would you say is our company’s greatest strength? And what’s the thing the company needs to improve on the most?
  3. What can we do as your employer to help you achieve your goals, both personally and professionally?
  4. What’s the best day (or best experience) you’ve ever had on this job?
  5. If you won the lottery and became wealthy, what would you do and how would your life change?
  6. What could this company do to give more recognition to employees for their contributions?
  7. If you had the chance to learn a new skill or become an expert in something other than what you do now, what would it be?

Asking questions like these will engage most employees in an interesting conversation that will really add to the boss-employee relationship. That means that in addition asking the question, the boss must listen to the answer, take it seriously no matter what is said, comment on it, and convey sincere interest. Don’t ask the questions one after another, which would inevitably make employees feel like they’re being interrogated. Just ask one of these at the end of a conversation or when they’ve come to you for information or direction. When there’s a calm, appropriate boss—employee opportunity, seize it-and ask a question that will show your employees they really matter to you.

Listening to your employees boosts morale

Posted by Janet Smith on January 30, 2009

Yesterday I wrote about the one question every boss should ask employees: What can I do to make your job more rewarding, interesting, and satisfying? And at the end of that post, I said that today I’d write about other important questions bosses should ask employees.

I really did plan to do that. But last night, someone told me about something her boss had done that is so terrific, and compliments yesterday’s topic so well, that I just have to write about it.

This woman works for a boutique hotel with about 100 employees. She said that like many other businesses, the hotel dramatically scaled back its employee holiday festivities last month. Apparently, some employees were not too understanding of the situation and the boss caught wind of some complaints.

Rather than dismiss the comments as trivial, or respond with anger because, after all, we’re in the middle of a recession, this boss was concerned. So concerned, that he wanted to hear exactly what the employees were thinking. (And when I say “boss,” I’m talking about THE boss—the general manager of the hotel. There are a number of VPs and lower level managers and supervisors at the place, of course. The majority of employees report to one of those people.) He was, I’m sure, aware that the complaints about the holiday party were symptomatic of other issues.

So this guy took the time to meet one-on-one with every single employee. Imagine! I mean, even if he only spent 10 minutes with each employee it would take nearly three days, allowing for a few breaks and lunch! And I’m sure many of these individual sessions were longer than that.

The woman telling me about this said that this guy just really wanted to know how employees were feeling about their jobs and what it was like to work there. He in essence asked them, “What can I do to make your job more rewarding, interesting, and satisfying?”

She said, “Since he’s talked with everyone, the mood is a lot better and everyone seems a lot happier.”  I’ll bet they are! Morale increases almost instantly when employees know that how they feel matters. And in this case, the fact that the person at the top cared enough to talk to everyone sent employees the message that every worker wants to hear and that immediately makes them want to work harder: We value you, and you’re important to us.

My next post: more important questions to ask your employees!

The one question bosses should ask their employees (at least, the employees they want to keep!)

Posted by Janet Smith on January 30, 2009

Have you ever looked at a top performer and thought to yourself, “I sure hope she never thinks about working somewhere else!” If you haven’t thought that…you should. Because it’s your star employees…the ones you’d be lost without…that are most likely to jump ship for another job.  They might be high achievers who keep their eyes and ears open for other opportunities; or consistent, methodical workers who catch the attention of the competition. Some of your best and brightest may be referred to other jobs by friends and neighbors.

The point is that you should never take any employee for granted—particularly the ones you need the most. And to let these folks know that you appreciate them, value them, care about them, and want to keep them happy at work, there’s one question you absolutely must ask them. It may seem simple. It may seem obvious. But how often have you asked this question (or had it asked of you)?

The question is this: What can I do to make your job more rewarding, interesting, and satisfying?

Some employees will have lots to say, as if they’ve been waiting for you to ask.  Some will laugh and ask you if you’re serious. Others may be uncomfortable answering such a question and tell you that everything’s fine. In that case, tell the employee that you’d like him to think about it for a day or so, and perhaps write down some thoughts. But insist on a response, because I can guarantee everyone has something to say when asked this question.

Regardless of what the employee says will make her job more rewarding, interesting, and satisfying, take it seriously. Don’t guffaw, knit your eyebrows, or sarcastically say, “Yeah, right. Don’t hold your breath on that one.”

You asked the question, and must respect the answer and discuss it with the employee. Tell them honestly what you can and can’t do. Tell them what you’d like to do and when you’d like to do it. Involve them in the process of making their jobs better, if at all possible. Show an interest in everything they say.  And to demonstrate how sincerely you care about their happiness, you might ask them why they feel that way.

Ask THE QUESTION at least every three months. Go ahead, write it on your calendar so you won’t forget. Tomorrow, I’ll write about other questions you should ask in the intervening months.