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A 12-Step Recovery Program to Break from the Pack—Step 7: Get Personally Engaged

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When leaders are disengaged, the impact on morale and performance can be horrendous—even though the disengaged leader won't be aware of it until it's too late.

This article is excerpted from Break From the Pack: How to Compete in a Copycat Economy and is the seventh in a twelve-part series.

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Impressed by the financial record of Canadian oil giant Syncrude, I asked CEO Charles Ruigrok his leadership secret. His response was very simple: "Stay engaged."

Personal engagement is an abstract concept for any CEO who takes a separate elevator to the executive suite or surrounds himself with suck-up gatekeepers. In their book Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, former Honeywell CEO Larry Bossidy and executive consultant Ram Charan point out, "People think of execution as the tactical side of business, something leaders delegate while they focus on the perceived 'bigger' issues. This idea is completely wrong.… The leader of the organization must be deeply engaged in it." When leaders are disengaged, the impact on morale and performance can be horrendous—even though the disengaged leader won't be aware of it until it's too late. I am always struck by the lack of "personal-ity" among leaders who don't quite fathom the importance of engagement.

Great leaders delegate liberally, but they stay engaged: They personally remain in touch with employees to learn their perspectives. They personally stay involved with critical issues like product movement, staffing, reward incentives, operational planning, productivity, and financial metrics—not only so their decisions aren't made in a vacuum, but also to use their power to help their people achieve big goals. They personally immerse themselves in seeking the truth. I saw Charles Ruigrok spend nearly two days going over employee responses to work attitude surveys and, with his executive team, planning human resource policy changes and future dialogues with workers. Is it any wonder that in heavily unionized Canada, in a largely unionized oil industry, Syncrude has remained union-free and enjoys exceptional productivity and profitability?

Engaged leaders do not micromanage and second-guess their people, but they constantly stay involved and in-the-know, to help accelerate that process within the framework of The Way. Political writer Bob Woodward told a group of us that when Katharine Graham was the CEO of the Washington Post Co., she was the best manager he'd ever experienced because "she managed with the principle of 'minds on, hands off.'"

Truly engaged leaders want to smell and feel the business, not simply attend to it from afar. Describing his job as CEO of Jet Blue, David Neeleman said, "I fly at least one flight a week. I serve the customers snacks. I pick up trash, and when the plane lands, I help clean the airplane. I go out on the ramp and I throw bags." Neeleman's actions go well beyond enhancing employee and customer morale. They also help him stay viscerally in touch with the entire business without the filters. His decisions about which routes to acquire, which planes to buy, which services to implement, and which technologies to employ are better as a result. Bill George, the CEO of Medtronic who has made 1,200 observational visits to the operating room, would certainly agree.

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