Give us hope

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“What questions do you have?”

I paused and looked around the room. I was having a group discussion with employees on their development and 20 pairs of eyes staring back at me. We had good discussion about development that quickly transitioned to talking about current challenges of the group. They wanted my perspective on the larger organization. This happens quite often in my role. When I visit sites and factories, I bring fresh perspective and employees are curious to learn how I think they are doing. Particularly around leadership, change and culture.

A person in the front of the room raised his hand. I nodded and took a step towards him smiling. He cleared his throat and said, “Give us hope.”

My eyes widened and I thought “Woah!” That was not the request I was expecting. In that moment, I felt the heaviness in the room. Twenty head in the room nodded. This was a sobering moment and I knew the response I gave could indeed give them hope or deflate them.

What he was really asking was “Tell us we are ok. Tell us that all the change and difficulty are over. Tell us we are valued and there is opportunity ahead.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t do that. Five years ago, we were in an age of business where changes were made and a leader say “ok, that change is done, and we can now resume our regular work.” Everyone could breathe a collective sigh of relief and move forward. The world has changed in the past five years. Disruptions are the norm. Annual goals are gone, and ongoing priorities are the focus. Working horizontally, figuring out how to try things and be willing to fail quickly and pivot…these are the new norms. Global economic and political environments can have a huge impact on our day-to-day work in new ways.

GE talks about there is no such thing as a 125-year business plan. We have survived and thrived as a company because we have continued to evolve and change. The GE of today is not your parent’s GE nor will it be your children’s GE. We have chosen to disrupt and not be disrupted. In doing so we have changed the way we look to our customers, the way we lead our employees and the type of candidates we recruit.

When my father was a leader in the financial services industry, it was a different era. He didn’t face ongoing change the way we do. If changes were made, he could tell his team when the change was done. There were actual memos written on paper. Email was the radical invention introduced, and people still relied on voicemail. Meetings took place in conference rooms where everyone could look one another in the eye. If they went on a business trip, they were given a daily stipend of cash in advance – credit cards weren’t used. Leading in this environment was easier. You could plan your days, see your team, balance work and go home at five. You could carefully craft leadership messages because you had time. You could think, reflect and even plan for months down the road and consistently execute your plans.

The leader of today has none of those luxuries. We are a global business in over 150 countries. We work across time zones, cultures, languages and industries. Changes happen daily - at the corporate, business, country and in some cases office/site levels. Priorities often shift with these changes. This leader is trying to juggle these things – while guiding employee development and delivering outcomes. 

The key to success of this leader is resilience. Create a sense of calm for teams daily. Ensure employees are empowered. Help teams cut through noise and focus on what is important. Decide to come away daily choosing growth and learning rather than being beat-up and depleted. Choose to be a fighter and not a victim, even on the toughest days. And perhaps most importantly, these leaders need to cultivate resilience on their teams, even when they can’t see the employees day-to-day. Resilient employees are more engaged, healthy, happy, and higher performing. 

I thought about all of this while standing in front of this group. I told them that I believed they had every reason to hope. That hope didn’t mean there wouldn’t be change. Because there would. And hope didn’t mean that it wouldn’t be hard, because it would be…perhaps some of the strongest challenges they have faced. I described there are three things I look for to determine the health of a team, and I saw all three there.

First, I observed this was a strong team and family. Everyone cared and supported each other. They brought the best out in each other by challenging constructively – which is a key foundation to trust. They gave each other feedback and would share the difficult messages. That it isn’t easy to achieve, and their behavior was impressive and noticeable to an outsider. And they should hold onto that and use it through these challenges. By doing so, they would continue to make each other better, grow, and support each other during difficult moments. 

Next, the work they were doing was important. That it would continue to evolve as the business evolves. It may not always look like it does today, but the importance and value are there. And they should be open to changes that may come. Fighting it only causes frustration. Being open to it allows you to get on the leading edge of creating the change you want.

Finally, they had a very strong leadership team. This team truly believed in the work they did and all the employees there. These leaders were empowering them, investing in and developing them, and working hard to remove every obstacle possible to allow for success. So often in tough times, leaders get narrow focused, step-in and take-over decisions. Or stop developing employees and checking in on their well-being. This leadership team did not do that. They continued to empower, develop and invest in their teams. I see many leaders in my work and was impressed with the leaders here.

When I see a group that has such a strong combination of all three of these things, I get excited.   Because these are teams and leaders of which I am trying to create more. And that gives me every reason to hope.

Leadership, ResilienceKaren Eber