By Paul Slaggert, Director of Open Enrollment Programs, Kelley School of Business Executive Education, Indiana University

A recent headline in Inc. caught my attention: “If You Answer No to 3 Short Questions, Your Leadership Skills May Be Worse Than You Think.” Teaching leadership and management effectively requires the ability to provide concise concepts and models that students can easily picture and use, so you may think it was the “3 short questions” part that caught my eye (a very short list, right?).

Actually, it was the author postulating that it’s easy to find out if you’re a good leader—or not. I have spent most of my career helping people become better leaders, so this question is near and dear to me. During my leadership programs, I always share that leadership is hard and that if it were easy, we would all know more people who do it well. “The world thirsts for more leaders,” Leo Burke (my former boss) would say when he led Executive Education at Notre Dame.

So what three questions did executive coach Marcel Schwantes pose in his Inc. column?

  1. Do you truly understand what keeps your employees engaged?
  2. Do you instill hope in others?
  3. Do you make vulnerability an active part of your conversations?

I want to focus on the first question because it’s one I deal with in the Frontline Leadership two-day short course that I teach with my friend and colleague Gar Trusley. I’ve included a segment called “What’s important to People on the Job” for years (the program previously was called Supervisory Development).

In this segment, I ask the participants to rank order 10 things that are important to people on the job. (The list is taken from a seminal research article by Ken Kovach on Employee Motivation published in 1995 in Employee Relations Today.) My course participants rank the list from the perspective of the people who work for them–not from their personal perspectives. Then, I ask them to reach a consensus on their lists with a small group of other participants. It’s always interesting to compare and contrast the responses. I have been tracking the team answers for years and they track amazingly well with the initial results published by Kovach.

This exercise actually gets directly to the first question posed by Schwantes. It’s always interesting to see if people who lead and manage on a daily basis have any understanding of what’s important to people on the job. If you don’t, how can you motivate them? Here’s what Schwantes wrote: “Good leaders know what’s needed to keep their most talented employees happy and engaged. They spend considerable time developing culture and equipping their tribe to do great work.”

Yes or No?

Both the initial results of the Kovach survey and the consistent results I get every time I lead this session show that managers and leaders often don’t know what is important to the people who work for them—and this is really bad. Often, some leaders operate off of some serious misunderstanding or incorrect assumptions about what motivates people.

Frontline Leadership Program

Participants in the Frontline Leadership program generally find this activity to be eye-opening. The greatest value of what I ask them to do comes from the discussion they have within their small groups and the debrief we do afterward. We share experiences and expectations and I challenge some of their assumptions. Valuable learning occurs when they hear from their peers what is going on in other organizations. It provides a window into the outside world that helps them determine how to go back and become a better and more effective leader.

The work I’ve been doing with frontline leaders for so many years really underscores Shwantes’ point that leaders need to know what’s important to their employees in order to lead well. It’s hard work, but if you care about your people, you’ll find a way to ensure that you can answer “Yes” to this important question. Doing so will help you take a major step toward becoming a more effective leader.

Paul Slaggert is Director of Open Enrollment Programs at Kelley School of Business Executive Education at Indiana University.

He has nearly 40 years of experience at IU, Notre Dame, University of Cincinnati, and Boston College helping individuals develop their leadership skills and capabilities. He is one of two instructors in KSBEE’s short course Frontline Leadership. Paul has delivered this program for a wide range of organizations and for leaders at all levels of organizations.