Successful Leaders Know They Can Learn From Everyone at Their Company
Smart leaders ditch the top-down, mentor-mentee mindset, creating a culture driven by ideas -- wherever on the organizational chart they happen to come from.
There are plenty of people who believe Kodak, that most iconic of photography companies, failed because it was disrupted by digital technologies. Yet Kodak’s downfall truly had nothing to do with technological capability.
In fact, Steve Sasson invented the first digital camera at Kodak in 1975. At the time he was just a young engineer at the bottom of the company ladder. Unfortunately, leadership, most likely blinded by what had always worked for the company, was not impressed by the innovation. They failed to see that viewing and sharing pictures on devices through digital photography was the way of the future. They resisted business transformation.
Not embracing new technology and a new business model led to several decades of poor performance for Kodak, and eventually it filed for bankruptcy in 2012. What this makes you wonder is this: What if the person presenting the digital camera was a department head or an executive, instead of a lower-level associate? Would leadership have listened more?
There’s much to be learned from Kodak’s famous misstep. Most importantly, it is that incredible ideas and innovations can come from anywhere within a company.
Executives must realize that all their team members have much to teach them. Here are what CEOs can learn specifically from associates at all levels and how they can ensure knowledge and skills are exchanged freely and productively across the entire organization.
The value of new ideas and change.
Andy Grove, the former Intel CEO who taught Silicon Valley how to do business, wrote in his famous book, Only the Paranoid Survive, that “success contains the seeds of its own destruction,” as there are always others waiting to take a piece of the pie. Moreover, he goes on to say, “success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.”
In short, what Grove was getting at is that you can’t let your previous success make you self-satisfied, as happened at Kodak. This is why CEOs must actively seek out different ideas. They must also be ready and willing to embrace change when the time comes.
The key to recognizing the value of new ideas and change is taking time to learn from associates at the organization. Because they could have the best solution to a pressing problem or a unique take on what the company needs to ensure its future.
For instance, Mark Dohnalek, CEO of an engineering and manufacturing firm, regularly meets with associates on the frontline. He says team members on the frontline “always know why there is a slowdown in production or gaps in quality controls.” They’re also capable of advising on “how to improve operations from scheduling, deliverables, and changes and adjustments in assembly, storage, transportation and other supply chain logistics.”
The importance of communication.
Business leaders stress that effective communication is essential to organizational culture. Without proper communication, trust, motivation and teamwork will suffer. Ultimately, it could even be the downfall of your company.
Consistent interaction with your team members, even if it’s not related to work, can show you how important it is to create a sense of community. When there is unity among the team, greater achievements can be realized. With good communication, CEOs can also understand that letting go -- and giving associates room to work -- is a better option than micromanaging everything.
Furthermore, by valuing communication with team members, CEOs can see why it’s necessary to understand needs. By addressing the things associates want, they can get more from them.
A great example of how associates can show you the value of communication is how Avery Augustine, a manager at a tech company, improved her company’s internal newsletter. Concerned that it wasn’t bringing the excitement it should, she called on a new hire to help write the newsletter. The associate took to asking various departments what they wanted to see in the newsletter and how it could be improved. The feedback she got showed Augustine just how the newsletter could increase engagement across the organization. Those stories and updates are now a big asset and motivator for the company.
Utilizing your team to attract and keep great talent.
Hiring and retaining talented associates is crucial to the success of your company. To actually land the best candidates out there, you need not only a great value proposition but also a memorable and engaging interview process.
There is perhaps no better resource for improving your hiring processes than your current team members. As a guide published by Entrepreneur states, "continuously solicit feedback from associates about the hiring and onboarding process." It recommends to “involve your human resources team and compare and contrast recruiting successes, what the process is getting wrong, and how it has evolved in order to understand how to reach top talent in the future.”
Doing this is vital for your business. After all, a LinkedIn survey found that 50 percent of professionals rely on word-of-mouth to discover new opportunities.
If you can wow new team members during hiring and onboarding, chances are good that news will spread about your company online and through personal networks. For that to happen, though, you must first learn from your associates what needs to be done to perfect those processes.
How to be a better leader.
There’s a reason why CEOs are reading anonymous reviews of their performance on websites like Glassdoor. A Wall Street Journal article notes that it’s about more than knowing what team members think of them. It’s about evaluating business policies, processes, and strategies—and figuring out how to be the best CEO they can be for the company.
Finding out what associates approve or disapprove of gives CEOs the opportunity to tweak their leadership methods for the better. To get honest feedback, CEOs must be approachable and allow for easy access.
If you look at the most beloved CEOs in the world, you’ll see that those that engage their associates and take advice from their team members have the most success. They treat everyone as a colleague rather than someone that just takes orders.
Just look at what an anonymous Clorox associate said about Benno Dorer, the company's CEO and the Glassdoor review's highest-rated executive: “Excellent communication on vision, strategy, and where we are going. Constant access to leadership through round tables and other company events that allow all employees to feel like they are part of our decision making and strategy.”
Learn from your associates to become the best CEO you can be.
Leadership can mean a lot of things. Ultimately, it’s the ability to build a vision, set direction, and get everyone motivated to work towards that big goal.
Having success in fulfilling the mission isn’t realized by one person dictating tasks and responsibilities. It’s realized when leaders see the value of learning from everyone on the team. Associates can bring new ideas, show the value of strong relationships and trust, and provide insights on how to keep top talent engaged. They can also teach CEOs how to lead better.
By establishing a company culture where associates at all levels have the chance to teach things to leadership, like a reverse mentor-mentee training program, CEOs can set their company up for sustained success. That’s just what happens when the full value of every individual in an organization is unleashed, instead of letting it fade in a bin like a disposable Kodak moment.
Aviva Leebow Wolmer is the CEO of Pacesetter Steel Services, an innovative steel distributor with a unique focus on technology, talent, and strong family culture. Her vibrant, technology-driven take on American manufacturing services has made her a pioneer in the steel industry and serves as a model for innovation in traditionally antiquated fields of business. Follow Aviva on Twitter!