How to Lead With Your Heart

What type of a leader are you? Many years ago, I asked my grandfather (who had started and built a very successful engineering company) what kind of a leader he was. His answer was that he led with love. 

If you Google “leadership types” you’ll get a mindboggling list of ways to think about the differences between leaders; from the skills they have to their personalities to the way they relate to their employees: you’ll find visionaries and resources and servants and motivators and coaches and commanders and free-rein leaders. But you won’t find leading with love on any of those lists—at least I didn’t.

What my grandfather meant by “leading with love” was that he tried to take the same approach with his employees as he did with his family and friends. If you do take that approach with employees, it changes your perception. When they make a mistake, you teach them rather than scold them. Instead of criticizing, you encourage. You give second and third chances. But you don’t enable destructive behavior: you confront it, work with them to fix it, and then move on. When a problem is over, it’s over: holding grudges does not count as loving behavior. 

All too often, owner advisors buy into the misguided management practice of being “slow to hire and quick to fire.” Not only is this the opposite of a patient, loving management style, but it’s just bad business. We do a lot of recruiting for our clients, and we’ve found that even with the most rigorous screening process, retaining new employees for the long term is a 50-50 proposition at best. Those are bad odds: in the majority of cases, firms are way better off fixing their existing relationships than starting all over again with someone new.

We encourage all our owner-advisors to think of their employee relationships as 50/50 propositions. Sometimes people say they can make them work at 70/30, etc., but we’ve never see that happen: If you compensate by putting in more, you set that as the standard of that relationship, and it’s very difficult to get back to 50%. So, when we run into problem employees, the first question we ask is this: Did the owner-advisor put in his or her 50%? If not, go back and do that—first. 

Then we evaluate the employee. Usually, we find the problem is solved. But sometimes you have to give tough love: talk to them about putting in their 50%. Finally, if they prove to be unable or unwilling to do that, you have to let them go. But this is always the very last resort; not the first.

Virtually all advisors want employees who are detail oriented. In fact, the lack of such an orientation is probably the reason 90% of employees get fired. But while attention to detail comes more naturally to some people than others, it can also be learned. Many advisors often become way more detail oriented in order to better serve their clients. They do it because they care. 

Likewise, I’ve seen many employees who are not detail oriented become so; when an owner leads with love, employees quite often develop skils that you didn’t think they could attain.

My grandfather’s company grew to be quite large in the heavily industrial Midwest. Yet his employees never felt the need to unionize (despite many outside attempts to do so). He had very little turnover, and most of his employees stayed with the company for life. His favorite saying was: “You’ll always win with love.”

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