This post originally appeared in Forbes.
In the post-pandemic, leaders have a lot to think about, including a worry that may be unfamiliar. Highly talented people are even harder to attract and retain than before because they have many more opportunities. In addition, many people reevaluated their lives in the global pandemic – both personal and professional, which sometimes led them to change jobs or even careers. So how should a leader respond to this problem? Many do the obvious – increase compensation, but that isn’t enough.
Effective organizations compensate people in amounts and in ways that allow individuals to mostly forget about compensation and instead focus on the work itself. Dan Pink, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us.
If money isn’t enough to attract and keep talented, creative, motivated people, then what is?
Autonomy, opportunity to learn and grow, and a sense of purpose are vital, but none exist without intentional leadership. As people return to the office, leaders might think they don’t have time for “people stuff,” but now is precisely the right time to connect and listen. Three things that any leader can do immediately.
1. Be honest with yourself.
2. Make connecting with people a priority.
3. Abandon habits that no longer serve a useful purpose.
First, be honest, most significantly, with yourself. Leaders who think that people don’t know whether or not they are authentic are fooling themselves. Leaders who genuinely look for ways to understand how they affect others can create an environment where people will speak up, provided they aren’t punished for doing so. It takes courage to open oneself to honest input and listen without defense. A leader who hasn’t heard any negative feedback in a long time is precisely the one who needs to recognize what type of environment they have created. It’s probably a tense, constrained one where honesty is not rewarded.
The good news is leaders can take corrective action and don’t need to take a giant leap to do it. Instead, courage is better built by starting with low-stakes situations, for example, admitting to a non-critical mistake. In one case, upon stepping into a new role, Carl realized that he hadn’t been the best at passing the baton to his successor, Barbara. After hearing a few subtle comments, he realized that he’d missed more than one opportunity to smooth the transition. So he quickly went right to Barbara and admitted his mistakes without any justification or rationalization. Then he asked an important question, “Is there more?” Indeed, there was. What ensued was a candid conversation that helped them surface a few issues that were easy to manage. Still, more importantly, their relationships shifted because they were more honest with one another.
Second, make connecting with people a priority. One senior executive, Sam, whom I’ve worked with through multiple transitions and a highly successful merger has a habit that others can easily copy. When Sam enters any location, including headquarters, he talks to people; the receptionist, people he encounters in the hallway, and people whose offices he passes. Several times each week Sam reaches out to people he hasn’t spoken with recently. His sincerity and informality are key and from the outside looking in, it may appear that little is happening, but that isn’t true. What is happening is three-fold 1. He is building and strengthening connections, 2. He learns what is going on, 3. His enjoyment increases, giving him energy and a sense of satisfaction.
On a larger scale, leaders sometimes rely on ceremonies. Site visits are notoriously ceremonial, but they don’t need to be. When leaders spend time in various locations, talk to employees at all levels, and later talk about what they learned, a little can go a long way. For example, a vice president of logistics I knew sprang into action with a team in a warehouse to solve a problem with the conveyor system. He didn’t solve it, nor did he direct anyone; he helped move boxes out of the way so others could see what was happening. The story he told later was focused entirely on the warehouse team and what they taught him. He made others the hero of the story and showed that he values the skill and talent of others.
Third, abandon habits that no longer serve a useful purpose. Practices that once seemed like a good idea can become destructive habits. They take up residence, and rarely do people ask if they have any useful purpose. Perhaps the worst offense is meetings. Innumerable, insufferable meetings that make people cynical and cranky. Why? Because they are so often simply held because it’s a habit, not because anything of value happens.
Ann Latham writes compellingly in her new book The Power of Clarity about the amount of time and human talent wasted in bad meetings. Citing research from Harvard Business Review, McKinsey, and her extensive experience, Latham concludes that most meetings are a waste of time. Still, worse than that, they drain the life out of people, but the cause almost invariably escapes people. How often do people decompress from meetings by having the meeting-after-the-meeting? All too often.
If leaders don’t remove motivation-busting barriers, people will leave.
Routine meetings are often necessary, but if the purpose is unclear or no longer valid, it’s too easy to keep meeting and filling an agenda with what Latham calls “treadmill verbs,” such as review and discuss. So long as people fill the time, it was a good meeting, right? No, Latham says it’s the wrong measure, and she’s correct.
In the crush of the post-pandemic transition, leaders have significant decisions to make. If they prioritize connection, they will be miles ahead of others in becoming a magnet for talented people who want to learn, grow, and contribute. Moreover, leaders who are connected will see the evidence that it’s not all about the money.