Contributed by Mark Lipscomb, Vice President, Global Talent
About 14 years ago, I was at the airport waiting to get on a flight for a business trip. Also waiting for the flight was a group of Army soldiers who were starting their long journey to Afghanistan. I was sitting next to the officer in charge of the group, having a conversation. The ticket agent was trying to upgrade as many soldiers as she could to Business Class as a thank you. As I sat there next to the officer, the agent came over and said to him, “Sir, I was able to get just over half of your group into Business Class. I have your roster here, starting with you at the top, from senior rank down. For the upgrades, I assume you want me to just start from the top and work my way down?” Without hesitation, the officer looked up at her and replied, “No ma’am, please start from the bottom up.” In other words, put the lower ranking solders in front and the leaders will sit in the back.
This concept of “starting from the bottom up” and putting the needs and comfort of your people before you is a leadership lesson I learned long ago when I served as an officer in the military. You realize quickly in the military that your success, and possibly your life, depends on your people. As such, your role as a leader is to serve your team, not the other way around. This is in stark contrast to the misperception of military leaders barking out orders in a completely top down chain of command.
It’s a lesson I’ve tried to apply over the past two decades in the companies I’ve worked in and is the cornerstone of the concept I like to talk about: flipping the org chart. This means putting the leader at the bottom of the org chart to show that their responsibility is to serve their employees above them, who ultimately serve your customers. Flipping the org chart isn’t easy but here are a few tips to help you get started in 2020:
Find and hire the right people. Then get out of their way.
Throughout my career, from being a military officer to a college coach to a General Manager of a business to an HR Leader, I’ve learned that without a doubt, the # 1 driver of a leader’s success comes down to WHO is on their team. It’s always been my goal to hire people that are both smarter than me and come from different backgrounds. Finding the right person to fill each role on your team must absolutely be your top priority. Once you have that talent onboard, your role is to define clear expectations and desired outcomes. Great managers are great coaches who focus on the growth and development of their teams. Ask your people how you can support them but don’t get in their way! As Steve Jobs once said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Connect people to the mission.
People want a mission to serve. In the military, it’s quite easy to connect people to the mission of the organization. It doesn’t matter what type of role or industry you’re in though—if people don’t feel like their work makes an impact, they’ll leave—or worse, stick around and bring the whole team down. As a leader, it’s your job to connect people to your overall company mission and constantly remind them of this mission. Our CEO does this extremely well as our Mission slide is always front and center when he presents. Remember that how one relates to a company’s mission comes in different forms—some may be inspired by a company’s products and technology, while others may connect more to the company’s impact on the world, community or individuals. What matters is that each individual feels their work is meaningful and contributing to the overall mission of the organization.
Keep your ego in check.
In order to flip the org chart, and lead in service to others, you need to keep your ego in check. There’s a line in the comedy Anchorman when the lead character Ron Burgundy says, “I don’t know how to put this but I’m kind of a big deal. People know me. I’m very important.” Don’t ever think like that! Stay humble and grateful no matter your role, title or level in an organization. While it’s important to have a strong sense of self that inspires confidence, one’s ego can get in the way of truly impactful leadership.
Be confident enough to stay humble. Leaders must be able to admit mistakes, receive ongoing feedback, be vulnerable, and remain open to constantly learning. And above all else, it is a leader’s job to enable and grow future leaders. The most successful leaders empower their teams to take charge and lead as the true legacy of leaders is creating more leaders.
Lastly, it sounds simple, but leaders aren’t leaders unless they have followers (and I don’t mean the ones on Instagram!). Your job is to take care of and look out for your followers. Hiring the right people, connecting them to the mission, and keeping your own ego in check in order to flip the org chart will enable you to serve your “followers” and ultimately your customers.