He was a much-decorated Vietnam veteran, a retired colonel who following his military career worked for two more decades as an executive in business. And at our last management team meeting (he and I were reporting to the same senior VP) his farewell message was simple. “I have one last thing to say,” were his parting words. “As we used to say in the Army, ‘Take care of your people and they’ll take care of you.’”
I’m often not a big fan of battlefield metaphors in business (crossfire, minefields, leading the troops into battle and so on), as my feeling is they do a disservice to those who literally are risking their lives on a daily basis. But the more I’ve thought about my former colleague’s words, the more I’ve come to believe they convey a fundamental management truth.
When I think back to my own experiences as a manager, my best and most productive employees invariably felt well cared for – respected, rewarded and secure. Conversely, when employees felt, for whatever reasons, that I didn’t sufficiently “have their back,” loyalty quickly waned. The attitude of one of my star managers, for example, changed virtually overnight when she felt I wasn’t doing enough to forcefully advocate for her department during a period of uncertainty and organizational upheaval. In retrospect I’ve come to believe she was right. The mistake was mine and I paid a high price in loyalty.
Similarly, when I think back on myself as an employee (as most managers of course are employees too), I worked with the highest energy and diligence when I felt a manager had my best interests at heart, and genuinely wanted to develop and advance me. But when I sensed a manager was less interested in my career and more focused on his or her advancement or survival or other purely personal objectives, there’s no question it affected my productivity. I was still conscientious and professional (at least I hope I was!), so the effects were subtle, almost imperceptible. The way I view it from my vantage point today is that in such circumstances I’d give 99 percent. But when I felt truly supported and valued, I’d give 110 percent.
I don’t mean to sound Pollyanna-ish. Business is business, and naturally I understand there are times when realities require painful life-altering decisions. But even in the worst of times if your employees believe you genuinely care about their well being, you’ll have the best chance of eliciting their best performance.
On the other hand, if as a manager you’re more concerned with building your empire than with those who are helping you build it, safe to say it will be noticed. Self interest being a powerful motivator, employees are understandably focused on their own careers. After all, as the saying goes, it’s the station WIFM (What’s In it For Me) that everyone’s tuned to, all day every day.
This article first appeared at Forbes.com.
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