Beyond “engagement”: Followers Who Know Their Leaders

By October 9, 2015 Uncategorized No Comments

In my work I often refer to one of John Maxwell’s idioms: “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  So what segment of our executive population “cares” about their people? I’m guessing it’s about one out of five which correlates to workplace surveys that report only 23% of workers are fully engaged.  People care when you care.  This sort of goes back to my family analogy in my October 2, 2015 post here.

In Adam Bryant’s October 4, 2015 Sunday New York Times Corner Office columns be interviewed Gary B. Smith, CEO of the broadband and telecommunications company Ciena. Here is a portion of the conversation, edited to highlight my topic here.


Tell me more about your parents. How have they influenced your leadership style?

My father was particularly influential. He never said a bad word about anybody, and I’ve taken some lessons from that. He was always very positive, and he did it naturally.

My mother was a little more confrontational and very direct when she needed to be. I’ve taken a little bit of both of them, and part of the skill is to know when to pull on the different levers.

What were some early management lessons for you?

My learning curve was pretty steep. I just managed by the numbers early on. If people were successful, they were fine. If they were not, that wasn’t good. It was pretty simplistic. And I was also exposed at a young age to some pretty harsh management techniques from people above me.

Eventually the penny dropped, and I realized that my role was to facilitate and create an environment that people could be successful in. And I learned to listen more than I talked.

[ Tom:  “penny dropped”? … our equivalent expression would be “shoe dropped” … “penny” harkens back to Victorian times and arcade machines that may have to be thumped if the coin got stuck ]

What are some other leadership lessons you’ve learned over the years?

Early on in my career, I was told, “It’s all about people.” I got it intellectually, but it took me quite a while to really get it. It really is all about people, and if you get that right, the other stuff will get addressed. But you have to work at it all the time.

And you’ve got to have a leadership team that is synchronized, because if you don’t, a crack at the top becomes a chasm farther down in the company. People know exactly what’s going on, and it gets amplified.

You should have differences of opinion, of course. That’s healthy. But once you agree on a strategy, then we’re all moving in the same direction. That’s critical. I’m a great believer in getting consensus, but you can’t always get consensus, and you’ve got to say, “O.K., that’s good enough. This is what we’re doing.” And then you have to make sure that’s communicated down the organization as one team.

Culture takes an awful lot of time and effort, and it can be destroyed very quickly, because it’s built on trust and respect. You’re respecting the individual and what they do, and you’re trusting them, and they’re doing the same for you. That doesn’t happen overnight. It’s like personal relationships.

What advice do you give new college grads?

I tell them about the most important lesson I learned: It’s all about the people you work with. Relationships really matter, and you need to get that right, both for your career as an individual and as a future leader.

I think a lot of people pay attention to the technical stuff and the hard stuff about whatever discipline they’re in. But it’s the softer side that will get you every time if you’re not paying attention to it. It’s probably the biggest determinant of whether you’re going to be successful.


If we think of sustained high performance organizations, there is always a leader or leadership team that gets this.  People, followers … employees, choose their degree of commitment.  Engagement is simply the reciprocal outcome of leadership communication of the organization’s values and leadership’s convictions.

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