In this age of technology, it is easy to write a management book about how the technology revolution requires a radical management revolution. But as the CEO of a tech company in the heart of Silicon Valley, I disagree: while technology has changed, human nature hasn’t. Every management theory can look good on paper, but the countless daily interactions are where the rubber meets the road.
Now that I’m running a company for the first time, I have an abundance of these interactions to learn from. One management principle that has crystallized for me as a CEO is the enduring power of personal touch. At a time when customs and expectations for the workplace are rapidly changing, personal touch is a constant that can create success across the organization.
With that in mind, here are four principles that drive my leadership style:
1. Build an organization employees take pride in.
Leading a young team is an experience I share with most CEOs since millennials now make up the majority of the workforce. This generation of talent has a complex identity: on one hand, they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves; on the other hand, they have a very strong sense of individualism.
In interviews, even entry-level candidates often ask, “Why are you better than this or that competitor?” It’s a question you wouldn’t typically hear outside of Silicon Valley, but it’s because of that strong desire to align with a winning organization. That puts the burden on me and other CEOs with young workforces, to articulate a clear vision for the company and ensure we are able to execute on it.
At the same time, these employees need to feel individual accomplishment as well as organizational pride. That means empowering people to feel they can be successful in their role, and giving them operating room to progress in their professional development -- sometimes through failure and feedback.
The rewards for this approach are substantial: Deloitte found that “mission-driven” companies have 30 percent higher levels of innovation and 40 percent higher levels of retention. Increasingly, leadership isn’t just about presenting facts and numbers, it’s about presenting a point of view that resonates and inspires. Know your audience and give your company a personal connection to the tasks at hand.
2. Engaging employees matters more than ever.
Engagement is key for bridging strong individuality and a desire to be a part of a winning organization. Winning organizations use multiple touchpoints to keep everyone engaged and focused on providing a valuable service and/or product.
Forming a powerful bond between employee and employer can be achieved via both major and minor tactics. Major touchpoints can include monthly all-hands meetings to physically and figuratively unite the team; team-driven happy hours to develop camaraderie; and even company swag. This was reinforced when I recently witnessed the amount of excitement with which our employees greeted the delivery of our logo-emblazoned hoodies and the pride with which they wear them.
Minor touchpoints, such as privately recognizing outstanding work, can be equally powerful. I’ve found one of the best ways to foster individual engagement is simply to be available. Knowing there is a direct channel to the CEO -- and that he or she will make time to hear you out -- positively impacts the employee experience.
Sadly, just one in three employees are engaged in the organization they work for, according to Gallup. Given that engaged employees are the lifeblood of companies, contributing to innovation, revenue and growth, this is a key area of my management focus -- and should be for every CEO.
3. Feedback is better received when it’s informal.
For decades, the primary way you would learn how well you were doing at your job was an annual performance review. While this is still the norm for most companies -- less than 10 percent of Fortune 500 companies have abandoned annual reviews -- I’ve found direct, informal feedback delivered in the moment to be a highly effective complement to this structured program.
Quick feedback means the recipient is coached while the situation is still fresh. The informality lowers the stakes and also lowers the potential for defensiveness. The direct nature -- it is delivered by someone involved instead of by someone who aggregated others’ feedback -- means the feedback can easily become a conversation and a coaching opportunity.
For example, if I receive an email where something is out of place, I will often immediately call or walk over to the person to give them rapid feedback in a personal way. The informal nature and instant delivery decreases the odds that the feedback will be misconstrued as saying that the recipient is bad at their job. While I still believe formal feedback has its place, I’ve found the instantaneous approach is more powerful because it is the way people generally learn naturally and interact in personal relationships.
4. Aim for a better customer experience.
It can be a challenge to create products that are personal and human when the product is software. But given that the majority of people will experience BlueVine from a computer, it is my responsibility to ensure my team knows I value personal touch and service and expect everyone else to as well.
Whether it’s HR searching for candidates that will embody this value or product teams designing software to be more intuitive, my leadership style should permeate the organization and motivate our teams to employ that same approach in their responsibilities. For instance, while other companies will go to great lengths to hide or minimize contact info on their websites, hoping that visitors will handle things by themselves, we make it easy to speak to a live person from any page. This is a seemingly small difference, but it shows that leading by example can make an indirect, yet powerful impact on the customer experience.
As I see it, management is not strategy; it’s execution -- and every action should be taken with a personal touch. The more time I spend as chief executive, the more I am convinced no management book could have prepared me for this role.
Rather, executives simply need to spend time focused on the relational, experiential aspects of each touch point in their business -- both internally and externally -- to ensure their management style is in step with ever-evolving employee and customer expectations. Especially in the technology industry where automation and “black box” solutions are often ubiquitously lauded as disruptive innovations, nothing beats the connection that comes from personal touch.