Having an environment of self-improvement that is company-wide should be every CEO’s dream. This will create a space that is innovative, fresh, creative and self policing. As good as this all sounds, however, there are a lot of factors at play that can destroy the fragile environment that is a workplace. While I have done some things right in my time as a CEO, I have also learned through my mistakes what can kill the innate nature of self-improvement that I believe we as humans all possess.
Here are three steps you can take to help promote self improvement in your work environment.
Lead By Example
Probably the most important ingredient of all effective leadership is example. If you are not open to your company about the areas that you are actively working on improving, how can you expect to create an open and accepting environment? A lot of leaders think they can’t show vulnerability, and if you aren’t actively trying to become a better human, then maybe you shouldn’t show your vulnerabilities. However, if you are someone who is constantly trying to better yourself, this should be a journey that is shared with those around you.
This isn’t some neurotic, self-defacing mindset; it’s actually quite the opposite. You have to be comfortable in your own skin and willing to accept and admit when you make a mistake if you ever want to be able to open up. Let me give you an example.
Every month we have a company meeting where at the end I address 97th Floor as a whole. I find this a good place to share some of my goals and things I am working on, as well as obstacles that I have recently conquered that might have been hindering my own personal progress. I like to tell stories about things that have happened over the past month, and use those stories as a catalyst to share my growth.
This is not a braggadocios address; this is more along the lines of, “I had no idea how I was going to answer that question during the pitch” or “I felt completely embarrassed by my presentation when I rehearsed the night before in the hotel, so I stayed up all night and re-wrote the entire thing.” When I am meeting with teams and employees, I likewise make an effort to share any of my own experiences that could help them in their situations. By presenting myself as a growing person, rather than an infallible authority figure, I help create a safe place where employees won’t feel like their leaders will judge them or their co-workers will try to circumvent them at the slightest sign of weakness.
This doesn’t always have to be related to work improvements either. In the early days of 97th Floor I was about 50 pounds overweight, and when I openly went through my journey to take back control of my physical and mental health, it really sparked a trend in the company. We’ve had several employees get back into fighting shape, or reach new personal bests, or resolve auto-immune issues. I’m proud of my people when they better themselves, and I don’t believe it would be possible if we weren’t as open as we are.
We’re not shy in the least. We share our blood work with each other along with tips on how we are improving. We share opinions on supplements. We share butter tea recipes. As a result, self improvement has become integral to our culture. It’s amazing to see employees are not only improving in business, but are also feeling better physically. Supportive work environments are those that foster beneficial change in all aspects of an employee's life — not just those that directly impact the bottom line.
Be Clear on the KPIs
Of course, that’s not to say that the bottom line isn’t important. It absolutely is, but more than that, it can be a valuable measure of how effectively a business is promoting self improvement.
When going ROWE, we shifted from an environment that judged employee effectiveness by how long they clocked in or how well they obeyed the ever-important office rules, to one that focuses exclusively on results. This is single-handedly the best way to foster an environment of self-improvement, as the employees are clear as to what they should work on. However if the ‘results’ or KPIs that you have laid out for them are not clear, then this can be a disaster that will slowly kill the drive to improve.
I bring this up often, but years ago when we had fewer than 10 employees, I was running the whole company in terms of payroll, insurance, etc., but I also directly oversaw one division, while our now COO Wayne Sleight, a then up and coming employee, was running another. He and I talked regularly, and he had pretty clear KPIs — not handed to him from me, but from his own awareness of his position. His department was humming; mine on the other hand was quite the opposite. The work we were putting out was top-notch, but we often missed deadlines and had terrible client communication. This was 100% on me, and with the benefit of hindsight, I’m able to see the biggest problems we were facing:
I was way too busy to be running the division. I should have clearly tasked someone to do it and provided them the same freedom and accountability I had given Wayne. I had asked several different people during this time to ‘run’ the division, but I often micromanaged and stepped in, but only sporadically because I was being pulled in so many directions as the CEO. This created an unstable, inconsistent environment where I would be very present one day, and then totally gone or checked out in another. It also made it so I wasn’t very clear on my expectations with those running point, because I would often swoop in and take care of tasks that really didn’t require my involvement. One day the person running point had all the keys to the kingdom, and then the next, I would come in and take them all away.
This was all done out of a desire to help my people out, but intentions aside, it watered down the KPIs, and it created a slow death of not knowing how to improve. Things became so lopsided, that we often had to pull money from the other side of the company just to cover salaries.
If you want those around you to improve, give them a clear roadmap, both in terms of results but also in terms of a career path.
Give and Invite Constructive Criticism
When you have clear KPIs set for your employees, you can give clear constructive criticism. You know how you are to coach them on their journey. If you have a sales person that isn’t energetic enough during the pitch and you know that is a huge part of closing the deal, then it becomes a conversation of how to improve to help them close more deals or achieve their KPIs.
I am very a much a cheerleader — it comes from being very passionate about what I do. Often after going to a meeting with employees, they remark about the energy in the room and how well a meeting went, and that gives me a good opening to talk to them about how important it is to let the prospect or the client see your passion, and is a good way to set a precedent for my workforce and let them know that I expect them to be passionate about what they do.
After these meetings, or after speaking engagements where employees are present, I will ask my people how I can improve. This is because my employees can be my best critics, given their familiarity with the context. Did I make them feel uncomfortable by something I said, did I say “um” too much? When requesting feedback from your employees, ask for honesty, and be sure to accept any criticism you receive graciously and with an open mind. Sure, at first you will get ‘yes men’ answers from people who just want to get on your good side, but as you improve your relationship with your employees, those kind of responses will drop away. Start by suggesting something you felt you need to improve on and then invite your people to add anything else, and let them know that ‘yes man’ answers aren’t going to cut it. In my experience our female employees are a lot more forthcoming and not as afraid to give criticism.
We are very fortunate at 97th Floor to have a healthy environment of self improvement. We are all collectively working together to better ourselves, not just in our professions, but also in our lives. This focus has helped us build a company culture that extends well beyond the office walls, and is gaining prominence throughout the business world.
As I said before, an environment of self improvement should be every CEO’s dream, but dreams only take you so far. Turning that dream into reality, on the other hand, now that’s a goal worth striving for.