The Leadership Question:
We’ve all heard it many times. Experts urging people to be leaders, not bosses. For many people, both words seem to hold the same meaning. So here is the critical question. What makes a leader different – and better – than a boss?
I was working in retail during college when I first experienced this concept. Regional management was coming to our store for a visit. When the day arrived, Dan – the store manager – and the regional managers began touring our store; asking random customers and employees questions to see how things were going.
They eventually got to my section and put me directly on the spot. “What do you think of Dan?” I really liked Dan as our store manager and hoped to compliment him in front of his managers. “Dan is a great boss”. I immediately became embarrassed. The group teased Dan about being called a “boss.” One turned to me and said half laughing “We don’t want bosses here. We want leaders. Leaders inspire, lead by example.” They all walked still joking about Dan the Boss.
I never saw them again as I moved on to other jobs, but I’ve always remembered that moment. How do you lead by example and connect with employees in a way that makes them feel valued?
Leaders Build Connections:
My first job out of college, I was a junior web developer for a company that had a difficult time holding on to its IT managers. Our new manager said the right words, but they sounded scripted and lacked meaning. He walked by our desks and asked we were doing, but before you could even answer, he was already down the hall. This would leave us feeling like he never really cared. When a peer of ours had to take a week off to take care of his sick father who needed life-saving surgery, we all wished him the best. Our colleague returned to work after caregiving and our manager asked if his vacation was fun. We were all dumbfounded that our manager was really that disconnected.
Make real connections with your employees. That may mean an extra 5 minutes a day, but that time means everything to them. You must invest time in them, not only as an employee but as a person. That helps build trust and helps the employee feel valued. It is one of the biggest foundations to help form a stable team that often gets overlooked in fast-paced technology departments. There is a significant difference between daily standups and getting to know someone.
Leading By Example:
During my junior and senior year in college, I earned a promotion to Head Tutor of our campus. My role included setting the schedules for the other tutors each semester. Of course, everyone had their preferences. I had to make sure someone was available to represent their degrees and fields during our 12 hours of operation and not just stack everyone into a four-hour window during lunch hours. To accommodate everyone as best as I could, I would often insert my own schedule last and fill in any holes as needed.
My first semester in this role, I had several complaints that the schedules were less than ideal. One tutor even said, “I bet you gave yourself a cozy schedule.” I revealed that my schedule was the worst of the lot. While others mostly got a four-hour block or had most of their hours around their class schedules, my hours were sporadic. My typical day had me at school by 8 am and often not returning home until 10 or 11 pm at night.
Once the team knew I was not trying to take advantage of my position, scheduling became significantly easier. Some tutors even volunteered for the undesirable hours so that I could go home at a decent time or get some extra sleep in the morning. My actions to take care of others inspired and moved the team. They felt motivated to help me out as well.
What I’ve Learned about Leaders:
Leading by example is equally important as connection building. Be there in the trenches and show everyone that you are part of the team. Show up when you tell the team to come in on a Saturday to work on a project. Don’t ask your team to work on personal time and not give the same effort. Even if there are no direct tasks, you can be present, listen and support.
Combine thoughtful connection building and leading by example. Respect and leadership will follow. Workplace culture will naturally improve and or strengthen. Employees want to know that you care about them. Simple gestures can inspire and motivate a team to be happier and go the extra mile.