I was going to title this article “How to Make Talented People Feel Valued”, but that sounded a bit disingenuous. A leader’s goal shouldn’t be to give people the illusion of having a say and carrying influence. A good leader actually allows his or her talented staff to shape the conversation and steer the direction. Having multiple catalysts spark change increases the likelihood that the organization will advance along a promising path.
So, let’s ditch the feelings and skip to the actions.
As Chair of a successful and fast-growing department, I have encountered the challenges that accompany rapid growth. People jockey for position. The growing number of voices swell into a cacophony of utterances, some of them self-serving and designed only to set the speaker apart. My setting in academia adds to the challenge. As an academician, I’ve had to treat gingerly the brittle egos of hyper-intelligent people who are used to being right and suddenly are being questioned. I’ve also been on the other side of that dynamic, wondering why the Administrator who actually knows only slightly more than they really care about my area of expertise acts as if I’ve lost my larynx when I try to reach them.
Here is my unsolicited advice. When you are given the privilege to lead accomplished, competent, hyper-intelligent people, TREAT THEM WITH RESPECT.
So how do you do that? Simple behaviors go a long way toward showing people that you value them.
Don’t hide your agenda. Intelligent people question. They’re skeptical by nature. Your most clandestine of plans only irritate the people who resent that you think you’re cleverly hiding something from them. Transparency is a virtue in most circumstances, but it’s particularly important when you work with people who take pride in rendering the seemingly opaque transparent.
Don’t hide behind data. All the cool kids these days say they’re data-driven. But which data sets did they include, and which did they omit? Two data-driven decision makers can reach completely opposite conclusions and justify countering viewpoints by embracing certain data and eschewing others. And since when can all things be quantified and spreadsheeted? Recognize that there is a culture at your institution that your data set might cast aside as an anomaly. Think beyond the data you’ve cherrypicked.
Seek to engage, not to exclude. As a leader, you have big plans and you measure your effectiveness in how much of those plans you’ve accomplished. But resist the urge to dismiss questions and protests as obstacles. Treat them as speed bumps and warning signs that make you slow down and reconsider whether the drive ahead will lead to a good outcome. You don’t have all the answers. Listen to those annoying, pesky, questioning voices, for they might save you from your blind spots.
Say you’re sorry. If you have caused someone pain through your indecisiveness or inaction, through your unwillingness to listen and your dismissiveness, your empty promises over many years, don’t play the politician and seek a both-sides-win or both-sides-are-at-fault card. Everyone loses when you avoid the obvious admission. Don’t be above apologizing when you’ve disrespected someone and hurt them. Sincere humility is an instantly respectable trait that demonstrates to people that you value them above your own ego.
Respond to people’s email. Seriously, what drives people to ignore the effort someone else has made to put their thoughts into words and offer them to you? In today’s digital age, when it’s nearly impossible to get a few minutes of face time, do you really think it’s a good idea to shut down these less personal but necessary communication channels, too? It’s basic respect and decency, isn’t it?
Respect that you don’t know everything. You are not the smartest man or woman in the room. Undoubtedly, the hyper-intelligent people jockeying for your attention know far more than you about many things, particularly about their field and what they need to be successful. Listen instead of judging. You look foolish when you judge something you know only peripherally.
Make a decision. Don’t play one side against the other constantly so that you can keep others weakened and fighting and secure your own position above the fray. Don’t be a spectator watching a dog fight. Really listen to both sides, make a decision you legitimately believe is fair and equitable and are willing to own and oversee, and move on. This will give the painful bruises time to heal before they become scarred tattoos.
Stop it with the outside consultants. The people the outside consultant’s recommendations will impact usually know far more than the outside consultant. To paraphrase Shania Twain, your outside consultant don’t impress me much.
When your too-literal interpretation of vague guidelines causes your employees pain, stop reading so literally. Literal interpretations are rarely right. Worse, intelligent people regard literal readings of rules like flatulence in an elevator. Before you disrupt processes and practices that have proven to work simply because you worry that they might not operate within your very narrow reading of something, reread that something, or else ask for help rereading it.
I suppose I could have reduced this article to one paragraph. Simply, to value talented people, listen to them, don’t try to hide things from them, be legitimately humble, apologize and / or admit when you make a mistake, and seek to work with them rather than constrain them unnecessarily.
And, for God’s sake, answer their email.