After the presidential election, numerous experts talked about how the Republicans were out of touch with the very people they needed to vote for them. That thinking holds true for any leadership position. Leaders must understand their diverse constituents — a task that can sometimes be easier said than done.
Leaders (like most people) like to hang out with others who share similar interests and backgrounds. They may even live near people who are similar in social class, education or circumstances. Yet, this can make them almost immune to the issues facing other types of people.
This doesn't mean that leaders should not spend time with their friends. But it does mean that to be effective, they must find time to spend with those who are not like them — people with very different interests, hobbies, and backgrounds. It is really hard to understand the issues confronting people if you don't know who they really are.
In addition, leaders need to be wary that they don't surround themselves with so many gatekeepers they fail to connect to various employees, particularly those in much lower positions. Gatekeepers may enable a leader to be more efficient, but they also make it harder for lower-level employees to stop by or just talk. This can isolate a leader from his or her constituents.
To stay in touch, leaders should make sure they really "hear" all the voices of their diverse constituents:
Assemble a sounding board. Many times, I have heard people tell me that the leaders in their firms are clueless about the real problems that exist in their companies; that they are fooled into thinking everything is fine. To address this, they need to have a trusted group (who are themselves diverse) as a sounding board or council — people willing to tell the leader the truth. This is tricky, however, because a leader must be a good judge of character and pick the right people who embody the larger goal of the firm versus their own personal gain. It requires strong perceptual skills and keen insights — often not attributes everyone possesses. Plus, leaders (like all of us) have egos and they don't want to think that someone is "playing them."
Listen. There is no point in forming a trusted council if you don't listen to them.
Spend time with diverse constituents. Leaders need to make sure there is time on their schedule to attend lunches, socials and other informal or formal events with others.
Get out of the office. Try to meet people on their turf. Some people remark that if a leader had to "live in the trenches of their own firms" for even a day, they would have a much better appreciation for the issues facing their own employees.
Schedule free time. Leaders should talk to their gatekeepers to make sure they are not booked every minute of every day because this does not allow them to just connect with people.
Observe how the gatekeepers treat people. Make sure the office is warm and welcoming, rather than intimidating. Otherwise, people will not bother to come back.
Show a human or personal side. This can help people connect with who their leaders are as a person, perhaps through their family, pets or hobbies.
Have positive people around. Leaders can spend a large part of the day saying "no" or disappointing others. To balance that, they need to make sure they have some energetic or positive people who can help to keep them focused and in positive spirits.
Have a few people who won't judge you. Leaders often feel some level of loneliness at the top. They may feel they have no one they can open up to without being seen as vulnerable. It is important for leaders to have a few people who they don't need to worry will be constantly evaluating them.
It is really easy for leaders to become isolated from their constituents. It takes a proactive leaders to really make sure they stay well connected to their base and to the people they have been hired to serve. It can be done if the leader makes it a top priority and stays humble to his or her leadership mission.
Joyce E.A. Russell is vice dean and director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management.