Sunday, January 24, 2010

Message to Any Leader Anywhere: Neglect Retail Leadership at Your Peril

No bond, no trust
No trust, no credit
No credit, no progress
---Andrew Romano, (January 22, 2010). The Trouble with Barack. Newsweek.

Scott Brown brought retail leadership to Massachusetts. Despite her solid track record and capabilities, it appears that Martha Coakley did not. Legions of political scientists, pollsters and pundits know this well. So do employees everywhere who wish their managers would really connect with them at the visceral level.

A few years ago, I interacted with about 400 employees engaged in a merger. My role was to help the transition, build cultural bridges, get them talking with each other to kick start relationships. At every session, the voice and presence of a president past arose to haunt us. “Dave” was most beloved by all in one of the organizations. His kind of leadership was what they valued.

“What was it about Dave that you really liked?” I asked. The answer was always the same: “He cared”.

I continued probing: “What did that look like?”

“Well”, they replied, “every morning, he walked through the office and said hello, asked us about our families and work.”

“Tell me more”, I said. I wanted to better understand how Dave ticked. Almost in unison, they recited that he was not always in meetings, as was the case now with the new leaders. Furthermore, he listened to them and took action.

I don’t think it mattered that Dave could not act on every issue, every “whim” of employees. They knew that Dave had to consider many factors. But, they gave him a fair amount of slack on “substance” because he connected with them emotionally.

Ironically, if Dave had just connected and not taken action, he would not have been revered and missed. There are limits to “retail” leadership.

The expectations are high for Scott Brown, a newly minted Republican senator. So are they for Barack Obama to take lessons from Mr. Brown. Both, however, are in the same boat. People want to see and feel progress at the every day life level. In the end, substance does matter.

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