It comes as no surprise that CEOs who value their employees reap the benefits, including higher productivity, more trustworthy behavior and higher retention. Higher Ambition Leadership Alliance, a non-profit committed to harnessing the power of leadership to create stronger organizations, conducted a study of CEOs to determine how such executives fuel performance. In a time when many employees across the world are becoming more concerned with purpose, inclusivity, authenticity and communication, leaders who take human-centered approaches are making strides across industries.
As the study explained, “Now more than ever the world is looking to business for meaningful and intentional leadership.” To that end, Higher Ambition Leadership says it is determined to help corporate leaders realize the full potential of their company’s people, purpose and performance.
The Alliance believes that this human-centered approach results in trusting relationships with stakeholders, supportive company cultures, outperformance of peers and a positive influence on the world. Shared themes of building trust, honoring people and embracing authenticity were seen among the participating CEOs. Rather than seeking quick results, cutting corners or succumbing to corporate inertia, successful executives believed in long-term benefits that come from adopting more sustainable practices.
The Alliance’s interviews included 50 CEOs who varied in gender, age, tenure and organization size. The research began during widespread COVID-19 shutdowns and continued through early 2022. As they worked to adapt to the business challenges brought on by the pandemic, leaders found success by narrowing their focus: care for people and maintain the business.
Although difficult and nuanced, having a clear purpose resulted in remarkable adaptability and resiliency, says the Higher Ambition Leadership Alliance. Researchers recognize the impacts of climate change, geopolitical shifts, AI, cyber security risks, and future pandemics on supply chain, labor and market volatility. According to the group’s researchers, today’s business challenges require more meaningful actions than, say, a public statement about an initiative or an environmental awareness campaign. On that point, the executives who were included in this study said they have implemented intentional, distinctive and human-centered actions that produce powerful performance and productivity.
The study highlights three ways that “higher ambition” leaders, as the Alliance refers to them, motivate employees:
“Build high-trust relationships with stakeholders to power innovation and agility. Recognize that culture is the high stakes value driver…or destroyer… and invest accordingly. Show up authentic, open, and vulnerable to engage and inspire your team.”
From this research’s perspective, knowing the what is a great first step, but knowing the how provides much more insight. In an interview with the organization’s CEO, Jeannie Diefenderfer, she highlighted for TriplePundit some tangible ways leaders are able to put these practices into action.
Diefenderfer told 3p, “The CEOs we speak with aren’t afraid to show they are fallible… Many of them have also shared powerful personal stories with their teams from childhood or from early in their careers that affected them deeply and have shaped who they are as leaders.”
Further, having personal conversations with employees in both one-on-one and group settings allows CEOs to connect with, care for and better support employees. The study suggested the importance of openness and honesty, admitting when mistakes are made and following through on commitments. In addition, the study concludes that authenticity and reflection are ways of building a united team of employees.
Diefenderfer also discussed the power of purpose. When asked how leaders can get started on a human-centered approach to leadership, she replied, “Naming their own purpose and thinking about how it connects with the mission and purpose of their teams and organization is an important first step.”
One participating CEO from The CEO Study, Tom Polen, mentioned that quality is the purpose of his company. Polen said, “We hold ourselves and our teams accountable for ensuring quality is at the core of everything we do. If we aren’t asking questions and listening, we aren’t learning.”
This focus on product quality helps anchor team forums as they reflect on progress and challenges. He added, “As a result, we’re building a culture where our associates feel comfortable challenging the status quo and speaking up if they see a more efficient process, an innovative approach, or a potential problem that needs to be addressed.”
Intentional leadership requires regularly reflecting upon what matters, what is working and what can be improved. It takes making the effort to ask more questions, to connect with employees about topics besides work and to clarify purpose and values through deep reflection. Grounded in academic research and real-world experience, the Higher Ambition Leadership Alliance’s research could help organizations become more successful with meaningful and long-lasting impacts on business and beyond.
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