little Leadership: It’s the Smallest Things That Make the Biggest Difference
By Gary Bradt
was ready to pull his hair out. Transferred from corporate to a
struggling out-of-state plant, he had done everything he knew to
establish trust and build credibility but nothing had seemed to
work. Nine months in, he still sensed suspicion and guardedness
whenever he walked the shop floor, and business results were
lagging. Finally, he turned to a trusted member of his team for
advice and was dumfounded by the response:
Change your license plates. Every day the employees come to
work and see your car in the lot with license plates from your
previous state. They assume you’re just like all the rest: another
short-timer who will be returning to corporate soon enough, so why
should they buy-in to you? If you want to prove you’re here to stay,
change your plates!
had learned a very small but valuable lesson when leading people:
often it is the smallest things that make the biggest difference.
It’s called little Leadership. It is simple in concept and
easy to do and can be especially helpful when times are tough and
resources are scarce. So always be on the lookout for the next
‘small idea.’ With a little forethought and a little effort you can
reap big results. Below are some tips and ideas to get you started
in making little Leadership work for you.
sweet idea for keeping your ear to the ground. Placing a snack
or vending machine nearby makes visiting your workspace a treat.
Even a candy dish on your desk will do. Dropping by for their
favorite morsel, people will associate you with those small breaks
that help them get through the day, and you’ll be amazed at the
comments you’ll overhear that will help you keep your finger on the
pulse of morale and office politics.
Face time: A low cost investment that pays off big. Sticking
your head in someone’s office or dropping by their cubicle to say
thanks in person is a very small investment of time that pays big
dividends as long as you are sincere and don’t overplay your hand.
When someone does a particularly good job, don’t just make a mental
note of it, tell him or her in person. The recipient of your
goodwill will feel valued and appreciated for what they do and will
be more motivated to keep it up.
Remove subtle signs that put people down. Audit your work place
for any subtle practices that divide people based on rank and
privilege for no good reason. For example, in the majority of cases,
I can’t think of any good reason for preferred parking for
executives. All it does is serve to reinforce the gulf between
employees and management and unnecessarily contribute to a sense of
us versus them. If such perks really matter to your executives,
you’ve got the wrong people in positions of power.
Hand written notes can be powerful tools for building relationships.
In this electronic age, hand written correspondence has gone by
the boards in favor of email, voicemail and the like. And, for
convenience sake, that’s mostly a good thing. But if you want to
stand out from the crowd, take the time to write a short,
handwritten note to express gratitude or appreciation toward your
best customers, clients or prospects. This small gesture will go a
long way toward saying ‘you matter to me’ and leaves a very strong
Ask ‘How are you doing?’ and mean it. When times are tough and
people are stressed, taking the time to genuinely inquire into how
someone is doing sends a powerful message of caring. We’re not
talking a spill-your-gut session here or in-depth psychotherapy, but
taking a minute or two to inquire after a co-worker’s sick child or
parent or to see how the job is progressing, let’s people know you
care. As a consequence, they are more likely to care about you and
Plan small celebrations. I’m not a big fan of throwing a
birthday party every five minutes, but if your group has been
working extra hard lately, plan something small but fun as a reward.
Bringing in bagels for breakfast, pizza for lunch, ice cream for a
late afternoon break, or maybe a Friday night movie for everyone in
the group and their dates are just a few easy and low-cost ways to
celebrate success and the hard work it takes to make it happen.
Nothing is too small: If it matters to them, it should matter to
you. Let’s go back to the birthday party situation. If you have
a group that likes to celebrate small things like birthdays but you
could care less, find a way to support them with these seemingly
small issues. Remember the essence and premise of little
Leadership: with people, the little things are the big
things. Rather than discounting other’s wishes because they do not
matter to you, ask people for suggestions on how to accomplish their
wishes so work still gets done and everyone wins. Taking little
steps like these helps to sustain morale and build your leadership
brand and power.
Don’t assume you know what matters to them. These days it’s not
unusual for several generations to be working side by side, and it’s
common for the leader to be significantly older than the youngest
cohort. Don’t assume that what matters to you matters to them. Find
out what seemingly small things are important to all your colleagues
and try to provide for them as much as possible. This does not mean
you need to compromise your values or lower performance
expectations. Is does mean you need to work extra hard to make sure
you understand what seemingly small things drive the behavior of
everyone, especially those different from you.
maximize the benefit of listening to a speech or attending a
seminar, think ‘short and small’ to hit it big. When attending
educational events, make it your goal to walk away with a
short list of just one or two main ideas to focus on going forward.
Then, at the beginning of each week, choose one small thing you can
do that will make a difference in that area. Over time, those small
weekly shifts in behavior will make a big difference in getting the
results you seek.
Final Word: If little Leadership sounds like common
sense, that’s because it is. But all too often, it’s not common
practice. Leaders spend so much time in pursuit of the next ‘Big
Idea’ that they miss the scores of little ones right in front of
them that can have an immediate and lasting impact. So the next time
you start thinking about how to improve things at work, think small.
The results you’ll get may be huge.
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