I recently had a wonderful experience of seeing executives lead by example.  The new company I joined, Mother Lode Holding Company, believes in their employees stating that it is important to care for each other, have the support needed and to forge lasting relationships built on trust. Those are all great words, but we have all witnessed companies where vision statements are empty words that leaders don’t follow. Happily, I saw these executives truly leading by example and the living by the company’s founding principles.

Each year, key managers and their plus one are invited to a meeting held in a beautiful location. The company execs spend their energy and time focused on living out the company values. They know the accomplishments of each manager and are quick to openly sing their praises. They sincerely listen to new ideas and concerns. They invest time to learn about families and lives. All of this demonstrates to me how they want those managers to work with their employees. It creates a wonderful and powerful “trickle-down effect” where more and more people learn to show appreciation for those who work so hard for the company. It was a breath of fresh air that motivated us all to get back into the game and do our best.

It made me stop and think about how rare and wonderful it is to see executives who truly know how to lead by example. It also made me reflect on why this seems so challenging at many companies, and how I could better lead by example in the new Texas division, Texas National Title, I’m heading up for the company.

After many years of managing title and technology companies, here are some of my thoughts on leadership and how important it is to be a role model and to lead by example.

Actions speak louder than words
Managers should realize that they are always leading by example, whether they know it or not. Employees are always watching. Every comment, tone of voice, every smile or smirk, and every time you are open and attentive or you slyly roll your eyes, you are communicating much more than what is ever communicated verbally. We’ve all read that over 90% of all communication is non-verbal. Given this I believe the first lesson is to learn good non-verbal communication skills. Even the sincerest leader will undermine their best efforts with poor non-verbal skills.

Earn the trust of employees
I also believe that people truly only follow leaders they trust. And, trust must be earned. One of the best ways to build trust with employees is to lead by example. Writing in Inc.com, Brent Gleeson, gives simple ways of how to lead by example and inspire employees. Two great suggestions Brent makes are to:

  • Get your hands dirty. Do the work and know your trade. You don’t have to be the most advanced technician on the team, but you must have an in-depth understanding of your industry and your business. Leaders have many responsibilities, but it is important to work alongside your team. This is a great way to build trust and continue to develop your own knowledge and skills.
  • And, to listen. As leaders, sometimes we are so consumed with providing directives, giving orders, and, well, talking that we forget to stop and listen. One sign of good leadership is knowing that you don’t know everything. Listen, learn and get feedback from your team regularly.

Be genuine
Research and just plain common sense, shows that employees want to work for someone who is genuine, tells the truth and has earned their position of authority instead of some means other than merit. My experience tells me that employees know hard decisions must, on occasion, be made, whether it’s a layoff or reorganization.  Employees want their leaders to do the right thing for both the company and employees, not just blindly follow a course of action without regard for the consequences on everyone involved. And, they want to know the truth about why the actions are being made. Managers should show they can handle the tough times and lead by example in how they openly address the problems while avoiding half-truths everyone knows are insincere bureaucratic noise.

Be positive
It’s also important to set a positive tone about the company as a means of leading by example. How can an executive expect direct reports and everyone else down line to stay positive and be encouraging if it does not start with the top leaders? But positive statements must also be sincere and based on facts. Employees are smart. They want a cheerleader, but they also want the truth. They want to trust what they are hearing, and they also want to know how they can help during the tough times.

Michael Schrage in the Harvard Business Review notes that the opposite of leading by example is hypocrisy. When actions do not match company values, employees view leaders as insincere and lacking credibility. He recommends a sobering approach that leaders and executives can use to sharpen their management skills: In employee reviews, ask them to describe How does your boss lead by example? Their responses can be enlightening.

From his research Schrage provides the following examples:

  • A CEO attending his company’s diversity/inclusivity training workshop for the entire day. “Everyone needed to know I took this seriously,” he said.
  • A manufacturing executive who attends on- and off-site Spanish lessons so she could better communicate with her workforce.
  • A senior project manager dismissing a direct report who had fudged a quality control audit and then lied about it.
  • A founder/entrepreneur who promoted the college drop-out into a senior management position over an MBA because the company values performance over credentials.

Transparency
Transparency is another area where leaders are often challenged in how they lead by example. While it sounds good to publish your company’s commitment for openness to both employees and customers, it’s harder to walk-the-walk and avoid dissembling when being transparent raises awkward questions. As outsourcing in all industries becomes more common, management’s responsibility to protect private customer information and insure responsible business practices are employed also increases.  Jan Lee in the Triple Pundit raises the question of whether a company can claim to use sustainable business practices and be socially responsible if they are not also transparent and fully traceable as to goods produced or work done. This equally applies to the mortgage, title and real estate industry where we must protect customer data even as more work is outsourced and contracted.  Leaders must work hard to keep the company’s stated values in sync with decisions about how a company meets their goals of transparency and accountability.

Say thank you
Let’s finish with something leaders can always do and something they should always avoid. A powerful way executives and managers can learn to lead by example is to care about employees enough to express sincere appreciation. Learn enough of the nuts and bolts in how the company works to see where the real work gets done, customers’ challenges are actually solved and where deadlines get met.  And then, thank the person doing the real work.

Empower your employees
What to avoid? My personal pet peeve is a leader who says an employee is the best person for the job, but then micro-manages what they do. If a boss provides good training, the right tools and has done a good job of recruiting or promoting, then they should stand back and let great employees do their job. When leaders micromanage, they send a message of distrust throughout the company. Whereas managers who truly trust employees and teams to forge ahead, send a message of confidence and excitement of what can be accomplished by the talented, driven employees they have hired.  A great example for everyone.

So let me ask the question: How does your boss lead by example?