I originally wrote this post for WorkStride.
John Lennon was killed 36 years ago today at the age of forty. Though his years were short and filled with extreme highs and sobering lows (and some bewildering activities and habits, if the oft-criticized but thoroughly engrossing Albert Goldman book, The Lives of John Lennon, is to be believed), this roller-coaster—with the exception of the tragic ending, of course—largely parallels many organizations during their growth years. Lennon left us with a legacy of beautiful music and some thought-provoking words of wisdom that, in fact, can be used to elegantly frame a number of common leadership principles.
On Shared Values:
“A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”
To have a strong company culture, everyone must share the same values and goals for the business—otherwise there is little hope for success. The primary key is that you, as a leader, has to be committed to the values even before your employees are. In fact, employees that understand the company’s core values tend to be more engaged with the company. Employees are far more likely to succeed in their positions, contribute to the bottom line and be brand ambassadors when they know (regarding the company) what they stand for and what they can do to achieve the overarching organizational goals.
“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?”
Thomas Edison thought that a light bulb could last long enough that people would use it regularly (and, effectively, change the way people lived!), and it did. Steve Jobs had the idea the idea that merging a cell phone and a music player would work, and it did. Innovation is key to the success of most businesses. What people say can’t be done can certainly be done, and that’s been proven in the past. Encourage innovation at your company, and listen to the ideas that your employees have; in all likelihood, they know even better than you because they’re in the trenches and have those day-to-day conversations that you don’t.
On Employee Engagement:
“We’ve got this gift of love, but love is like a precious plant. You can’t just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it’s going to get on by itself. You’ve got to keep watering it. You’ve got to really look after it and nurture it.”
Employee engagement is one of the hottest topics right now, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been a focus for longer! And, yes, we all know about the “perks” offered by companies with supposedly solid employee engagement: nap pods, highly-rated chefs, pet care, and so forth. But what Inc Magazine says is true: “If your employees are already disgruntled, throwing too many perks at them may only create a culture of entitlement.” Make sure the company’s goals are aligned with your expectations for your employees. Encourage a culture of recognition for top performers&mash;and for those who perform in different ways. Be clear about expectations for your employees, update them on their progress, and communicate corporate changes as soon as you hear them.
On Having and Using Data:
“When you’re drowning, you don’t think, ‘I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me,’ you just scream.”
There is no doubt that, in this day and age, you have an unprecedented amount of data about your employees. But what do you do with that data? It’s easy to get overwhelmed (or feel like you’re drowning, in this case. As a leader, first, work with HR when dealing with the general engagement, turnover rates, and company sentiment. If you are, in any way, involved with sales, you can use software like Tableau to handle the data you have about your target audience. Using tools like these can allow you to visualize the information that you already have (and you do already have it!) and analyze it in the best way possible. Data no longer has to be scary.
“Life is very short, and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friends.”
An ineffective team both minimizes productivity and reduces morale in your organization, no matter the level. The key is to invest in your teams: hire people who are the right fit for the organization, who have the skills to complement those you already have, and who are willing to collaborate without in-fighting, gossip and backstabbing. Make sure you pay attention to how the different teams in your organization are progressing, and evaluate that progress based on pre-set goals (to which the team members have already agreed).
“Produce your own dream. If you want to save Peru, go save Peru. It’s quite possible to do anything, but not if you put it on the leaders and the parking meters. Don’t expect Carter or Reagan or John Lennon or Yoko Ono or Bob Dylan or Jesus Christ to come and do it for you. You have to do it yourself.”
As an article in Entrepreneur said, “A workforce full of ‘yes’ men and women won’t push your organization to success.” And you, as a leader, should not have to micromanage, nor should your employees expect you to give them an item-by-item timeline of what needs to be accomplished. Ensure that the overarching strategy is communicated appropriately with your employees, to the point where they know, without question, what their goals are. Provide support, of course, by having regular progress meetings, providing (and rewarding) training and education, and actually listening to employee feedback.
On Work/Life Balance:
“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
I almost used another one of Lennon’s quotes—”I’m not really a career person; I’m a gardener, basically.”—for this point, but that could easily be misinterpreted as: “My employees are only working for this company because that’s what’s expected of them until they find something else. It’s just a paycheck, and they’ll do what they can—and then leave at the specified ‘end of work’ hour!” EY released a report last year that working more than 40 hours was one of the top reasons employees quit their jobs. In a startup or small business culture, yes, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “There’s always one more task I (or my team) can do in the day!” But the balance between work and life is important. As they say, “Work to live and don’t live to work.” Recent studies have shown that working too many hours can increase the chances of early death by 20%. At the very minimum, if employees are working too much to have time for their personal lives, it affects morale and productivity.
Rest in peace, John. And thanks for your insights.