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The super power every leader needs

Lisa Jackson //October 4, 2010//

The super power every leader needs

Lisa Jackson //October 4, 2010//

If you could have a secret power, what would it be? How would you use it?

I ask clients this question to elicit clues for overcoming limitations. But recently, I’ve been thinking about the ONE super power I would give every leader if I could. If they had this magic power, they would discover essential truths about their culture. They would gain inside information about the reasons they can’t get their plans implemented. They would learn valuable secrets for getting people to be more accountable, creative, and passionate.

What IS it?

Being invisible.

The ability to walk unseen and unnoticed among your people and watch what they really do and say, while doing their job in your company.

The great news is, you can have it.

You probably know about the reality TV show Undercover Boss, where CEOs of companies disguise themselves as possible trainees and go undercover inside their own company. They work side-by-side with front-line employees, interacting with and serving customers. They gain an up-close view of the hard work, challenges, frustrations and realities their people are facing. They see the real culture – not the fantasy culture they think they have built.

Choice Hotels’ CEO Steve Joyce was featured this week (franchisor of Quality Inn, Comfort Inn, and a handful of other brands). Of the experience he said, “I kind of pride myself on not being an ivory guy…[but] I was a little more ivory than I thought.”

He discovered major flaws in his flagship property. He saw a maintenance man scramble across acres of property every day but was not given the courtesy of a golf cart. He was stuck in an elevator on one of his sites. He spent time scrubbing toilets and changing sheets while listening to passionate advice from his housekeeping manager on how to treat families of the neighboring cancer facility. He was guided on a night shift by a single mother who wanted a promotion but “this company doesn’t provide training” (the CEO had invested millions in “Choice University” which she didn’t even know about).

Every time I have watched the show, the CEO has been moved deeply – often to tears. Not from despair, but from the inspiration that comes from empathy and gratitude for the efforts people are making – often under unbelievable circumstances. Each one has said “This has changed my life and my perspective completely.” When their true identity is revealed at the end, the CEO hands out gifts to people who need help – clearly one of their most powerful and gratifying moments in a long time.

Being a CEO is lonely. Whether or not you realize it, you are shielded from important truths inside your corporate culture that hinder your ability to lead. I cannot think of a single leader who wouldn’t benefit from the power to be invisible, to witness the truth about their culture and receive inspiration, empathy and gratitude in return. Employees want to succeed in their job – this is what these CEO’s learn.

And employees don’t think they can be truthful with their leaders. They fear “He won’t want to hear it.” “I’ll be fired if I say that.” “Who am I to complain? She won’t listen anyway.” Leaders need these truths now more than ever, to inform their decisions and compete better.

Here are nine tips for practicing the super power of being invisible:

1) Manifest an appearance on Undercover Boss. If that doesn’t work …

2) Fly Solo – Pose as a customer – or ask your wife or brother to.

3) X-Ray Vision – Call or visit your top 3 accounts once or twice a month without your sales force … You could be “Joe Brown” hired by (Your Name) to answer a few questions about the service they’re experiencing by (Your Company). Even better, introduce yourself as YOU and ask “How are we doing?”

4) Light fires. Create a separate email address and send provocative email questions asking employees to submit top obstacles to serving customers. Don’t have it come from Customer Service or HR – it will lower the response. Connect it to the line of business.

5) Give them a super power. Walk around your company a few minutes each week (with naked authenticity but fully clothed) and thank people for the great job they’re doing. (Do NOT have them come to your office). Ask “If I gave you a magic wand with the power to change anything here … what would you do with it? Give me your honest answer please!” Keep a notebook and jot comments. Send a candy bar or $5 iTunes card for the top 5 ideas every week. Watch ideas come like fairy dust.

6) Reward honesty and candor often and visibly. Say publicly “That will never work here” is forbidden language in your company. Send thank you notes to anyone who took a risk, spoke up, and performed a miracle.

7) Wave your wand. Make a visible change every month based on an employee suggestion.

8) Be patient. Keep working the magic. Even super heroes know it takes time for people to feel safe to speak up.

9) Reap the rewards. A culture where people tell the truth moves faster than the Bat-Mobile. People stop wasting energy playing politics, hiding mistakes, or trying to please their boss – and redirect energy to winning more business and serving customers better.

Put your cape on — and Go Superman!
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Lisa Jackson is a corporate culture expert, helping companies improve workplace performance through bold leadership and employee commitment not defined by title, authority, or small thinking.
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