Keep Your People On Target

January 25, 2010

By Gregory P. Smith
One of my favorite movies is Twelve O' Clock High (also a novel by Cy Bartlett). The movie is about an American bomber unit stationed in England during WW II. Being in a flying unit was not a glamorous or cushy job. Flying a bomber in WW II was the closest thing to suicide. These units typically faced loss rates of 60%. Flyboys flew an endless number of missions and the morale and success of these units were under major scrutiny by higher command.

What fascinated me most about this movie were the two leaders who commanded the unit. The first commander was a friendly and well-liked officer. The morale was high under Lt. Col. Ben R. Gately's command, but the discipline and accuracy of the bombing missions were poor. On several occasions bombers turned back from their missions because of anti-aircraft fire. Some officers were given preferential treatment and assigned non-flying jobs. His men trusted him, felt he put their needs first, and the mission second place.

Under growing dissatisfaction from the higher command it was decided to relieve Lt. Col. Gately and replace him with another officer who could generate better results.

Enter Brig. Gen. Frank Savage (Gregory Peck). As his name suggests, Gen. Savage was the polar opposite of his predecessor. This hard-nosed, no nonsense disciplinarian transformed the unit into a prison like environment. Morale took a tailspin. His leadership style was "duty first" or face a Court Martial. The personal needs of the members took a back seat. He disciplined his unit using public humiliation and pushed his men to the limit. However, despite the Machiavellian leadership style, the results improved. They were hitting their targets and combat losses decreased.

In retrospect, neither leadership style was ideal--both represented the extremes. One leader was too soft and the other too severe. Lt. Col Gately crossed the line, lost his objectivity, and wanted to be liked by his men. On the other hand, Gen. Savage focused only on the mission. Military leaders know that in combat the mission always comes first.

Of course, your situation is different. You are not in a combat unit, so your leadership style must adjust to the situation. You must balance the needs of the individual with the needs of your organization. Leadership is not about being liked -- it is about being respected.

The demands placed on leaders today are complex. Most managers are technically competent, but they may lack the experience necessary to make them effective leaders. Engagement equals productivity. So how do you keep your managers flying high with their eyes on the target?

You can improve your leadership ability by doing these four things:
-Maintain and enhance team members’ self-esteem while dealing with everyday issues
-Base discussions about performance and work habits on behavior not personalities and attitudes
-Involve team members in general problem solving and decision making
-Set achievable goals that can be measured

Get Everyone Flying in the Same Direction
People need to know where they are headed on a regular basis, not just once a year or once a quarter. Employees need to engage and be involved with their manager. Informal conversation about what’s going in the department and the work each employee is doing is very effective in keeping the team flying in the same direction.

Joe is a supervisor for a local bottling plant. He manages a work team of ten people. Prior to receiving training on leadership skills, he spent most of the day in his office looking out the big glass window into the shop. Before, he always felt if there were a problem, someone would let him know. Besides, they covered everything at the monthly meetings. Yet, productivity in his area was not what he wanted it to be, and his own manager was beginning to wonder why.

After training, he began sharing more information with his team members on a regular basis. He was on the floor more and began to talk with the team about the quality and quantity of their work each day. After a couple of weeks the team members began opening up about issues or ideas they had for improving productivity on the line. Within a couple of months the entire team was engaged together in improving the productivity and quality of their output. Joe’s team was on track and headed to the top. They are now flying high and proud of it.

Keep Them on the Team
Studies show when employees feel good about what they are doing and they are on the same page with their boss, they tend to want to stay with the organization. Joe didn’t realize it at the time, but the frequent interaction and information exchanges with his team improved the existing relationships he had with them. When challenges came, the team members were better able to handle things and trust grew within the group.

As a result, the team consistently experienced fewer turnovers and missed targets. In today’s tight labor market that’s a benefit, not only for the team but for the performance of the entire company.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 76 million baby boomers will be eligible for retirement by 2011. Keeping great leaders and skilled employees is essential as the labor pool continues to shrink.

So if you think leadership doesn’t matter that much, think again. Over the next 50 years, the U.S. labor force is projected to grow at about one-third of its current rate. Good leaders with these essential skills will keep your great workers engaged and productive.

By getting your leaders the training they need and practicing these essential skills right away, you can keep them from blindly blocking productivity and driving employees away.

From "Chart Your Course International," by Gregory P. Smith, copyright 2006. 
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