First Among Equals, Part 1

In this excerpt from Chapter Four, Patrick McKenna and David Maister look to some pros for advice on leading and inspiring employees

Anyone who has been a boss knows it's tough enough to manage people on a daily basis. Harder still, though, is getting underlings to perform at the peak of their abilities so that a group, department, or company maintains its competitive edge, write authors Patrick McKenna and David Maister in their upcoming book First Among Equals: How to Manage a Group of Professionals (The Free Press, 2002). Add to the mix fears about terrorism and anxiety over the shaky economy, and a manager today can be at a loss for how to motivate, let alone inspire.

To succeed, McKenna and Maister argue, bosses will have to learn to glean most of their fulfillment from the success of others. Being in charge isn't about being the center of attention, writes Maister, an expert on the management of professional services firms and the author of several other management books, and McKenna, a partner at consultancy Edge International in Edmonton, Canada.

Indeed, today's leaders have to be kinder, gentler, more empathetic -- and able to show genuine interest in whatever their charges are trying to achieve. Establishing a comfortable environment for employees is a prerequisite for creating a true sense of solidarity throughout an organization. And it's from this solidarity that the efficiency companies must have to compete is born.

In Chapter Four, entitled "Dare to Be Inspiring," the authors argue that executives must move past outdated notions of what makes a good leader. Genuine affection and empathy are the essential management tools in a post-September 11 world, they argue. For example, showing concern about the lives of employees outside the office enhances their sense of belonging. By taking just a moment out of a busy day to lend a sympathetic ear, a leader can reduce employee stress levels a notch, making the whole group more efficient. And, the thinking goes, if the boss gives a hoot, then employees are going to care about the work they do, too.

Ultimately, it's through a leader's inspirational techniques that professionals develop confidence and achieve peak performance at the office, the authors argue. In Chapter Four, they discuss techniques that the best leaders use to inspire employees. Here's Part 1 of an excerpt from that chapter:

Chapter 4: Dare To Be Inspiring

Do you know how to inspire people?

Your group will best achieve peak performance by unleashing the power of your people. This is not done by managing them, nor by leading them, but by inspiring them.

There are countless texts on leadership, covering everything from how everyone can be a leader to the immutable laws of leadership. While these texts have something to offer a struggling group leader, they rarely seem to articulate fully what Marvin Bower brought to McKinsey, making it the most renowned management-consulting firm in the world. Nor how a succession of revered leaders guided Goldman Sachs to become (eventually) the global powerhouse that it is today. While few of us may achieve that level of accomplishment, it is sad that so few even aspire to it.

Jack Welch, the recently retired chairman and CEO of General Electric, said:

The job of any leader is to build self-confidence in the people around him. Make those people feel 12-feet tall. Clap for every achievement, no matter how small, with everybody around you. That's a hell of a lot more important than some finite strategy.

There are rare individuals in every profession who strive to create big dreams. Dreams that are steeped in a strong set of personal values, in setting high standards, and in striving to lift the spirits of human potential. This is not about management, and it's not just about leadership either. It goes beyond whatever the words "management" and "leadership" might convey to us.

Let's look at a couple of examples of extraordinary individuals who have something to teach us about the way in which they connect with their people.

A precocious composer, Benjamin Zander has had the distinction of conducting the Boston Philharmonic. Zander sees himself more as a teacher than as a leader or maestro. Much of what he has to say suggests an understanding of what it takes to inspire talented people, both musicians and other high achievers:

It wasn't until I was about 45 that I realized something amazing: The conductor doesn't make a sound. The conductor's power depends on his ability to make other people powerful. That insight changed everything for me. I started paying attention to how I was enabling my musicians to be the best performers they could be.

My job as a conductor is to teach musicians to be expressive performers of great music. In any performance, there are always two people onstage: the one trying to play, and another one who whispers, "Do you know how many people play this piece better than you do? Here comes that difficult passage that you missed last time -- and you're going to miss it again this time!" Sometimes that other voice is so loud that it drowns out the music. I'm always looking for ways to silence that voice.

I've developed a simple technique to quiet that second voice. Every fall, on the first day of class, I make an announcement: "Everybody gets an A." There's only one condition: Students have to submit a letter, written on that first day but dated the following May, that begins: "Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because...."

In other words, they have to tell me, at the beginning of my course, who they will have become by the end of the course that will justify this extraordinary grade.

That simple A changes everything. It transforms my relationship with everybody in the room. We're giving out grades in every encounter we have with people. We can choose to give out grades as an expectation to live up to, and then we can reassess them according to performance. Or we can offer grades as a possibility to live into. The second approach is much more powerful.

The A is easy to misunderstand. People say, "Oh, you mean it's just pretending that everybody is the same." It's not that at all. Nor is it about pretending that people can do things they can't do. The letters that students write to me about what they will do to deserve their A give me much richer information about how the students stack up against their dreams. They write, "Suddenly I'm not shy anymore, and I enjoy playing," or "I'm no longer depressed by criticism." That's the kind of information that I need to help them perform at their best.

One way I know if I am performing well is to look in my musicians' eyes. The eyes never lie. If the eyes are shining, then I know that my leadership is working. Human beings in the presence of possibility react physically as well as emotionally. If the eyes aren't shining, I ask myself, "What am I doing that's keeping my musicians' eyes from shining?"

Our second example comes from the comments delivered by Leo Burnett at his firm's annual breakfast meeting in 1967. Through 36 years under its spirited founder -- during the last four of which he assumed the title of founding chairman -- the Leo Burnett Company created some of history's most enduring advertising, ranging from the Marlboro Man to Kellogg's Tony the Tiger and the "friendly skies" of United Airlines.

Somewhere along the line, after I'm finally off the premises, you or your successors may want to take my name off the premises too. You may want to call yourselves "Twain, Rogers, Sawyer, and Finn"...or something. That will certainly be okay with me if it's good for you. But let me tell you when I might demand that you take my name off the door.

That will be the day when you spend more time trying to make money and less time making advertising -- our kind of advertising. When you forget that the sheer fun of advertising and the lift you get out of it -- the creative climate of the place -- should be as important as money to the very special breed of writers and artists and people who compose this firm of ours -- and make it tick.

When you lose that restless feeling that nothing you do is ever good enough. When you lose your itch to do the job well for its own sake -- regardless of the client or the money or the effort it takes. When you lose your passion for thoroughness...your hatred of loose ends. When you stop reaching for the manner, the overtones, the marriage of words and pictures that produce the fresh, the memorable, and the believable effect. When you stop rededicating yourselves every day to the idea that better advertising is what the Leo Burnett Company is all about.

When you are no longer what Thoreau called "a firm with a conscience" -- which means an organization of conscientious men and women. When you begin to compromise your integrity -- which has always been the heart's blood -- the very guts of this firm. When you stoop to convenient expediency and rationalize yourselves into acts of opportunism -- for the sake of a fast buck.

When you show the slightest signs of crudeness, inappropriateness, or smart-aleckness -- and you lose that subtle sense of the fitness of things. When your main interest becomes a matter of size just to be big -- rather than good, hard, wonderful work. When your outlook narrows down to the number of windows -- in the walls of your office. When you lose your humility and become big-shot weisenheimers, a little too big for your boots.

When you disapprove of something, and start tearing the hell out of the individual who did it rather than the work itself. When you stop building on strong and vital ideas, and start a routine production line.

When you start believing that, in the interest of efficiency, a creative spirit, and the urge to create can be delegated and administered, and forget that they can only be nurtured, stimulated, and inspired. When you start giving lip service to this being a "creative firm" and stop really being one.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is when I shall insist you take my name off the door.

Although Burnett died in 1971, his spirit continued to motivate thousands of intensely loyal Burnetters in more than 60 offices worldwide. "Leo had that ability, like a good athletic coach has, of making you do better that you thought you could," recalled his wife, Naomi. To this day, Burnett still offers shiny red apples on all reception desks free of charge, a legacy from Leo and as a homage to his spirit.

The Lessons

Notice what Zander and Burnett were offering. Zander described the actions of an inspired and inspiring leader:

Enable people to be the best they can be; allow people to aspire to their dreams; ensure that their eyes are shining; and wake them up to not remaining complacent

. From Burnett the message was similar, albeit with different words:

Never lose that itch to do your best; never stoop to acts of opportunism for a fast buck; never lose your humility; never stop building on strong ideas; and never forget that the creative human spirit needs to be nurtured and stimulated.

If you seek to inspire your people, Zander and Burnett suggest a common element: It all starts with spending time to build and nurture a relationship, above and beyond the immediate task at hand.

Pete Friedes, the retired CEO of Hewitt Associates, puts it this way:

Leaders or managers need to understand that every single interaction they have with one of their people is on two levels: the content level (whatever they are talking about) and the trust level (either building it or destroying it). For example, when managers talk inappropriately about others not present, or show they are willing to cut corners, or deceive "just a little," they are destroying trust with everyone who hears it directly and more people later. Likewise, if they are always straight with people, in all situations, they are building trust, which can only be done over some period of time.

Years ago, Friedes pointed out to David that every conversation you have with someone advances, diminishes, or leaves neutral your relationship with that person. Accordingly, you must ask yourself, every time you talk to someone, two questions: "Did I deal successfully with the matter at hand, and what did I just do to my relationship with that person?"

From First Among Equals by Patrick J. McKenna and David H. Maister. Copyright 2002 by Patrick J. McKenna and David H. Maister. Reprinted by Permission of The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc., New York. The book is available from Simon & Schuster online. Also, visit the First Among Equals Web site

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.