Leaders walk the tight rope between bettering the company and meeting associates needs.
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If you’ve ever been promoted from a lower-level position to a leadership position, there’s a chance you’ve experienced a dramatic shift in perspective. In the former role, you probably advocated for your own needs and perhaps those of your peers. On an executive level, it’s your job to advocate for those you lead, as well as the company’s fiscal health, more broadly.
While the needs of associates and that of the company often do align, there are times when it’s a tough negotiation between dueling forces. A company is only as good as its people, so morale is important, as are fair wages, benefits and opportunity for growth. At the same time, companies can’t always justify meeting every expectation people have. In fact, leaders must sometimes make tough choices that will be unpopular among those they represent.
Being a good leader means balancing these two interests in a way that best serves all parties. Sometimes it means making hard choices; other times it means pushing back against the powers-that-be to achieve the fairest possible outcome. Here are a few things to keep in mind when it’s your turn to shift your perspective and balance these critical priorities.
Look at the big picture.
There are reasons certain people get chosen to lead. One is the ability to look at the big picture and make smart, strategic decisions that help your company achieve its goals.
It can be difficult to see this big picture when you’re not responsible for anyone but yourself; and to be fair, it’s not your job to. And as the famous Spider Man quote goes, “with great power comes great responsibility.” It also comes with knowledge — all the pieces which together form this big picture. Sometimes you don’t even need to put them together yourself!
Every decision a leader makes needs to connect to this big picture, and that includes to decisions that you know would be favorable among your associates, like more vacation days or catered lunches. It doesn’t really matter to your associates whether or not you have the budget for catered lunches, and why should it? And for you, it does matter, and you need to fit it into your company expenses (i.e. the big picture) if it is really a priority.
Find out where interests align.
Like I mentioned, oftentimes what’s in the best interest of the talent is what’s in the company’s best interest too, even if it’s not immediately obvious. There are a dozen or more reasons to keep your associates happy and fulfilled, chief among them retention, loyalty and productivity.
The question is, what will make associates happy and fulfilled? I believe you have to start with the basics and work your way up. Respect and recognition don’t cost a dime, and yet many workers across the country feel actively disrespected, a feeling that loses money by causing disengagement. Respect your team, listen to them, and recognize them, and you will at least be halfway there.
Things like pay and benefits can get more complicated, although if it’s an issue across the board, your base salary and increase requirements may need a reboot, an important topic of discussion for higher-ups. Generally, it’s a good idea to let associates know what to expect and why, and how they can earn more. If there’s a reason the company can’t give increases, let them know.
Some may say great leaders never compromise, but in my opinion, the opposite is true. Collect as much feedback as you can before making assumptions, and then act on it — as much as you’re able to, that is, with the understanding that on some points compromise will be necessary.
Compromise can come in many shapes and forms. If you work for a small startup that has, thus far, been unable to offer a 401K, you might start providing the option even if you can’t match it yet like associates would prefer. Instead of offering catered lunches regularly, offer them monthly as an incentive for reaching important goals. On a person-to-person basis, if you can’t give an individual exactly what they are asking for, try to meet them halfway and provide a path toward their goal.
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Compromise is also an opportunity to calibrate expectations by explaining the big picture. This way everyone in your company understands what is realistic and why, and how the company is taking their needs into account when making decisions on their behalf.
The common thread throughout these former pieces of advice is transparency. If there’s a gap between expectations and reality, that’s probably because you haven’t been transparent enough. Transparency will help align your company, improve associate relationships and engagement, and open doors to new solutions.
It will also make those tough conversations a little bit easier to explain the whys, whens and hows of the decisions you make. For instance, if your company makes a financial decision like a sale or acquisition, or chooses to hire an external candidate for an executive position, it is best to be transparent about your reasoning and clearly articulate what kind of impact team members will experience moving forward. Transparency about financial reviews is also a great way to let associates know how the company is doing and the show what role they play in the big picture.
As a leader, it can be a blessing and a burden to bear responsibility to your team, your shareholders and your customers all at once. If you can’t please everyone, communicating the big picture, finding common ground, compromising and offering transparency into decision-making will help you find the right balance. That balance is the key to optimizing both the wellness of your company and the people who make it great.