One of the biggest challenges for executives has always been balancing the needs of the business with the needs of their employees. Today, in an environment where employee expectations are extremely high, this challenge is heightened.
Much of this is driven by the impact of the Millennial workforce, now the largest share of workers in the US. Millennial workers expect to be involved in decisions earlier in their career, demand upward mobility faster, value a more employee-centric work environment and expect high engagement with leaders in their development.
This is against a backdrop of a tight labor market, where the best employees have a lot of options. The implication is that companies need to provide perks, upward promotion and meaningful work, or the employees will move on.
It is unrealistic that all employees will get the upward mobility they want, and less experienced employees will have to perform more mundane duties before they receive more meaningful work. To address the mismatch between expectations and reality, leaders need to change the conversation to one focused on both mission & team, which creates a purpose for employees. Then a leader needs to do their best to match the needs of individuals to the needs of the team.
We are a team and we have a mission. The team comes first. Everyone has a role, and everyone is subservient to the goals of the team, including the leader.
As long as a leader remains genuine and puts the team & mission before self, employees will respond with high levels of loyalty and engagement.
Step 1: Define the Team’s Mission
Your job as a leader is to understand your company’s strategy and what drives enterprise value. Is it a differentiated product, an advantage in distribution, or scale economics? You must know how your team fits into this strategy and how to link your mission to that strategy and value. You also need to be transparent about your team’s role with employees. Not everyone is on the company’s most important project, but every team and project ladders up to the overall company objectives, and every team’s mission is important.
In a prior role, I oversaw what were widely viewed as the two least important businesses at the company – businesses with the lowest margins, facing strong headwinds and in the least defensible market position. The prior CEO had told employees these businesses were dying and did not deserve investment. The team was demoralized, and we had to redefine our mission to boost morale and performance. As non-strategic businesses, our job was to contribute by achieving financial outcomes to support more strategic businesses. Growth and profitability became our mission. After defining this mission, we systematically outlined what we needed to do. One person’s job was to address our failure to deliver our solutions. Another person had to correct poor contracts. My job was to re-acquire a critical strategic partner that we had lost. Everyone had a role.
Step 2: Get to Know Your Team Members
In addition to defining your team’s mission, it is also critical that you take the time to know your employees. Even for leaders overseeing a large business, it’s important to spend at least 50% of your time with employees, either one-on-one or in working sessions.
In my time with senior executives, I have been struck by a common theme I hear from many of the best. When they first come into a business, they visit every major office. They meet one-on-one with every direct report, and usually their directs also. They meet with front line employees in groups & sit side-by-side with people as they do their jobs. And in all of this, they get to know the employees, their needs, challenges, desires and ideas. Time with employees enable these leaders to best match their employee’s skills to the team’s mission and needs. It also builds loyalty to the leader and commitment to the team’s success.
Step 3: Match Employee's Skills to the Team’s Mission
Like the director of a play, or the coach of a sports team, a business leader’s main role is to put their people in a position to succeed by emphasizing their best attributes. As with a performance, or a sports match, a leader must answer:
- Who are the stars that have the skills most needed to carry and lead the team?
- Who are the experts that can play narrower, but important roles?
- Who are the grinders, willing to do the less glamorous work?
The hard part is helping each person see why they were chosen for their role and how that role is important to the overall team’s success. Not everyone gets what they want, but often, employees asked to do things they would not choose for themselves, turn out having more impact and more personal success.
One of my most successful leaders was an individual contributor who was in a product role. He really wanted to engage in product strategy. But after spending time with him, it was clear that he was an excellent leader of project teams. We put him in a management role on our smallest business, leading about 10-15 people. Within two years he was leading operations for a 70-person team, and within 4 years over 100 people managing implementations and services for a $100 million business line.
A good leader aligns individual strengths with the team’s mission.
In summary, most employees regardless of the unique characteristics of their generation, or the economic environment, want to be part of something bigger than themselves, and they want to learn and contribute. They respond to team-based missions and goals. By focusing on team objectives, business leaders can immunize themselves from some of the challenges of a highly-skilled, mobile workforce in a tight labor market.