One of Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite things to do
during the dark days of World War II, as well as throughout his tenure
in the White House, was to make cocktails for his guests. As Jon
Meacham tells us in Franklin and Winston,
a biography of the friendship between FDR and Churchill, Roosevelt
would wheel into the room full of guests and quickly make himself busy
mixing drinks. It was a time for levity amid seriousness but for FDR,
confined to a wheelchair by polio, it was the only time of day when he
was physically able to serve others. His gracious hospitality was
evident in his smile and jocularity, both calculated to put others at
ease. This simple act of mixing drinks was FDR’s way of connecting with
people on a personal level, apart from the woeful cares of state.
The Power of Helping
“How can I help you?” may be one of the most powerful combinations
of words in the English language, yet today we find them so overused
that they have lost some of their impact. That is a shame because the
willingness to serve others lies at the very heart of leadership. I
belong to a network of consultants that asks its membership to ask what
each can do for the other. Fraternal organizations make use of the same
principle. To an outsider the practice may seem trite, but if you are
on the receiving end of the question, it may be something that can lead
to a professional introduction, a new insight into a vexing problem or
a door opened to a new line of business.
Managers can leverage this mantra, too. Since we live in an age
when management is more about enabling others than administrating
details, managers who ask their people how they can help them are not
being meddlesome. They are being savvy. When you add a touch of
graciousness — that is, genuine courtesy and respect — you not only
open minds of your people, you open their spirits. And that can lead to
some powerful results.
Here’s what you can to encourage it.
Set expectations for involvement. When managers set expectations
for their people, both one-on-one and for the team, they should define
their own role. They should make it explicit that they expect to be a
resource, which will vary from team to team. For a marketing group,
being a management resource may mean liaising with senior leadership to
make certain that there is enough funding for a product launch. For an
engineering team, being a resource can be an extra pair of hands,
someone who can pitch in with project management or whatever needs to
be done to get the work flow optimized. When you set the expectations
up front, people know that you are available.
Know your limits. Being available does not mean hovering.
Managers who meddle suck the oxygen out of a project so that people
cannot function. None of us likes to look over our shoulder, but if we
have a manager who is always there, we feel compelled to second-guess
ourselves. That’s a time waster, as well as an inhibitor to initiative
and creativity. Not only does such cautious watchfulness harm
productivity, it hinders personal growth for employees and managers.
When this occurs, help becomes meddlesome and all sense of graciousness
goes by the wayside.
Demand the right example. Organizations that pride themselves on
customer service demonstrate how helpfulness is contagious. Nordstrom
has pioneered outstanding customer care in retail. RitzCarlton
demonstrates what it means in hospitality, and Southwest Airlines shows
that courtesy can exist at 35,000 feet. Marriott, the parent company of
RitzCarlton, also practices what it preaches internally. From training
to career development, Marriott works to ensure that all of its people
have what they need to do their jobs as well as opportunities for
better compensation and advancement, not simply for managers but for
all service personnel.
Do it with a smile. Like children, employees know when your
actions lack sincerity. When you offer help, act like you mean it.
Being gracious is a way to connect to your people on a human level.
What’s more, common sense will tell you that managers who demonstrate
sincerity get more in return. They get genuine commitment rather than
pro forma compliance. All of us want to work for people who care. We
want recognition for our work, not simply after we do it, but before we
begin. If we know our manager is counting on us, we will perform. And
we will go the extra mile.
Graciousness is not the same as being soft. Few would accuse FDR of
lacking resolve or shirking from challenges. He faced down murderous
dictators just as he stared down his own physical infirmities.
Roosevelt, like so many who have overcome adversity, embody the adage
that what does not destroy you will make you stronger. But through it
all, he never lost his willingness to do for others. As Roosevelt’s
biographer Geoffrey C. Ward tells us, this attitude was most evident at
Warm Springs, the resort for polio victims he bought in the ’20s and,
for a period ,actively ran, so much so that he conducted exercise
classes, provided physical therapy and of course served as a beacon of
optimism for fellow sufferers.
Many managers feel that if they show civility in the workplace, it
sends the wrong signal. They feel they will be taken advantage of, so
they put up a tough front. Such behavior is learned; their bosses did
it to them so they feel they must give it back. Well, such behavior can
be unlearned, too. Recall the Jewish proverb: “Don’t open a shop unless
you know how to smile.” American Airlines, a legacy carrier with a
heritage of labor management woes, is trying to reverse course. CEO
Gerard Arpey is listening to his people and actively implementing their
ideas. He is demonstrating a sense of graciousness about what it means
to be a manager. His example, if nurtured properly, can foster a new
outlook on manager-employee relations.
Managers who put themselves out for their people are most often
managers who get results. By demonstrating the willingness to help,
they facilitate the workflow. They provide encouragement as well as
insight, and in the long run they make things easier for their people
but most often for themselves. By enabling others to get the work done,
they free themselves to focus on what comes next. They may even buy
time to think of how to do things better with fewer steps, something
that not only saves labor, but time and expense. And when that happens,
they are restoring full power to those five words, “how may I help