Leadership: It’s the Softer Side That Counts

Here’s a guest post by Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn/Ferry International:

Never underestimate the softer side.

By the time you become a senior leader, you have already mastered the technical skills. What may be missing, however, are the nuances and the seemingly simple truths that get lost in the noise around how to run an organization. These are the softer skills, which may look simple, but are deceptively so.
There is nothing simple about empowering people so that the decisions they make and the actions they take are aligned with the overall values and strategy of the organization. It is not easy to remember the importance of rewarding your team continuously with praise and acknowledgement of milestones achieved, especially while you’re steering an organization to an endpoint over the horizon.
As I have found in my own career, and in discussions with global leaders, from well-respected CEOs and board members, to heads of state, leading is less about analytics and decisions, and much more about aligning, motivating, and empowering others to make those decisions. These truths are part of essential elements of leadership, which I call “the absolutes.” Although strategic and practical, they are inspiring and motivational, as the entire organization becomes aligned behind a greater purpose and a grander mission that is bigger than any one individual.

To be a leader is to make others believe; in challenging times to convey that “everything will be okay,” and that together the team will find a way forward. As a leader, you must have confidence in your own ability, but most important in your team. Leadership is humbling, knowing that it is never about you, as the leader. Leadership is all about what others achieve.

No matter how many times a basketball player practices a shot, what counts most is his performance with the team. So too it is with leadership. Leaders seek feedback on what can be improved, make the change, and measure the outcome. Leaders review some performance indicators on a daily basis and others weekly. The best measure of all, I have found, is talking to and observing customers and employees. Through the tone, cadence, and content of the feedback I receive, I can glean what no computer screen or spreadsheet can reveal. I can gauge the subtleties of whether the organization is engaged and aligned to the purpose, vision, and strategy, as well as where the opportunities and challenges can be found.

Several years ago, when we were in the early stages of transforming our mono-line brand, focused on executive recruiting, to multiple lines of business by moving carefully outside of our core offering. I visited one of our large operations. As one of my colleagues gave me a tour, introducing me to all of the employees, I noticed that she skipped three individuals who were sitting in interior offices. When I asked who they were she replied, “Oh, you don’t need to meet them. They are with our new business,” as if they were not part of our company at all.

I bit my tongue and kept my reaction to myself. I made it a point, however, to welcome these newcomers to the company. That night as I flew home I was so upset by how these employees had been dismissed that I crafted a “One Company” strategy, which today is the basis for how we operate. Had I not taken the time to visit the office and walk around to meet everyone, I never would have seen what was happening, including the need to create unity and alignment.

That is the softer side of leadership, which if unheeded will become a leader’s blind spot. Being a leader, being a CEO, is not just a position; it is a privilege and a responsibility. The lessons learned from the leadership journey are numerous. I am continually reminded that I’m not simply a messenger of our strategy. My job is to be the message—not only in words, but in demeanor, mannerisms, decisions, and actions.

It is the nuances of leadership that make the difference—the soft side, which just may be the hardest part of all.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn/Ferry International, the world’s largest executive recruiting firm and a leader in talent management. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller “No Fear of Failure” (Jossey-Bass, 2011), and the bestselling “The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership” (McGraw-Hill, 2012).