Brass Tacks

Q. My business is facing some big challenges on a number of fronts. I believe I’ve formulated a good strategic plan to deal with them, but I still get the feeling that my key employees and I are on different pages. What can I do to get everyone to rally ‘round the same flag?

A. While everyone is on the same team, differences will naturally prevail between a leader’s perceptions, fears and attitudes and those of his or her followers. While these are normal distinctions that emerge in almost every group dynamic where change is the objective, they can significantly impact your firm’s potential for success.

We’ve all seen war movies that feature a strategically critical hill that has to be taken by a platoon of grunts and the gung-ho young lieutenant who is their leader. All the group has to do to be victorious is move from the safety of their bunker on the little hill, maneuver down through the valley and across the river, and up the slope of the bigger, more important (to some general somewhere) hill in the distance.

If you’ve watched carefully, however, you’ve noticed that the platoon leader’s eyes are fixed on the top of the hill, riveted on the site where he’ll plant the flag and savor the laurels of victory. And where are his followers looking? Yep. Their eyes are fixed, in terror, on the valley below. While their “second john,” fully aware of the mission and its importance, is concentrating on the glory to be achieved at the summit, all they can think of is the discomfort, dangers and even death that await them as they slither through the mud, over the land mines, through the barbed wire and across the treacherous waterway.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that the enemy will be shooting at them every step of the way.

They’re all in it together; all will be following the same plan; everyone has the same target. But their success will be contingent on the ability of the leader to get his followers to share his vision and to overcome their confusion, fears and visceral resistance to the task at hand.

This same dichotomy exists in any situation where followers are being asked to move from one place in space and time to another less familiar place; from one “hill” to another. The “present” is understood; its variables are under control, its risks are known, its dangers manageable, its safety appreciated. The unknown future correlates with “none of the above.”

That’s why you, as a leader, have to facilitate understanding, conviction and confidence among your followers. You must acknowledge — and help them deal with — the valley they see.

There are a few things you’ll have to do to make this happen, including:

• You must be the leader in every respect. Your personal example will set the tone. You must be able to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk. This means careful personal preparation.

• You have to know — intimately — the people on whom you are depending. They have to be given the jobs that make the highest and best use of their talents. They have to be organized in a way that maximizes their effectiveness and minimizes their exposure to the kind of personal risk that can blight their efforts.

• Everyone must be guided to appreciate the importance of the assignment they have been given. Every follower must understand the critical role that he or she plays in the undertaking. You must be able to answer your followers’ “WHY” questions intelligently and convincingly.

• The overwhelming task of taking “the hill” has to be broken down into parts — individual accomplishments — that appear to be manageable. Implementers must be convinced that each step is logical, doable and leads in the direction of ultimate achievement.

• Every follower must know exactly what they are getting into and feel confident that they are receiving the straight scoop. A leader has to discuss candidly what’s in the “valley” before them. Ignorance allows fears to fester and assume unfounded proportions.

• Once you give your followers their jobs to do, you must trust them to perform. You might have to tolerate some painful individual thinking, some aberrant behavior, and even some occasional failure, but your followers must know that they have your confidence and are free to make it happen to the best of their abilities.

• Those charged with a challenging task must be given, in advance, the training, tools and techniques necessary for accomplishment. The “doers” talents must be perpetually nurtured and nourished.

• Tangible and intangible rewards are absolutely essential. A leader must know the things that “turn on” his followers to maximum performance and be willing to share generously the spoils of the victory once it is accomplished.

If you do all of these things, your followers will make you a great leader. nhbr

Paul Willax is a professor of entrepreneurship and chairman of the Center for Business Ownership Inc., Amherst, N.Y. He also is the author of the book, “Brass Tacks Tips for Business Owners,” available at barnesandnoble.com. If you have a question or suggestion for his column, or to receive a free, weekly e-mail newsletter, “Brass Tacks BrainFood,” write to Willax@TheBrassTacks.com.

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