What do employees most want from their leaders?

by Sam on May 25, 2010

One-Minute Answer:  How do your direct reports count on you to behave?


One of the best parts of my work is when the C-level executives I serve allow me to get to know employees throughout the company. I’ve learned so much about good leadership this way.


Sometimes it’s a matter of meeting people on the shop or office floor. From time to time it’s analyzing an employee satisfaction survey. A few weeks ago it involved conducting an exit interview.


What I’ve thus learned about employee needs will not surprise you. Revelation is not the value of the five-minute answer to follow. You already know you should lead in the ten ways we’re about to describe. Instead, a first purpose is to encourage you to discover how important each of these wants might be for one or more of your direct reports. A second rationale is to affirm you as you realize that you’re already fulfilling several of them. And a third intent is for you to be so powerfully afflicted by the rest that you vow to meet them more fully.



Five-Minute Answer:  I’m fantasizing a discussion with one of your direct reports. After guaranteeing anonymity I ask, “What’s the one thing that you most want from your boss that you’re not getting?” I hear, “Please tell my boss to…”


1.    Listen to my ideas.  “I don’t expect him always to do what I suggest, but I need to believe that he’s given my ideas a fair hearing. Perhaps he could do more than just stare at me when I make a suggestion. He might paraphrase back to me what he’s heard me say. He might even get back to me with an update on what’s happened to my idea. And it sure would be nice if he looked me in the eye when I speak.”

2.    Be open to feedback.  “She needs to be less defensive when I point out an error or a decision that hasn’t worked out so well. She’s asked us to help her as a leader by pointing out what she could do better, but none of us really believe she wants to hear it. Maybe if she would tell us a leadership quality she’s determined to improve and ask us for a positive suggestion for getting better at it, we’d offer help. And her response to the feedback should be a simple thank you instead of the look we get now.”

3.    Help my career.  “I know he can’t promise a specific career path, but I would like to think that he cares about my future. Can I get a mentor? I crave someone who’ll give me the real scoop on the ‘dues’ you need to pay around here to get ahead. And what are the skills I should develop to receive the best consideration for promotions? What’s reasonable to ask for and expect in terms of personal and professional growth opportunities? And regarding my desire to move ahead am I seen as too aggressive or not aggressive enough? Help!”

4.    Show appreciation.  “What does it take to get noticed in this company? I hope my work is appreciated, but ‘atta boys’ are so few and far between. It sure would be nice to know I’m making a difference by having someone tell me so. About the only time I hear from my boss is when I’ve not measured up, and even then I’m not sure I hear everything.”

5.    Level with me.  “Too many promises aren’t kept. I suspect it’s because there never was intent to keep them—like the last cost-cutting measures that came right after we were told they had ended. Be honest with us; we can take it. And, also, please let me know where I stand. Once a year is not frequent enough to get feedback on my performance. I need to hear both the criticism and praise that you have the desire to deliver. Don’t make me guess at how valued my work is.”

6.    Display integrity.  “Nothing’s worse than reporting to someone you can’t respect. Let your word be your bond. Don’t ask us to behave in ways that you won’t live up to yourself. Cause us to see you conducting business in the most ethical and moral ways. Do the right thing.”

7.    State expectations.  “You didn’t hire Kreskin the mind reader. Yes, we have job descriptions, but they don’t reveal what’s really important to you. What core values—which you are also going to live by, I might add—should rule our behavior? And stop telling us exactly what to do; instead, tell us what you want to accomplish and let us help you figure out how to make it happen.”

8.    Respect our time.  “We have families and other pursuits outside the office. Our grandparents and even our parents were willing to sacrifice their lives for a job, but this is a new time. When I’m at work, I’ll give everything I can to help this company succeed, and I’ll even take work home occasionally, but know that at 5 o’clock, the rest of my body wants to follow my head out the door.”

9.    Trust me.  “Make my work meaningful by giving me more challenging responsibilities. Include me in on decisions that affect me directly. Don’t hold everything so close to the vest; let me exercise more judgment, discretion, and creativity. Use my talents. I can add much greater value to this company than I’m being allowed to.”

10.  Hold everyone accountable.  “Employees who don’t carry their share of the load can’t be allowed to get away with that. Don’t tolerate incompetence, and refuse to play favorites. It’s very discouraging when those of us who give their all see underperformers not suffer consequences for their lack of commitment and especially their destructive behavior.”


Try This:  Don’t miss a great opportunity to learn what your direct reports want from you. Ask this question: “If I decide to prioritize three of the items on the list (above) to address more fully through my leadership which ones should they be?” Allow them to retain anonymity, unless the history of your relationship supports open feedback. You might also ask them to underline the most apt statements in each quote to help you decide exactly how to improve. If I can assist you with your resulting development plan send me a comment.


Enough Said:  “You can get everything in life you want if you help enough other people get what they want.”  ~Zig Ziglar

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