It was a monthly grind.
Early in my career I was an HR leader for a fast-growing global tech business unit at a major bank. Each month I participated in a multi-day meeting with one senior executive and his leadership team. The team sat prepped and ready for a two-day slog through spreadsheets. Line by line, this leader peppered the room with questions while displaying his controlling, hierarchic, and energy-zapping style.
And then the executive hosted a team dinner at his home in the countryside. Over dinner, I sat next to his wife who shared private and serious challenges their family had been experiencing. I listened intently and asked if there was anything we could do. She asked that we be supportive, patient, and to check on him more regularly now that I knew the details of their family journey. While his leadership style was wanting, my working experience with him greatly improved as he became more human and relatable.
The Value of Leadership Relatability
As a chief people officer, advisor, and coach, I have worked with senior leaders from all types of organizations. One element of leadership that improves personal and professional impact is leadership relatability, or I what I call the “r-factor”. Leaders who leverage their r-factor share of themselves, facilitate the same among their direct reports, and genuinely care about the whole person. 1:1s feel like authentic visits. They laugh, chat, discuss progress and challenges, with feedback exchanged without fanfare or defensiveness. Visits are anything but transactional, seeding good will to draw upon during times of frustration or stress.
Opening the window into “who I am” is a meaningful approach to leadership that can build trust, understanding, and mutual respect. However, the inclination to leverage the r-factor may not come naturally. Some leaders believe that too much “relatability” weakens their authority or ability to influence. Other leaders, some that are quite effective, are happy to talk about themselves and their experiences, but have little interest in hearing from others.
We have all learned in real-time that senior leader relatability is more important than ever. When my organization moved to a remote model in March 2020 (soon to be hybrid), I began to publish a weekly “Leader Update” to our staff. What started as an in-the-moment way to inform, share personal updates, recognize people, and set a leadership model of transparency and candor, evolved to a tool leveraged by the entire executive leadership team. One topic I shared was a story in honor of my mom who passed during the height of the pandemic. Her story was my story, and I felt her story was worth sharing. I’m not sure I would have taken such care around this opportunity if not for our collective work-from-home experience. People learned more about who I was and where I came from, and based on staff response, it was worth it.
Focusing on the “Who”.
When I work with a founder, CEO, or C-level leader in a high-growth environment, I'm always reminded that personal leadership style cannot be shielded by layers of company structure, and that the impact on culture can be directly positive or negatively acute. While brilliant, visionary, and driven, some high-growth leaders may not be intrinsically wired for leadership (nor enjoy it all that much). This is unfortunate given the unique opportunity to cultivate a positive and productive culture that can be felt by each member of their company.
Too often leadership is viewed through the linear lens of what, how, why, and when in service to achieving strategy, setting goals, and measuring performance. As the business moves faster, those become de-facto leadership tenets. Yet, it is the prioritization of the 'who', that fosters long-term employee engagement, passion and commitment, and recognizes that the 'who' each employee chooses to bring to their role each day is far more dynamic than the name on the org chart. And it starts with you.
How can I become a more relatable leader?
You can start the journey by holding yourself accountable through a few questions:
Am I showing up for my team in the best way I can?
Am I open to feedback from my team to learn how I can improve?
Do I really know the members of my team beyond their skills and behaviors?
Do my team members feel the same about each other?
Am I willing to set an example that offers a window into my on-going story to help team members understand who I am as I leader and person?
Each question comes with a choice to engage and encourage others to follow your lead. The ability and choice to be a relatable leader who engenders and promotes the same behavior across the executive team, will likely be paid forward, produce lasting dividends, improve workplace culture, and improve the willingness and motivation of employees to perform at a higher level across the company. Remember that the day you choose to act, is the day that people you lead may understand more why they chose to be led by you in the first place.
We ALL have stories that should be understood and celebrated.
About the Author
Steve Schloss is a strategic advisor to Edison portfolio companies. For over three decades, he has built, scaled, evolved, and transformed global organizations across diverse industries, including banking and finance (Citi), digital media, entertainment, and publishing (TimeWarner/Time Inc), conversational commerce and AI (LivePerson), and non-profit services and sport. Since 2014, Steve has served as Chief People Officer and member of the executive team for the USGA. He has led the transformation and continuous evolution of culture, capability, and workplace and serves as an industry change leader focused on developing the next generation of leaders and volunteers. Before joining the USGA, Steve was the first global head of human resources at LivePerson (LPSN).