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‘Present’ leaders give valued employees reason to stay

These days, more people are leaving their jobs because they want to, not because they’re asked to.

The U.S. Labor Department’s latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey finds that “voluntary quits” are far outpacing layoffs. Fifty-eight percent of those leaving jobs right now are doing so voluntarily, compared with only 35 percent being laid off.

Some of the reasons why people leave organizations come down to circumstance—for example, health issues, an uncommon opportunity for higher pay, or a move necessitated by family challenges.

Hidden like an underwater current is a range of other motives for employee quits. These concerns don’t show up in the surveys and are rarely discussed publicly: low respect for the owners; a weak relationship with the boss; tiresome office politics; and a pattern of feeling isolated, taken for granted, or professionally stagnated.

Much of the unpublicized departure motivation is influenced by anxious leaders who underestimate the importance of culture and internal relationships.

Certainly, leaders are paid to make sure things get done. But leaders who doggedly focus on projects and tasks often display a “keep your head down and push for growth” mindset. When the growth they focus on is solely financial, and people growth gets swept aside, the whole organization suffers.

Characteristics of ‘presence’

One of the keys to growing people is the “presence” of the leader. What do I mean by “presence”?  It’s a combination of calmness, clarity and courage.

Calmness refers first to an inner steadiness that keeps problems and challenges in perspective. A calmer emotional state permits leaders to be better observers of their organizations. They see, for example, how smooth relationships contribute to growth, how intellectual brilliance differs from emotional stability, and how “big” problems rarely are that big.

The big issue with nervous, worried leaders is that they can’t see clearly what is really going on.

In a busy, pressured society, calmness doesn’t just happen. Some clients I work with meditate or pray. Others surround themselves with friends with whom they can talk openly about stresses and challenges. One chief financial officer I know walks every morning regardless of weather. Another top leader regularly visits cemeteries. “I make the time,” he says, “because it keeps me centered.”

Sifting through confusion
Clarity is a second characteristic of a “present” leader: “This is what I believe, this is what’s most important right now, this is what I will do or won’t do.”

When you hear about leaders who seek the counsel of friends or outside coaches, their aim is usually to sift through confusion until they are clear enough to act. Clarity offers the benefits of decisiveness without the need for absolute certainty.

When I was in my 20s, a wise friend told me that a leader’s willingness to acknowledge confusion reveals integrity, not weakness. In the years since, I have noticed that weaker leaders are those most resistant to admitting their confusion.

Leaders who seek clarity spend more time addressing confusion than denying it. Facing confusion often includes reaching out to one or more neutral, trustworthy others.

Comfort vs. courage
The third hallmark of presence is courage: a high-maturity response to discomfort, for the sake of a greater good.

Every leader—whether a parent, a president or a principal—wages a daily battle between courage and comfort.

For example, few leaders enjoy demoting a manager who has outlived his usefulness. Or initiating a heart-to-heart talk with a distant sibling in a family business. Or pulling in the reins on an exciting but flawed initiative.

Executing an uncomfortable conversation, even when it’s the right thing to do, generates a pounding heart in both mature and immature leaders. Mature leaders will do it despite the discomfort.

When fear, pain or emotional avoidance stares a leader in the face, that’s when courage becomes a treasured asset. It propels us to go to important relationship places when we do not feel like going.

Seductive slogans
Most leaders I know seek a culture where their people are happy, responsive and productive. Yet while sincere and enthusiastic, leaders too often rely on seductive slogans and formulas: “Recognize your employees.” “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” “Be a passionate motivator.” “Constantly seek feedback.”

Instead of looking at the power of their own presence, they succumb to the never-ending parade of popular business books that sell false formulas and are almost always cunningly overstated. We buy such books because they comfort us and ease our anxiety.

I encourage leaders to put more of their focus on their own functioning, instead of getting caught up in efforts to change others. I ask them, “What does it take to be the kind of leader people respect and can learn from?”

Culture change, like parenting, happens incrementally over a long period of time. When organizational leaders pay attention to their own presence—their calmness, clarity and courage—instead of getting caught up in the demands of others, they give their most-valued employees a reason to stay. That reason is a quality and meaningful relationship.

As one manager told me: “(My boss) has not only helped me as a professional, she’s helped me to grow up. Not by telling me what to do, but by building a relationship with me and challenging me to bring my best to every situation. I think bosses like that are hard to find. She’s a big reason why I love this place.”

John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at [email protected]

7/3/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected]

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