Leaders who find ways to connect with their people are the ones who build great teams, inspire the best performance, and rise to positions of influence when others wane. If you look back on your career, you’ll likely observe that the most impactful leaders were the ones who made a personal connection with you.
Maybe it was keen professional mentorship, or timely advice during adversity, or a personality trait that invited trust. Sometimes there’s no pinpointing it…just an intangible feeling that makes it easy to follow a person.
In the culture of busyness that we face today, it’s distressingly easy to ignore the personal side of leadership. But trust will never develop without a personal connection between leader and follower. And without trust, an organization will be confined to a transactional environment of mediocre results and melancholy people.
Photo by Mr. Fernando Sanjurjo, U.S. Army Recruiting Battalion Los Angeles.
This is a list of simple ways that leaders can make that personal connection day to day. These are the kinds of engagements that cause followers (and their spouses) to walk away saying, “Wow, that was very thoughtful of him” or “She didn’t have to do that, but we really appreciated it.” These are also methods that your team members and subordinates will admire and adopt for their own leadership profile.
If you have similar ways that you connect with your team, be sure to share them in the comments below.
Make the Personal Connection
- Learn their first names. This is a must from day one. The days of stoic military professional stiffness are over. Today’s generation expects a personal connection. Plus, you shouldn’t go to war with someone if you don’t know their first name.
- Learn their spouses names. In a similar vein, learning spouses’ names is a critical first step to conveying that you care about the entire team, not just the service member. Develop a system or a cheat sheet, if you must, and recruit your own spouse for help.
- Go to the hospital. I can’t overstate how important this one is. If a team member or spouse has a baby or is hospitalized, supporting them in person at the hospital has a profound impact. I still remember the three people who came to visit us when our second daughter was born, and one of them was my Regimental Commander.
- Give them paternity leave. Don’t think for a second that your unit’s work is more important than the support a husband can give his wife in the weeks after childbirth. Giving them time off to get settled has a lifetime impact.
- Send holiday/anniversary cards. Ok, after you get the first names down and visit them in the hospital, follow up by celebrating the season and recognizing their big life moments. Cards are easy and reinforce the team concept outside of the office.
- Call their spouse on promotion day. This happened to me recently and I thought it was a classy touch. The promotion list came out and my boss called me into his office for a chat. After a few minutes, he asked if my wife was busy and proceeded to dial her up on speakerphone. Then he took the time to congratulate both of us and thank her for everything she did to help make it happen. It was a personal connection that resonated with both of us.
- Send a thank you card on a significant milestone. I knew a leader who mailed thank you cards home to spouses just prior to a unit leave period, thanking them for supporting their husbands during the surge of recent activity. As a bonus, in the card he made sure to praise their husband’s good work, which put a few points on the board at home.
Make the Professional Connection
- Give them the Why. Nothing inspires followers like knowing the purpose behind the mission. Simon Sinek lays it out in this TED Talk. There is a stark difference between the leader who says, “Here’s why this is important” and the one who says, “Just get it done.”
- Actually do counseling with them. If there’s a personal activity that military leaders routinely fail at, it’s counseling. When we skip counseling, we’re basically saying, “You’re doing good enough work for me not to yell at you, but I’m too busy to tell you how you’re really doing or tell you how you could improve. So good luck.” Counseling doesn’t have to be a big deal. Just sit down in an informal setting and talk about Strengths, Weaknesses, and the Way Ahead. Consider these articles: Turning Performance Counseling into a Conversation and 12 Tips for Effectively Counseling Your Subordinates.
- Help them prepare for a promotion board. Preparing your file for a promotion board isn’t rocket science, but it does take experience and attention to detail that junior service members might not have. A leader who puts personal time into helping subordinates with their careers will leave a lasting positive impression and prepare those talented subordinates for continued success.
- Ask for input about an area that’s outside their lane. Ask a subordinate team member for advice on a topic that’s above their pay grade, then watch them stand a little taller and willingly connect. Use this technique when drafting an email to your own boss or preparing an important brief. You might find that you get some fresh perspective on your work, too.
- Highlight them in public. Peer recognition is incredibly powerful for committing individuals to the team. Make it a point to recognize hard workers in public, especially when their performance was behind the scenes.
- Give them unplanned time off…and time off when they really need it. If members of your team went above and beyond, reward them with some time off. And when your people are facing a life struggle, give them space from work to get through it. You can bet that higher-up leaders will take an afternoon off to get the car fixed…so make sure you give the same to the troops.
- Receive them like rock stars, then back off. This one happened to us and we appreciated it immensely. When you get new members to your unit, make a deliberate effort to give them the red carpet treatment. Keep in touch as they move to town. Meet them upon arrival with a gift basket full of the necessities for the first couple days. Follow up to ensure they get signed-in and that there are no administrative hassles you can help fix.Then…and this is important…tell them not to come to work until pictures are hanging on the walls. It’s all too common for units to make their new people feel like the world is going to end if they don’t start work the day after the boxes arrive at the house. Leaders need to realize that the unit will continue marching right along even if this person doesn’t come in for another week. This is the crucial first impression, and an opportunity to show that you care about family. How you treat these new team members will determine how they perform while they’re on your team, and more importantly, whether or not they reenlist to continue service.
Making a difference in your people’s lives doesn’t have to be a complicated process. With a little creativity, leaders can easily find ways to convey gratitude for their team members’ service and sacrifice, as well as that of their family. Make that connection and you will be a leader with lasting influence.
Questions for Leaders
- How have impactful leaders connected with you in the past? Leave a comment below.
- In what ways could you make an extra effort to show your team that you really care, instead of simply demanding work from them?
- What lessons will subordinates take away from their experience with you?