Opinion: Leadership Training From Break Room to Conference Room

A picture of RVDA speaker Mike Bensi

The pandemic and ongoing trend of reshuffling employees are redefining how and where people choose to work. Companies are implementing interesting benefits and perks to attract and keep talent. As a business consultant and trainer, I have the pleasure of visiting companies and seeing the environments they provide for their employees. I get to experience diverse company cultures.

Last week I visited a company that had just moved into a new location. The facility was chosen to provide an upgraded work environment. I toured the new kitchen space, which offered beverages, gluten-free snacks, vegan snacks and even beef jerky to cover all bases and make everyone happy.

The office was spacious, providing conference rooms and isolated areas for people to take phone calls.

I listened carefully as my guide explained her hopes on how the new space would work to attract top talent and engaged, loyal employees.

When I asked her how recruitment and employee retention had changed following the relocation, her response was not as shiny as the new space we toured.

She sighed. Many of the struggles at the old space moved with them to the new building. Little progress had been made on effective communication between employees and between employees and management. Many of the seats in the all-new workstations sat empty. Crippling employee turnover continued.

Better snacks aside, the new space failed to address the dominant obstacle at the old location. Management was the problem, and the issue had not been addressed.

Most, if not all, business leaders today face the daunting task of deciphering how to retain employees and how to attract new hires. Many attempt to do this by offering an ideal combination of perks and benefits and attractive work-from-home/in-office ratios.

While many companies may change or improve benefits, few change or adopt the tactics and strategies the management team uses to lead its staff.

Which is unfortunate. According to Gallup, when managers manage well, employees are:

  • More engaged at their jobs.
  • More likely to have an excellent quality of life.
  • More likely to strongly agree that they have opportunities to do what they do best each day.

Gallup, and others, has shown employee engagement is a primary driver of company performance. Employees report that when they are engaged and have opportunities to do what they excel at, their work is meaningful. They feel appreciated. They say supervisors consider their best interests. Employees believe they are entrusted with the company’s success and therefore strive to do well. When that kind of mindset exists, productivity typically increases.

Can mere company perks do that? I do not believe so, and the stats back my opinion.

While better benefits definitely do not hurt, creating a positive leadership strategy will go much further to address your employees’ needs, desires and performance.

Leadership Strategy

What is a leadership strategy? A leadership strategy aligns the company’s objectives to the leadership team’s needs through investments in leadership training.

Or put simply, it ensures you invest in training the leadership team to accomplish the goals of your business.

Your benefits should support the goals of your business, culture and the people you try to attract and/or retain in the organization.

A solid leadership strategy exists when you and your executive team:

  • Understand your business strategy and goals

When I first started consulting, I found myself jumping in to create or fix various organizations’ leadership strategies. I quickly learned that skipping this step is like pulling your car out of the driveway without knowing where you are going. An overly complex set of goals is unnecessary, but as a company, are you clear on your priorities? What does success look like at the end of 12 months?

For example, one client wanted to double his revenue in three years. The revenue number excited his executive team. High-fives were exchanged in celebration when setting the lofty goal. When I asked how many managers were needed to achieve the target, excitement quickly waned. The team realized reaching the goal required extensive work and resources.

Fermenting your business strategy allows you to determine how many leaders are needed and where they are needed to achieve desired outcomes.

  • Understand being a leader

Knowing the number of managers is one thing, but comprehending the qualities of good leaders is another. Successful leaders and managers help employees feel valued, appreciated and aligned to expectations. They coach others, versus being taskmasters. Companies that craft an intentional leadership strategy spell out what effective behaviors look like in their organization to lead and manage well.

You may know your company values, and that is a great start. Unfortunately, or fortunately, you are not the only one in your business. And thus, many versions of your company values may exist. Each employee may have their own version. I had one client, for example, who hated his company values. He had created them when he and his business partner founded the company. However, after six years and adding 120 team members, he realized that the business had shifted. The expectations were different. We worked together not only to update the company values but also to create a small set of connected leadership behaviors necessary to lead other people in the company.

  • Don’t promote based on experience

Many of us have had managers who were promoted for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps they were in the role the longest or were the biggest producer in a previous job.

However, the skills that enabled someone to excel in a prior position seldom transfer over. This is not the same expertise that makes employees feel valued, appreciated or engaged. Companies with a leadership strategy promote and hire based on the traits required to be a successful leader, versus what made the candidate effective in the past. Using a leadership strategy means that you are hiring the best people to lead others.

  • Focus on continuous improvement

Just as you would replace old coffee or snacks in the break room, a strong leadership strategy is constantly improving and evolving. Leaders and managers are placed into a role and given resources to enhance their performance and development. Identifying and aligning necessary investments in leadership development with the company’s strategy, goals and aspirations is important.

One of my clients has grown so much that it now has a team of middle managers. While the business poured significant energy into identifying job titles and finding people to fill those roles, it failed to understand the need for initial training or how to communicate with that new group. Two years after forming a new level of leadership, the company is only now addressing the needs around training and development.

  • Highlight the leadership benefits at your company

The next time you post an open position, how likely are you to showcase your management team as much as you show off your break room? Displaying pictures of managers is not necessary, but doing so enables you to show the team’s achievements in developing, engaging and appreciating others.

A past mentor once told me that the true measure of leadership success is what team members can accomplish during and after they have worked with a leader. Rather than listing the number of office square feet in the job posting, your recruiting process would highlight the number of promotions generated within the team, the number of new skills developed

and how the company supports employees outside of work during difficult times.

  • Ensure systems are in place to support the strategy

Bad coffee might turn off candidates, but even greater turnoffs are a complicated onboarding process or an outdated feedback system (i.e., performance reviews). To support the culture and leadership the organization wants to create, you must have easy-to-use, effective systems in place that touch the employee experience.

If you are unsure whether your systems are supportive, you could invest in a large audit or review. However, implementing one or two processes within your own company is easier. For instance, try to take time off, or enter your feedback into your performance review. Once you are complete, ask yourself if you would want to work for your organization given those processes. If the answer is no, it is time to make changes.

To make your company an inviting workplace, start in the conference room—not in the break room.

Mike Bensi helps organizations build strategies transforming their culture and employees, as well as the leaders who support them. Bensi trains leaders on the importance of culture, putting employees first and the role leaders play in accomplishing both. Bensi previously worked with small companies, global organizations and government. He is the author of “The Success of Failure” and is a keynote speaker on employee engagement, HR, and leadership.

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