I bet no one in your organisation has ever been brave enough to tell you to be more human and smile more. I’ve worked with many CEOs for over 20 years as a management consultant and I have seen one common and consistent ‘success’ trait that transcends all those leadership models and theories. For me it’s simple. The successful leaders (on top of knowing their business onions) are likeable. They say hello. They smile. They’re human.
I used to work for one of the country’s most successful PLCs (they can remain nameless to avoid the blushes of the brilliant former CEO). The top boss had been at the helm for many years and I had the pleasure of accompanying him around the business on many occasions in my capacity as Head of Internal Communication. What I witnessed on each of those occasions was nothing short of remarkable. He was simply adored by all employees wherever he went. He had this amazing ability to chat with anyone who worked there, regardless of pay grade or job role. These were proper chats too – you could tell that he was genuinely interested in connecting with people. They weren’t royal visits. I guess he was CEO just out and about meeting his work family and being completely genuine. He wasn’t afraid to ‘muck in’ when things were busy and was always the first to open his wallet at the bar.
My colleagues at Rambutan tell me some similar stories about other leaders they have come across who knew how to smile and be human. David remembers Alan Smith, CEO at Somerfield who would go alone (i.e. without other directors) to the staff canteen and ask if people minded him joining them. When he first joined the company, he ran ‘nice to meet you’ sessions with all 3,000 managers in his first four weeks (over 20 locations and 40 sessions). He had no slides and just introduced himself as a person before opening the floor up to questions, comments and ideas.
Craig recalls that Heidi Mottram, OBE (former Northern Rail CEO) would visit every location on the Northern network over the course of a year. She would let people know when she was coming then plonk herself down in the mess room and just listen to people’s concerns and ideas. She always remembered people’s names and what they had told her (even family stuff) the last time she visited. Uncoincidentally, Heidi was named Rail Business Manager of the Year for being an ‘inspirational leader’.
Lucy pointed out Rob Brighouse (former Chiltern Railways MD) who was legendary for being known by everyone as genuine and a down to earth and very fair leader, who didn’t take himself too seriously. When Rambutan did focus groups and asked, “what’s the best part about working for Chiltern?”, most people said something like, “Rob, the manager guy!”
Lance’s example is Justin King (former CEO of Sainsbury’s) who never used jargon when talking to people in store and who really thought about his audience when he delivered conferences – talking about the stuff that would engage retail managers and telling great stories. In the canteen you would hear him say to staff, “Do you mind if I grab a sandwich and sit with you?” and he never wore suits during store visits.
These leaders are the ones you should aspire to emulate:
- they know people’s names, from the post room to the canteen
- they load the dishwasher (this was something one of my favourite MDs did, because he said he knew the ‘kids’ wouldn’t do it, so he’d just go round at the end of the day and clear the dirty cups off the desks)
- they wander round the office with no particular agenda other than just meeting people
- they buy the beers, cakes or coffees
- they treat people equally
- they don’t take themselves too seriously
- they don’t mimic or try to appear one of the boys/girls if they’re not – they are genuine
It’s a fact that most people leave their boss, not their company. Have you ever sat down for a moment and thought about how many people have left you? Probably more than you think or even know about. The plethora of books, theories and models from psychologists, academics and business gurus can make the leader’s job seem like rocket science. It’s not. Put those books in the bin and just start being your genuine self. It is one of the easiest and most refreshing things in the world to do. You’ve probably just forgotten how to do it at work.
I’ll leave you with a final thought. Many years ago I was working inhouse on a major organisational change project. During a series of national roadshows to help get people engaged and gain feedback, employees were asked by the external consultant we were working with to jot down on a post-it note anything they’d like to say to the CEO (I’ll call him Jim to save his embarrassment). The most powerful comment anyone wrote has stuck with me for the last 20 years. I did ask the consultants to show it to my CEO. They refused, but I wish they had. It simply said “smile you b******.”