One question to determine your focus as a leader

On a recent trip to Chicago, I got to catch up with a friend that I had not seen in 28 years.  We talked about family and the paths of our lives, and as luck would have it, we also talked about leadership.

My friend David has spent many years in software development.  He told me that he had some great bosses and some terrible bosses, but he could always predict the kind of leader they would be by how they answered this question:

“Who is more important, your boss or your employees?”

He said that if people said “their boss”, he knew that there would be micromanaging, political games, under-the-bus throwing, posturing, and general butt-kissing.  Employees were treated as second-class citizens, and they felt it!

On the other hand, if a leader said “my employees” are more important, David said the results were the exact opposite.  He said this meant the focus was on support, development, and growth for the employee, PLUS being an advocate for the employees with the rest of management.

He also went on to tell me about one of his best bosses, who happened to be a terrible “manager”.  David’s examples of this person’s poor management skills were: approving vacation time 6 weeks after the vacation happened, not knowing everything about the software business, and never having a performance review.

“However”, David said, “I never felt like I needed a performance review because I always knew where I stood.  We didn’t need a formal process to let me know how I was doing, my boss communicated that to me just about everyday.  To me, that’s a much better place to be than having a once-or-twice-a-year blindside about your performance because your manager praised you all year instead of being honest about how you could improve.”


The last morsel of leadership goodness we talked about was that David CHOSE to not go into a leadership role during his career. “A lot of people chose the leadership route because it was the only way to make more money.  I didn’t.  I really didn’t have the desire, nor did I feel like I wanted to develop the skill set.”

If you are going into a leadership role because you think you should (but don’t want to), or if you are only in it for the money, chances are you will be more interested in pleasing your boss than your employees.

And now we know how well that turns out…

What do you think? Where is your focus?

Thanks for reading!


About the author: During this visit with David, Matt tried his first “baked pancake”. It was at Richard Walker’s Pancake House just outside of Chicago. Matt got the “Baked Cinnamon Pecan Pancake“. It was pretty amazing!


Make it easy for people to like you

I don’t know if you have a 4 Rivers Smokehouse where you live, but we’ve got a few around here (Orlando, FL), and they are incredibly popular.  How do I know this? Because I see one of these on about 1 out of every 5 cars driving around town.

4 rivers copy

As my wife and I started noticing how many people had affixed these to their cars, two questions emerged: When are we going to try it? And, how good must it be for ALL these people to put a bumper sticker on their car?

It wasn’t until we asked a friend (who had on of these on her car) what the deal was. It was all then very clear.

It’s a magnet.

So while you might really like 4 Rivers, you can express it without the long-term commitment and potential paint damage that a bumper sticker provides. They made it easy to like them (and share that with others).  That’s smart!

How can we apply that same notion to our work environments?  How can we make it easy for our employees to like us and recommend us?  Unfortunately, I don’t think it is as easy as a bumper magnet, but maybe it’s not that tough, either.

Everyday your employees are making decisions about their experience with you.  Is it good, is it bad, what do they like, what do they not like?  Then, their actions show how they feel.  They like more stuff, they perform better.  They don’t like stuff, they become a pain in the rump.

We often talk about looking at things from our guests perspective to make sure we are meeting their needs… how often do we do that with employees?  How often do we put ourselves in a position to experience what they experience, to go through what they go through, to deal with US when we are at our best and our worst?

If we did, we might find what I like to call “emotional pinch points”.  We all know what a physical pinch point is and why it’s good to avoid it, but how many of us pay attention to the things impact the emotional well being of our employees?  It could be a small thing… maybe some illogical process that’s been in place for many years regarding how employees get paid.  You don’t even notice it now, it’s just a part of the process.  To an employee, looking at it from another angle, it’s a weekly frustration that slowly builds up and accumulates with any other pinch points they may experience.

It may take some time, but these pinches add up, and could eventually outweigh any of the good deeds you are doing.

Your challenge is to look at things from your employees’ perspective.  Get into their routine, experience what they experience.  If you find something that bugs you, immediately multiply that by 250 (average number of days a typical full time employee works; 2000 hours x 8 hours/day).  You may experience it once and think it’s not a big deal.  Now do it 250 times and see how you feel about it.

If you want some more ways to make sure you are providing a great environment for your employees, check out this great article my friend Shaun McKeogh wrote for FUNWORLD magazine!

Thanks for reading!


Also from the author: The Myth of Employee Burnout outlines Matt’s quest to get to the bottom of why some employees start off strong but then eventually fizzle out.  As one reader said, “This [book] is a must have for any leader that cares about the development of their team. You will not be disappointed.”  Can’t argue with that!  Available through Amazon or

Employees Also Want Fairness

In response to my last post, What Employees Want From Their Leaders, my friend Judy Kolk from Kayben Farms shared with me some of the things that she has uncovered over the years about what people feel an employer “owes” their employees.  She graciously agreed that I could re-post them here for all of you.  It’s great insight.

“In interviews I always ask people what they think an employer “owes” their employees.  The most common answer is “fairness”, so I go on to ask them what that means to them.

The responses I get sound like this:

  • A good place to work – this includes fun
  • Training – they don’t want to be set up for failure because of improper training
  • Communication – they feel like they can do better when they know what the expectations are
  • Respect – so many of them are concerned about not being respected, both personally and for their skills
  • Recognition – when they have done something exemplary, they want to be acknowledged
  • A chance to shine – they may have a particular skill never get’s “discovered”, but would have been happy to use in a previous job.”

See any similarities to our last list?

What I find interesting is that they say things like being set up for success, having the tools and training to do their job well and being recognized for their talents and accomplishments. They are essentially giving us a blueprint for success in terms of keeping our employees happy.

It also means that they WANT to succeed, they WANT to do a good job, and they WANT to be able to show they can contribute.

That’s the good news.  Now we just have to follow the blueprint.

Thanks for reading!


Bonus Fun: Kayben Farms has a pretty cool employment page where they do a great job of setting the stage for the employee experience.  Check it out!

They almost got it right

As we approach “thank you note” season, I thought I’d share an experience that gives some insight about what NOT to do!

A few weeks ago, I was ordering something over the phone. The order became sort of complicated, and probably took much longer than the average call. I had some very specific questions that required both myself and the associate, Lisa, to research before the order could be completed. In the end, the order was completed properly, and I have to say that Lisa handled the entire process VERY well.


About a week later, we got a card in the mail from that company. Upon opening it we found a hand written note from Lisa, thanking us for our order, and the note even included a few details of our conversation.

Sounds good, right? What’s the problem?

The card was addressed “Dear Linda” (my wife), when it was me who spent over 20 minutes on the phone with Lisa. It’s true that Linda has an account with this company, and we had even put the order in her name for simplicity, but Linda never spoke to Lisa.

Is this a big deal, when everything else went so well? I kinda think it is.

You could argue that Linda is the account holder and it went to her because of that. I would counter that argument with this:  If this company is REALLY trying to make a personal touch and show an interest in the consumer experience beyond the sale, they need to get ALL of the details right, which starts with knowing who you are are talking to.

For most people, there is nothing more personal than their name.  It represents who they are and it identifies them from the crowd.  Unless they have changed their (first) name for some reason, it’s been with them their entire life, which means they are pretty attached to it.

So as you are writing your thank you notes, and taking the time to thank your employees for all that they do all year, remember that one little detail that will truly communicate how much you care about them: Use their (correct) name.

Thanks for reading!  Happy Holidays!


Give Your Peeps a Chance

So Rush just released their 20th studio album entitled Clockwork Angels.  60+ minutes of music from three guys who have been together for over 30 years and are each pushing the 60 year-old mark.  If that weren’t incredible enough, it’s actually a really good album, but then again, I am a Rush fan.

What that means is that I will certainly give them a chance when they release new material.  They are typically treading in some new territory, and as fans we’ve become accustomed to their desire to change course musically over the years. That’s probably what has kept them thriving and relevant since 1974.

What this also means is that it might take some time to get used to their new direction.  Mention Rush to 99% of the population, and they will immediately think of the song, “Tom Sawyer.”  Even if they liked that song, they may not have liked other things they heard by the band because it wasn’t exactly like (or very close to) the style of Tom Sawyer.  The same is true of this new album, but I realized a few things as I listened to it multiple times (that WILL lead to some leadership insight, I promise!).

  • Rush music challenges the listener.  They certainly don’t play what you are expecting. Unfamiliar chord changes, arrangements and melodies seem to be their norm, if that makes sense.  Again, that might make it tough to sonically digest for some.  What it does for the people who stick with it for a few listens is that it helps to expand their musical vocabulary, like listening to different points of view on a particular topic.
  • Rush fans trust the band to make it worth their while. Rush has been around long enough to build up a pretty loyal fan base that will take the time to listen to and absorb the new music they create.  One of the most often heard comments about a Rush album, especially this one, is that it gets better with each listen.  Nuances of the music are discovered which makes you want to listen AGAIN to hear what ELSE might be going on that you missed the first 7 times.  By this point you are very familiar with the music, and most likely, the oddness of the new direction is growing on you or it’s not.  Thing is, you’ve already invested significant time… what’s one more listen to be sure?

Here’s how this all relates to leadership (at least in my mind)…

We all have people in our personal and professional lives that challenge us. Sometimes that challenge seems like a good thing that helps us grow, sometimes it’s just annoying.  What we have to realize is that even the annoying challenges help us grow.  Think about that employee who just seems to rub you the wrong way.  Everything they say is like nails on a chalkboard, and you usually do what you can to avoid them.  Well… what if you really gave them a chance and REALLY listened to them?  What are they trying to tell you?  What nuances of their personality have you missed because you dismissed their annoying persona from the get go?

Like I am a fan of Rush, I think it is important for leaders to be a fan of people.  Not crazy, paint your face kind of fans… well… maybe – why not?  What shows your enthusiasm for your team more than your willingness to go out on a limb for them?  What instills loyalty more than consistently delivering on your promise to be there for them?  What creates more “I will do whatever it takes” type of attitudes than having complete trust in someone and their ability to lead you in the right direction?

That’s what a fan sees.  That’s what you want your employees to see in you.  But like many things, it starts with you.

Be a fan of theirs, they will be a fan of yours.

Thanks for reading!

About the author: Matt Heller attended his first Rush concert in 1984.  He was 14 and had to buy and extra ticket so his Dad could come along as the chaperone. True story.