Two words come to mind when Scott Graf is asked what it takes to be a good leader simplify constantly.
Not at an easy task sometimes, considering everyone has different agendas and every situation is different. But the president of BCD Meetings & Incentives, a 450-employee travel management company, says that is the main role of a leader.
“As much as you want to align people organizationally … situations are still complex,” Graf says. “My role, more than anything, is simplifying the situation, breaking it down, removing the complexities and saying, ‘How are we going to move forward?’”
Smart Business spoke with Graf about how to simplify things.
Q. How do you simplify things?
I can’t and should not be involved in everything. There are major initiatives, or whatever these issues might be, that come up day to day. It’s setting some boundaries, allowing some freedom in the middle, so to speak, for people to do their jobs. For me, it’s staying very disciplined and detailed on timelines.
My role is to poke and to prod on timelines. People will get busy and things get delayed. I poke and prod at people on, ‘Where are we with this issue?’ Then, I’ll hear the reasons why it’s so complex and why they can’t move on something. I’ll get involved to try to simplify the situation and say, ‘Let’s remove these barriers, get to the point of it, so we can take the next step forward.’
Q. How do you poke and prod without micromanaging?
I hope it starts with, it sounds cliché, but probably a basic company culture of we hold each other accountable but in a professional and almost gentle way. We will say to folks, ‘We’re not getting in your face and we’re not stepping on your toes, but everybody’s got a role, and my role is to make sure things move. So, when I do it, please don’t take it the wrong way. We’re not harboring ill feelings. This is not something that goes against you.’ It’s literally a culture that we’ve created that says, ‘It’s very fair to do that and very appropriate to do that.’ We all get busy. It’s just, ‘Let’s get on with it and get on to the next thing.’
Q. How could I approach an employee without stepping on their toes?
There’s nothing like just saying it. You can say it and you can talk the talk, but if you can walk it and walk that walk show by example that it is OK to be open with vulnerabilities. It’s OK to say that you can’t figure something out or you are not making the progress that you’d hope.
Saying, ‘I need your help or your guidance on how to get through this.’ The kicker is knowing that you aren’t going to be punished for it or thought less of for it. The only way to do that is to make sure, as a leader, that you don’t hold a grudge.
People will only see that. They will leave your office that first time and say, ‘I wonder if he will hold this against me?’ If you’re sure to never to bring it up again or move forward, it becomes very safe to have those types of conversations.
When people feel safe, it’s like a good athlete. When you are relaxed, you certainly perform better.
The other piece for me in my role is if I see other managers coming down on somebody, I won’t come down on them. But, very politely, I’ll say, ‘Be cautious for your interaction with this person. Remember how we like to accomplish things and the culture that we’ve created here.’ That’s all I need to say.
Again, I’m not holding any grudge. It just makes them rethink. What happens is they probably go back to that person and say, ‘I’m sorry. If it felt like I was coming down on you, I didn’t mean that. I was frustrated for this reason, but let’s move forward.’
Q. What happens when it is a big mistake?
It would be that direct conversation. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody is owed second chances and maybe even third chances. You just have to say that, ‘This cost us a lot of money. Here’s what could have been done to prevent it. Here’s what you need to be cognizant and aware of in the future.’
But the truth is, depending on what level in the organization, you’d probably say to somebody (that) second and third chances are fine. You start moving beyond that on critical decisions that have cost the company money, and then you have to wonder, ‘Do I have the right person in this job?’
Q. Would you have this conversation with employees two levels below you, or would your managers handle that?
It’s a combination. My management style is very involved and very open with everybody at all levels of the organization. The combination comes in (when) I don’t want to supersede my direct reports’ authority and make them feel like, ‘Why am I here if you are going to fix all of these things?’
It is a combination where, if I am going to do that, I’d go to my direct report before going down a level or two and say, ‘In this case, I’d like to go talk to John or Mary personally. I want to let you know that I’m going to do it, unless you have a major problem. I think there will be a good effect on that person and residually in the organization.’
How to reach: BCD Meetings & Incentives, (312) 396-2000 or www.bcdmi.com