We’ve come a long way in terms of employment standards, especially over the last century. Laws protecting workers’ rights are standard, acknowledged by most as essential to a healthy society. These laws might have been seen as unrealistic or progressive when they were first introduced, like change so often often is, but now (thankfully) they’re the norm! And as industry develops, workplace culture continues to evolve. The smoke-filled environments with poor lighting and CEOs who were rarely seen by their average worker have long since faded away. CEOs used to be solely focused on strategic planning and making profits; managing the staff was more an act of controlling their profit-making assets than connecting to a team.
But today? Today, another change is taking place: CEOs and business executives are expected to blur the lines between boss and employee. It’s becoming more and more important to rely on your team for leadership and innovation, not just for their rote performance. Author and millennial expert Anastasia Button explains it this way: “In today’s workplace, millennials crave collaboration — a chance to shine and exercise their skills and ideas! Leadership today comes from the tippy-top of the ‘pyramid’. Turn the pyramid upside down and you will win millennials’ loyalty, energy, and eager contribution.”
But for executives who are new to this type of leadership — or even for millennial executives who are just discovering their CEO legs — this expectation can feel overwhelming and confusing. It’s a big responsibility! Where do you start? What works — and what backfires? How do you develop this kind of employee/employer connection?
Don’t worry — it’s really not as scary as you might think. Just start with a few of these seven strategies, and you’ll be well on your way to building a profoundly connected and successful team.
- Be Human — Admit your failures and mistakes. A good leader will falter, and then will openly learn and grow from those experiences. Jillian Michaels, President and co-founder of Empowered Media, admits that her first show did not receive high ratings and was cancelled after its first season. But she didn’t give up; she pushed forward to develop new opportunities for herself. She doesn’t hide this initial failure, or keep quiet in the hopes that folks will just assume she aced it on her first try; instead, she uses this experience to be closer to her staff and her clients. Her ability to be human and relate to others makes her and her company stronger.
- Be Humble — CEOs are confident and assertive decision-makers, which means it can sometimes feel strange to step back from our normal role to be more relaxed, easygoing, and grounded. But that’s exactly what today’s workforce yearns for! Unfortunately, it’s typically seen in lower-level workers more so than the leader, but that’s got to change. Look at Oprah: as CEO of The Oprah Winfrey Network, she has every reason to not be humble, but her humility is one reason why she is so loved — and why she and her company have seen such exceptional success.
- Be Approachable — In the past, the less approachable leaders earned more respect, but that’s not how it is today. Employees prefer their CEOs to be approachable. Employees want to have the chance to be heard, have an impact, and have access to the person at the helm. They’re not blind followers, and if they don’t connect with and trust their leader — they’ll leave. Be approachable to build stronger relationships with your team, and they’ll have buy-in to stay and build the company up. Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, has mastered this with her Lean In Circle campaign, offering chances for her employees to engage with her.
- Be Ordinary — Show you have the same struggles as everyone else. We’re all human; don’t pretend you’re not. Don’t hide it, but rather use it to relate to others. Zhou Qunfei is the CEO of Len Technology, and she’s incredibly open about her experience growing up in poverty. She didn’t get a higher level of education, but she’s wildly successful — and her team can see and appreciate how she got there. Her journey allows her to interact with the employees on a very personal level while still strategically running a company towards success.
- Be One of Us — Loneliness is a growing issue in our society. Peoples’ desire to be included and be a part of a community may be higher than ever. A business executive must find a way to be inclusive of their staff and help to meet this need, or the reality is their bottom line will likely suffer. Arianna Huffington, founder of Huffington Post and CEO of Thrive Global, has said she struggled with work-life balance and self-care. She subsequently developed a work culture to put self-care first, and she continues to share her efforts to be healthy mentally, emotionally, and physically, encouraging her employees to do the same. Build a culture of connectedness by being willing to connect and truly be one of the team — not some distant, unknown leader.
- Be Transparent — Remove the secrecy barrier between the corner office and the cubicles. Transparency builds a workplace of trust, and encourages commitment from your employees. Stacy Brown-Philpot, CEO of TaskRabbit, is well known for being down-to-earth and sharing her experiences to help her team thrive. She’s transparent about her strategies and her humble beginnings, and her team feels more connection to her for it — and they know, more than anything, that they can trust her.
- Be an Includer — Having a welcome mat for everyone at the entrance of your company demonstrates that everyone has value. Make sure anyone joining your team — or considering it — knows they’re valued. With that approach to business, it will be tough to create exclusivity between leadership and employees! Ashley Willington-Faley, founder and CEO of The Relish, built a business to make women feel important — and then she took it one step further by opening her door to a diverse workforce. She has made a conscious choice to ensure everyone can feel a part of her team, a leadership style that’s proven to drive success.
Working as the head of a company, which can almost automatically distance you from the rest of the team, and staying relateable can obviously be a challenge — but the reality is today’s work environment demands (and rewards!) this kind of connectivity. Every person is unique, so you’ll inevitably develop your own method to build trust with your team, but if you start with these basics, you’ll be well on your way. And the millennials on your team will love you for it!
Virginia Phillips is the author of Yes, You Can!, the owner of The Academy of Entrepreneurial Excellence, a part-owner of Molder Rubber and Plastics Corp, a speaker, an entrepreneurial coach, a podcaster, and a survivor. She has been awarded as the VIP Woman of the Year Circle of Excellence Award, the Best of Colorado Springs nominee and the recipient of the Women Who Soar award.