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LEADERS: You ARE What You Say––And How You Say It!

"Who you are as a leader becomes reality in the hearts and minds of the people you serve through what you say––and more important––how you say it."

Imagine this scenario…

You’ve found your dream job. You’re a manager in the customer service department of a hip, relatively new online retailer. Business is booming, publicity is fantastic and the company is growing rapidly.

Part of the reason you joined is the company’s “customer obsessed” culture. Everyone is focused on providing the best customer service experience available.

You’re working hard and answering the call when execs, and particularly the CEO ask for extra hours. You’ve cancelled travel plans and rescheduled vacations to accommodate the holiday push or to respond to supply chain or quality control issues. After all, things happen and the customer comes first, right?

During a particularly tough Valentine’s crunch, you and your colleagues are burning the midnight oil. Everyone is driving hard, but customer response is falling behind. The problem is exacerbated by a supply problem with some very popular items.

Despite your initial enthusiasm about the company’s vision, you’ve been having some doubts. People have been singled out for falling short of expectations. You and others on the front lines have shared concerns over a lack of staffing. People have been feeling overly pressured to put in excessive overtime, but despite the extra hours executive management continually expresses disappointment in overall performance. Some people have been particularly singled out and several have quit over what they see as poor treatment or excessive demands…

But hell, there are people who just can’t hack it in any organization––right? And this is high pressure business with little margin for error.

To keep lines open and transparent, everyone communicates on a company social media channel. The day before Valentine’s Day, you wake to find this message the CEO posted at 3AM…

“I know this group is hungry for career development opportunities, and in an effort to support you in developing your skills, I am going to help you learn the career skill of accountability. To hold you more [paid time off] or [work from home] requests will be considered from the 6 of you...I hope everyone in this group appreciates the thoughtfulness I’ve put into creating this career development opportunity and that you’re all excited to operate consistently with our core values.”

What’s your first reaction?

  • Do you appreciate the CEO’s “thoughtfulness” and concern?

  • Do you think the CEO truly has your best interests at heart?

  • Or––does this message seem a bit sarcastic and condescending?

This is not a hypothetical.

This message is quoted from a recent article by Zoey Schiffer in The Verge. It’s from Steph Korey, founder of the highly touted online luggage retailer Away. This article and several messages published therein led to Korey’s resignation as CEO.

The article continues…

“The CEO often vacillated between being funny and relatable to hyper-critical and even cruel…Korey often framed her critiques in terms of Away’s core company values: thoughtful, customer-obsessed, iterative, empowered, accessible, in it together. Empowered employees didn’t schedule time off when things were busy, regardless of how much they’d been working. Customer-obsessed employees did whatever it took to make consumers happy, even if it came at the cost of their own well-being.”

The gist of the article accuses Korey of propagating a “toxic culture” where employees were publicly shamed and bullied, publicly insulted, subjected to harsh expectations including excessive hours, pressure to work through holidays and micromanagement at every level.

Those accusations may be true. Or this may be a case of people who just couldn’t rise up to the challenges of this high-pressure business. Jason Shen offers an interesting alternate view in his Fast Company article:

“Some felt the criticism of the company was unfair. LA investor Peter Pham called the article a 'hit piece' and said ‘people are getting soft,’ while Lambda School founder Austen Allred argued that 'something like 99%' of all high-growth startups could have a similarly negative piece should a reporter go looking for it.”

As I said at the start…

Who you are as a leader becomes reality in the hearts and minds of the people you serve through what you say––and more important––how you say it.

Korey’s own words led to her downfall. She has nobody to blame but herself the perception employees have of her. She seems to realize this too. Since her resignation she has shared a message of contrition.

In a statement to Business Insider, Korey said this:

"I can imagine how people felt reading those messages from the past, because I was appalled to read them myself…I am sincerely sorry for what I said and how I said it. It was wrong, plain and simple.”

I sincerely hope that’s true. Steph Korey seems to be a dynamic, creative and certainly ambitious person. I wish her nothing but success.

Korey could be a tyrant. She might also be the victim of what I call the “Authoritarian Slip.”

The Slip happens when we don’t realize that we’re becoming the tyrant. And it often happens for good reasons.

  • It happens under the pressures of performance––like those no doubt felt during Away’s rapid start-up and expansion.

  • It happens in crises––when there is overwhelming urgency.

  • It happens when we feel that people are not responsive to real needs or are not taking their responsibilities seriously.

  • It happens when we don’t take the time to consider how our words and actions might be perceived by others––particular those we don’t have much or any contact with.

Most of all it happens when there is a disconnect between leadership and the real conditions of people through the ranks.

You define your leadership through your words and actions––and they better be consistent. It’s interesting that nearly all of us can tell a story of a tough, rough talking boss we respected, trusted, admired and even loved. It’s not just a few undignified words here or there––it’s how this message is delivered and whether or not it’s consistent with a leader’s example and the vision they promote.

To be fair, nobody is questioning Korey’s work-ethic. By all accounts she exceeds the levels of performance she expects from others––including long hours, working through holidays and doing whatever is necessary in crunch times.

I don’t work for Korey, nor do I know her, but when I read her Valentine’s message my first impression was that this person is snarky, petty, obtuse and arrogant. There was nothing remotely inspirational or empowering––it was an obvious attack on the character and value of the people she serves…

Richard Branson famously said:

“Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”

I can’t agree more. The age of command and control is dead. If you’re still operating in that mode you’re in trouble––and that seems to be the trouble Korey ran into.

A word of caution––it’s easy to judge. I don’t believe Steph Korey is an evil person. The Authoritarian Slip can and does happen to all of us to one degree or another. This is one of the many reasons an accurate sense of self-awareness is so critical to effective leadership. We’ve got to know when we slip and correct ourselves before it’s too late.

This story highlights this most important fact about leadership:

“We lead PEOPLE. And leaders are people too!”

It’s too easy to lose our humanity in the rough and tumble, fast-paced business world. We can’t let ourselves fall into that trap.

People perform at their best when––and only when––they know their leaders care. And if you do care––your words had better communicate that caring clearly and your actions must demonstrate your sincerity and consistency. In other words…

If you’re going to talk the talk––walk the walk!

Branson is right on. If you don’t take care of your people, who will take care of your customers? You are a leader. Your first and foremost responsibility is to the people who trust in your leadership.
  • Be sincere. If you don’t care––don’t bother.

  • Be an effective communicator.

  • Think about what you say and how you say it.

  • Think about the effect your words have on the people you serve.

  • Who you are as a leader becomes reality in the hearts and minds of the people you serve through what you say and how you say it.

  • We lead people––and leaders are people too. If we want to be better leaders, we need to focus on being more human.


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