While attending a recent session on category management for the consumer products industry, I was reminded of the title statement above that has been the basis for one of the leadership development programs that I have conducted over the years. Consumer Product Companies have known the truth of this axiom for years. In fact, significant dollars have been dedicated to the development of technology that can actually track the eye movements and brain activity of shoppers as they look at products on store shelves so they can actually know what catches the greatest interest of the shopper. The speaker at this recent session explained several things, such as the customer experience or other personal factors that lead to psychological or somatic reactions that reinforce a decision to buy or not to buy a product or shop at a particular store.
The truth of this axiom is also the reason retailers have “impulse items” at the cash register, and “Action Alley” in the most heavily travelled area of the stores. Though I seldom shop, I confess that periodically I fall victim to this method of marketing, especially if Mars has been fortunate enough to get the shelf space to feature Peanut M&Ms near the cash register. I would never go through the store to find and buy these, because my weight management program clearly states that I don’t need them. However, when I see that yellow package with all those lovely little colored morsels appealing to me while I am standing idly at the check-out line, I begin to justify that purchase with all kinds of rationalizations, one of which is “no one will ever know I just downed the whole bag.”
What does this have to do with exceptional leadership? Exceptional Leaders are aware that their employees are doing this same thing every day as they develop their perceptions of them as leaders. They are also aware that they don’t have complete control over where their employees come up with these perceptions. So go ahead and ask yourself, Where do my employees gain their perceptions of me as a leader? This question is especially critical the higher you sit in the organizational hierarchy, or if you hold a role that only allows your presence among those you lead on a periodic basis. Some of the answers you may come up with may be things like: from direct observation, whether that is through daily interactions or brief vignettes gathered as you make your rounds or meet them on the shop floor; from stories told to them by other employees; from their experience with past managers or leaders; from their relationships with previous authority figures in their lives, including their parents.
Think about this for a moment. A new employee is hired in your 300 employee operation. You met them at new hire orientation, but you really did not get to know them well. Since they don’t know anyone in the organization very well, they tend to gravitate to the people who happen to be the most friendly toward them. That may or may not be a good thing for you, depending on that person’s perception of you as a leader. (by the way, that is why a formal on-boarding process is important) If that person has a negative perception of you and shares it with the new employee, the new employee has a choice. Do I trust this new “friend” who has shown good taste by being friendly to me, or do I trust you. Most will put you in a “wait and see” category. They will then wait for the facts to justify the observation they are most emotionally inclined to. If, on the next day, you quickly pass them in the hall on your way to a meeting and you come across as too busy to notice them, which perception has just been reinforced?
Exceptional leaders work extra hard to keep a pulse on the organization and spend considerable time managing their communications. They know they are under constant observation and are aware their interactions are helping people develop their perceptions of the company leadership as well as of the company as a whole. They are intentional about ensuring that they leave people with the right message.
The literature on emotional intelligence (EQ) calls this social awareness and relationship management, and has proven that it is critical to a leader’s success. The example above is just one example of how these two factors of EQ can be applied.