“Call Me Nick!” Leadership in Running Shoes
We were dressed in our splendid attire: wool suits, buffed shoes and combed hair. My peers and I –some 60 middle managers from around the region– were attending a manager’s conference in 1991. We anxiously awaited the arrival of our demi-god.
And who might that have been?
None other than the Deputy Minister (DM) of our federal department, who had flown down from head office in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. We were cloistered in a community college in the small, beautiful city of Edmundston, NewBrunswick, just a stone’s throw from northern Maine.
We waited with trepidation for Nick Mulder’s arrival. A deputy minister, for civil servants, is to be worshipped, a form of immortal beast, who knows all and who sees all—a purveyor of the future. (Or so goes the lingering mythology). A DM to the uninitiated is equivalent to a CEO or president in the private sector. His or her boss is the Minister, an elected politician (a Secretary in the U.S.).
Finally murmurs broke out: “The DM is here!”
Suddenly the deputy minister walked into the room. He took one look at us and broke out laughing. “Why the heck are you people dressed up?” Standing before us was our demi-god, except that he had on casual pants, running shoes and a rumpled shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He then worked the room, shaking our hands and exclaiming repeatedly, “Nick Mulder; good to meet you. Call me Nick!”
Well, that proved to be a drycleaning waste of time.
Fast forward to a few months later.
Nick Mulder was on his way to the regional office in Fredericton where I worked as chief economist. I was a newbie manager in my mid-thirties, and was dutifully impressed with such immortal beings. A suit was in order that day!
“Call me Nick” arrived and met first with my direct boss, the executive head of the New Brunswick Region. The DM then wanted to tour the regional office, all 135 employees who worked there. He stopped at my office, only to say to me, “I don’t want to talk to you; I want to meet your staff.”
Another wasted drycleaning effort.
So off went the deputy minister to meet my small team of economists and support staff. “Hi, Nick Mulder. Call me Nick!” And Nick sat down in the cubicles of my team members, chatting them up, asking them what they did.
How often do you see your organization’s top dog actually making a concrete effort to reach out and touch the regular folk who get the work down?
I worked in the public service of Canada for three decades before retiring at the end of 2010. I worked in five departments, covering both a regional office and headquarters. Nick Mulder was the ONLY top organizational leader in my experience who made a consistent effort to really meet staff–to reach out and touch them in a genuine way. This is the proverbial “walking the talk.”
Nick is a very bright guy who got things done. He worked in a variety of large departments. At the time, I worked for the big Department of Employment and Immigration, some 23,000 employees.
Top leaders need to periodically get off their high horse and connect with the people who get the work done in organizations, and it certainly helps to put on some running shoes to keep you more nimble. Connecting regularly with employees is especially important when one is leading a private or public organization that has a strong orientation to customers or clients.
There’s no better way for a top leader to get face-to-face with an employee who works in a remote local office serving unemployment insurance clients.
There’s no better way for a corporate CEO to talk to employees in a hardware store to find out what their challenges are in serving demanding customers in a competitive marketplace.
And there’s no better way for the president of a non-profit organization to speak to those staff who diligently canvas donors each and every day.
If you’re a senior manager and you’re not making a regular effort to connect to your hardworking employees, then you’re not just missing an opportunity to improve organizational performance but you’re also negligent as a leader. For leadership, at its core, is about creating a loyal followership through a shared vision. You can’t do that if you never face your people from time to time.
Take a moment to read Leadership and the Bottom Line to see a contrast between leadership that gets it and that which does not.
Leadership is NOT about mission statements that get mounted on boardroom walls or that are in corporate newsletters. It’s NOT about proclaiming “Employees are our most important asset.” And it’s NOT about stating that the organization has a new set of values and ethics.
This news isn’t just for the person at the organization’s apex, but also for those in the entire hierarchical pyramid.
Reflect on “Call me Nick” Mulder. Are you ready to roll up your sleeves and put on the running shoes?
The only test of leadership is that somebody follows. – Robert K. Greenleaf
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