A change in leader’s values can disengage employees

I had a rather sad yet very common conversation with a client today. She is a high performing manager for a household name retailer. Describing her experience at a regional meeting to hear the latest initiative for the business, two phrases she used really stood out for me:

“John, we are run by accountants now”, and the second phrase, “I’m just delivering a store for a measure, not for the customer”.

What’s sad about that? The tone. She conveyed a deeper sense of frustration and disengagement than I had heard from her before.

So let’s unpick this a bit and look at just one aspect – values.

‘Values’ are used a lot in organisations. This is a stupid term that, in my experience, just pisses people off and immediately generates a sense of scepticism for the conversation that follows. People are tired of ‘values’.

So, instead of ‘values’, for this conversation let’s try using ‘focus’.

The employee described above is ‘focussed’ on delivering a great store for the customer. They want all the right products in the right amounts perfectly presented to the customer. And they want their team members to be friendly, polite, knowledgeable and serving efficiently. So people buy stuff. Job done.

Job not done. The new chief executive’s focus is on profit, saving money and empire building. (The previous chief executive was focussed on employee and customer satisfaction and over 10 years added over a billion pounds of value to the business).

‘Values alignment’ is another stupid phrase you’ll hear idiots like me use from time to time. As a leader, I hope the brief outline above will get you thinking – “to what degree do my employees share my focus?”. It’s natural to follow / hang around / be inspired by stuff (and people) you like, and move away from / be bored by stuff (and people) you don’t.

If you’re a new leader and you’re focus is different from your predecessor, it’s worth asking what impact you’re having? Was it intended? How are you going to engage your people? Is it what customers want? How do you know?

The answer? Listen. Explain your focus to your people in their language and share why you think it’s important. Then listen some more.

We could talk about ‘executive courage’ at this point. My advice? Get your head out of your arse. If genuinely listening to your people needs courage you’re in the wrong job. Or the wrong millennium. Admitting you’ve taken your eye off the ball, or admitting your focus is wrong and changing it, now that does require courage.

The impact for my client is a sense of day-to-day tension and discomfort. Working hard trying to satisfy measures that don’t satisfy the customer.