The transformational benefits of treating every employee as a leader

When I first told the staff at my company that we consider every employee a “leader,” I made an Oprah joke. “You’re a leader! You’re a leader! Everyone’s a leader!” After all, it sounds to some people like an impossibility. How can all of our 1,600 team members be leaders? When I tell people outside the company about this, some think it sounds like we’re watering down the idea of what it means to lead.

But this system has profound benefits. It has helped us keep top talent throughout the pandemic and the “Great Resignation.”

We’re not alone. A study from the O.C. Tanner Institute found that organizations “that treat every employee as a leader create the best leaders —and the best cultures.” These companies have higher scores across 10 different metrics, such as engagement, inclusion, and employee experience. Burnout levels drop.

Why does this happen? Because it delivers a fundamental shift that gives people “greater autonomy and opportunity” and broadens development opportunities, the report explains.

ENCOURAGING INNOVATION AND RISK-TAKING

To make this system work, you need to establish what leadership means in the organization. At Gympass, we make clear that leaders have the responsibility and accountability to make decisions. Not only do they have permission to create new projects and try out new ideas within their scope, but they are also expected to.

Throughout my career, I’ve often seen fear hold back innovation. People are afraid that their idea might fail, that they’ll come across as “rocking the boat” unnecessarily, or that they’re overstepping their bounds. They think that if they simply do things the way everyone else is doing them, they’ll avoid all these problems.

So, when they get an idea, they either don’t speak up or they ask their managers to sign off on it first. In these companies, managers often then ask their higher-ups, and so on, until ideas just fall through the cracks.

When you establish that everyone is a leader, employees are more willing to take risks. It becomes an everyday norm. Along with this innovation comes accountability for results. Employees need to pay close attention to the consequences of their choices, correct what goes wrong, and keep looking for ways to refine and improve.

Numerous employees have told me that by calling them all leaders, we have empowered them to experiment with changes. For example, one team member in talent acquisition saw that we were having trouble hiring a certain profile of candidate. So, they changed the questions they were asking in the recruiting process. The change worked. This employee ended up training others to make similar changes.

Similarly, junior recruiters tried changing the types of tests we give different candidates and the stages at which candidates take those tests. The recruiters then came together, discussed what worked well, and put changes into action across the board. It may sound unusual, but rather than creating mass confusion, it allowed simultaneous experimenting to determine what works better. The result was a faster, more successful hiring cycle.

This freedom is a big part of what helped us weather the pandemic successfully. A staff full of people unafraid to take the lead in trying new things delivered new solutions.

BROADER LEADERSHIP MODEL

We also tell our staff that being a leader means more than just creating new ideas and projects and seeing them through. We have a leadership model with three pillars that we apply to all employees: Build trust; inspire and empower others; and drive performance.

In career conversations and performance reviews, we speak with each employee about these pillars, and look for them to demonstrate actions in keeping with each category. What have they done recently to build trust with fellow employees and/or customers? How have they inspired or empowered colleagues? How have they affected organizational growth?

We include these pillars in the hiring process as well, asking candidates about moments in which they demonstrated these abilities. When conducting reference checks, we ask about them as well.

The first two pillars in particular serve as powerful reminders that leaders are not “lone wolves.” All our team members must be collaborative, helping each other achieve goals while also giving each other the space to accomplish their tasks in their own ways.

THE TALENT PIPELINE

Establishing that everyone is a leader also helps to ensure that there are plenty of terrific, capable internal candidates for promotions to management positions.

Promoting internally is often better than hiring from the outside. Internal candidates have organizational knowledge and relationships. Promoting them increases longevity at the company overall, while rejected internal candidates are likely to leave. Yet in one study, 40% of managers were nevertheless hired from the outside. Such a high figure suggests too many companies are failing to build enough internal talent.

When you establish that everyone is a leader, you make sure that all employees are getting some form of leadership experience—for example, running meetings or overseeing a cross-functional project, which helps them build those skills.

Through internal surveys, we’ve seen the results of this system. Employees express a greater sense of purpose and connection to the company. More people than ever say they work in a place that genuinely cares about people.

So, while we may not be giving everyone a free car, we can see that extending our vision of leadership has provided its own rewards.

Source: GWFM Research & Study

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