What Does “Talent” Look For in a Leader?

Posted On: October 26

I was recently in Seattle where I spent a week working with some of the top folks at Abbott Labs and in meetings with a handful of key managers at Microsoft. The focus of our discussions all focused around leadership and how to keep your best people motivated and highly engaged. When asked what I thought were the top things that motivated “talent” I decided to go right to the source and during a lunch with twelve  “High Potential” employees from Abbott I asked them what they looked for in a leader that they would willingly follow and give 100% of their effort to. Here is exactly what they told me:

Lead By Example.   We watch everything the leader does and listen to every word they say – then watch to make sure that they are congruent. The best way to lead and motivate me is to be a living example of the way you expect me to behave.

Loyal to the Team . Times are tough, we are working harder than ever, so it is critical that I truly believe that my leader has my back, that he or she is looking out for me and fighting hard to do everything they can to support me.

Level with Me. Tell me the truth. Be completely honest and as transparent as possible. I promise that I can handle it. The more information you share with me, the better job I can do of keeping the company strong and growing.  Hide information from me and all I can do is sit at my desk and worry.

Be Empathic. Realize that my entire life is not wrapped up in the business. I am an employee… I have other things going on… like my family and my own personal life. One of the best ways to keep me motivated is to understand and support the idea of work-life balance.

Empower Me. Give me the training, resources and support I need, then let me go do my job. Micro-managing me means that you do not trust my competence or my judgment, but either way it means you do not trust me and if you do not trust me… then why did you hire me?

Show Me the Way. I need to know what your vision is for where we are headed. The more clear and vivid you can communicate that vision to me, the better job I can do at working my tail off to achieve it. Without a clear vision I have no way to prioritize my work, make fast decisions or measure my performance. Show me the goal line and I’ll start running.

This feedback correlated nicely with one of the most influential research studies ever done on the topic of leadership and employee engagement. In their seminal work, “The Leadership Challenge,” Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner looked at more than 25 years of surveys and interviews to determine what followers want in their leader. Rather than drag you through all of the data, the findings of the study essentially say, I want a leader who will tell me the truth (honesty)– who has a clear picture of where they are trying to the organization (vision) —  has the skills (competence) to get us there successfully, and is excited (passion) about going with me.”

Sure there are some other great short-term motivators like money, time off, flex-time, awards, recognition, gift certificates… and I recommend doing ALL of these. But for lasting motivation one of the MOST important factors is having a highly engaged and highly motivated leader. Yes, it does all start at the top.

PS – If you have not seen it yet, Chris Brogan did a wonderful video review of my book.  Click HERE to watch it.

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  1. John, I really liked this post. It’s always nice to see an outside-in approach, where you examine leadership from the point of view of the led. Out of curiosity, did you hear any surprises, anything that did not jibe with your extensive reading on the subject?

  2. John, the succinctness of this post belies its power. As I teach PQ+A, one of the main stumbling blocks to integrating these tools is when someone says, “This stuff is great, but my manager won’t like it if I ask better questions.” This goes right to two of your key points: lead by example and level with me. If leaders don’t embrace candor as they work, then they can’t expect it from their talent. Your other points resonate with me in the same way.

  3. Bob, thank you for the excellent feedback! I love the precision questioning and answering system that you teach – absolutely superb.

    Jack, no, I did not really hear anything that was completely out of the scope of the literature I’ve examined, but what did surprise me was how strongly everybody I talked to kept coming back to the idea of, “I want a boss who has my back – who is looking out for me, fighting for me, trying to protect me.”

    I had not heard that sort of response as strongly as I’ve heard it in the last several weeks – at Abbott, at Microsoft, at some work I did for Apple and at several other large privately held firms. I’m guessing that with the recession and all the job instability in the marketplace – knowing that your boss is going to do everything they can to protect you and help you – is, right now, a major factor in motivating top talent.

  4. John- As an Abbott manager who attended this meeting, I cannot express how enormous your contribution was to our top people, managers, and our sales force as a whole. These tough economic times only magnify the need for your passion and messages, and it was exactly the boost our organization needed. Our culture and results will never be the same! Thanks again SO much!!!

  5. Hi, John,

    Thanks for sharing this information with us! Iin support of what you are saying above, I thought I’d add that I’ve seen tightly controlled, scientifically sound studies that support what you are saying above, both in terms of what people want from leaders and what people need for life satisfaction and growth (personally and professionally). These studies seem to indicate that three attitudes are necessary for such positive outcomes: genuineness, positive regard (or, a feeling of being “prized” by others) and empathic understanding (or, a feeling of being sensitively understood – not just at a surface level, but in a rich, deep way).

    As I review you list above, I can see how each item fits into one or more of these three attitudes, so I’m at all surprised that you are finding these topics to be so important to so many people (especially during these tought times). Well played, once again!

    PS: I wrote an article on some outcomes related to implementing the items in your list above a few years ago. I thought I might share that article here as well for anyone who may be interested: http://www.excellencetree.com/journal/45/on-becoming-a-more-fully-functioning-organization

  6. Really enjoyed this post! I have found that being Firm, Fair & Consistent produces the best result from the team. If they know what they are going to get from you they can move forward and strive for excellence. When expectations are unclear or change with out notice is where the problems come in.

  7. Hi John,

    Like many folks in large corporations I have been on both sides of this equation. As a team player I think you are right on in taking the pulse of what makes a team. As a leader I think there is something more that needs to happen to make a project outstanding and that is to work out a team metaphor or story.

    Some projects I worked on were really tough with long hours and many opinions that would shift over time and cause much rework. Some projects contained multiple phases which meant a split in team function as a completed phase would move to production while a new one would move into development.

    During the really tough times gathering together to make a story with its physical take away relief points glued us together; inaugurating a marathon baton that would then literary pass from the one critical path point person to the next or christening a fly swatter to squash bugs. Each idea created by the team coming together to build the team story and rewrite it as the project changed.

    While folks still shy from admitting they do better when they are part of a story, the truth comes out when you pull out stories from them during a recap.

    I am new to you blogs but definitely this is one I am going to frequent for this great material.

    Best wishes

    1. David — thank you for the very thoughtful and vivid comments — love it — so glad you took the time to contribute your ideas.

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