After all, he’s in charge of protecting those who protect us. As the president of the Security & Survivability division of global defense contractor BAE Systems, he provides products to keep government officials and military personnel safe in high-threat areas. Russell heads three lines of business that produce vehicle armor and restraints, protective materials, and personal gear.
To do that, he has 4,000 of the parent company’s 106,400 employees under his wing.
And, as if those responsibilities didn’t demand enough of his attention during regular office hours, Russell also took his senior staff on a recent tour of all 10 locations — including one in Germany — to conduct town-hall meetings at each office.
So with all that weight riding on him, Russell’s schedule is understandably packed. But no matter how busy his day is, he makes time for one thing: his employees.
“You’ve got so much on your plate,” he says. “It creates anxiety as a leader because you’ve got this long list of things you need to attend to. If somebody comes in, you spend time with them. You’ve got to force yourself to do that.”
After seeing other leaders bark out orders like a commander-in-chief, Russell knows the difference that interaction can make. When you take the time to listen to employees’ viewpoints, you make them contributors rather than just assets.
Whether employees come to him to share ideas or receive their evaluations, Russell espouses the philosophy of listen first, talk second.
“In my career, I think what’s helped is listening to people,” he says. “That’s one of the key leadership aspects that has been important.”
But a listening ear is just the beginning. Russell also engages employees in conversations to explore all the facets of an issue and eventually land on the same page.
The time Russell spends listening to employees manifests in improvement all around — whether it’s their development, his growth as a leader or the overall sense of buy-in that comes from understanding each other’s perspectives.
“I very much rely on key talent around me to help me make good decisions,” Russell says. “If you don’t have people around you that you trust to give you advice that you can take, then you’re just a very limited leader.”
Give questions, not answers
The quickest way to get employees pointed toward your desired outcome is to simply tell them how to get there. But Russell has learned that the best way to rally his troops is to take the time to guide them toward the answer — not just hand it down as an edict.
“There is a cliché, old-school style of pound the fist on the desk and demand results and yell and scream,” he says. “It might get people to jump for a little while, but ultimately, it generates a lack of respect that, in the long run, doesn’t work toward good results.”
Like many others, Russell has reported to those leaders in the past. Before you even finish explaining the problem, they start spouting their solution.
A more motivating approach requires not just a patient ear but actually engaging in a two-sided dialogue. After you discuss their ideas, take time to explain your own.
“Listening is engaging people in the process,” says Russell, who takes the same disciplined approach when making family decisions at home.
Even if you don’t adopt employees’ ideas, you can still achieve agreement. Focus your efforts on bringing them on board with the direction you do take.
“It’s certainly easier just to say, ‘Well, I’m the boss. We’re going this way,’” Russell says. “Then they may not be fully engaged behind the idea.”
Employees want to be involved in the creation of a solution — even if it’s your solution, not theirs. To get their buy-in, give them questions instead of answers. Approach it like a gentle debate, presenting information and counterarguments to help them see a perspective other than their own.
Russell, who doesn’t like the connotations of conflict carried by the term “debate,” thinks of it more as a realization process.
“Obviously, turning back to them and saying, ‘OK, so what do you want to do about this?’ is a good thing to do,” Russell says. “[Ask,] ‘Have you thought about it this way?’ Bring up points that they may not have thought about.”
Of course, you won’t have to personally lead each employee to a revelation. While some of them are conditioned to present an issue and immediately ask for direction, others will offer their own suggestions without a nudge. In those cases, you’ll just serve as a sounding board while employees arrive at the solution unassisted.
Regardless of how involved you are as a guide, the sequence should always be the same: Listen first; talk second.
“Generally, I try and give people the opportunity to chime in [and] give their idea before I give mine,” Russell says. “You’re anxious to move on to other things but spend the time to listen to people. The biggest reason is it motivates them. It empowers them.”
Reflect on employees’ progress
Thanks to his busy schedule, Russell doesn’t have time to evaluate every employee’s performance on a daily or even per-project basis. But that doesn’t mean he neglects his employees’ development altogether when their personal development review comes around every year.
He does, however, rely on them to carry some of the weight. The process begins with their self-assessment. Russell asks employees to come to their review prepared with their own list of personal strengths and weaknesses. After they evaluate themselves, he steps in.
Instead of keeping track of an employee’s every high and low, Russell takes the time to review their big-picture strengths and weaknesses a few times a year. It’s sort of like throwing the spaghetti on the wall and seeing what major issues still stick after several months.
“It’s only when you sit back and you reflect that you highlight more high-level positives and negatives,” he says. “Sometimes you deep-dive into a project or a program and how somebody behaved or specific incidences that have occurred, but it’s just a reflection.”
Even though hindsight is 20/20, you can’t rely on memory alone to judge an employee. For example, plenty of performance-measuring data and feedback from others feed into Russell’s reflections. Engaging these other resources not only saves you from having to know everything about each employee, but it also provides a more complete assessment than you alone could.
“Tangible measurements are a good thing,” Russell says. “Unfortunately, not all businesses are set up to provide tangible measurements to all functional areas.”
“Some people you can hold directly accountable, especially if they’re running a business and you’re looking at profitability or customer satisfaction metrics,” he says. “But it’s the functional support areas that are a little bit tougher to get tangible measurements on.”
So when specific data is lacking, yo
u can make up for it by turning to the people around that employee for their input.
Throughout the year, their feedback comes informally as either complaints or kudos. But Russell also asks for it directly through 360-degree evaluations of directors, vice presidents and other managers. Colleagues above, below and beside those employees are asked to rate them on topics such as performance, customer focus, interest in developing others and teamwork skills.
“When the person who’s doing the assessment isn’t known — a discreet type of evaluation — you’ll get more honesty,” says Russell, who lets employees choose whether they want to leave their names on the online form.
Even if you’re not doing every aspect of the assessment yourself, the combination of cut-and-dry data, employees’ own observations and evaluations from co-workers will give you enough fodder for a conversation. Even meeting with your direct reports — and having them do the same with the employees under them — illustrates that the leadership cares about the development of its team members.
Don’t rush through reviews
Employees who walk into Russell’s office for their personal development review shouldn’t expect to stay at the receiving end of the table. Instead of rushing through the process, he uses their assessments as a quid pro quo opportunity, opening his ears to their criticisms so he can improve, too.
“That’s another one of those old-school approaches: a superior fills out an assessment, you go into a room for 15 minutes and the superior tells the employee what they did bad and good, and that’s the end of it,” Russell says. “It’s got to be much more than that. There’s got to be open dialogue, not just a one-way assessment.”
But it’s not as easy as simply asking them to evaluate you. Thanks to the innate hierarchy of corporations, you have to create an environment where they feel comfortable pointing out their boss’s flaws.
“Humbling yourself goes a long way,” he says. “People are typically nervous sitting across from a superior. When you let that person know that you don’t know it all, you’ll generate an openness.”
You can tell employees frankly that you welcome their feedback. Russell, for example, opens the meeting by saying the review is as much about their improvement as his own. But that won’t erase the apprehension if employees are scared to point out a superior’s weaknesses or prepared to only play defense and justify their job.
They’ll be more likely to follow your initiative than your invitation, so you have to set a pace that shows you’re receptive to criticism.
“One of the biggest things to do is get somebody to relax, because a review is worthless if they’re intimidated,” Russell says. “One thing that you can do is point out things that you know that you need improvement on yourself.”
When they hear you admit that you don’t know everything, they’ll see you as a leader who’s willing to learn and eager to improve. If you take the first crack at yourself, they won’t be as intimidated to offer their observations.
Russell reiterates to employees that he relies on their support because he rose through the organization so quickly, riding the wave of a series of acquisitions. Most recently, for example, he held the position of senior vice president of Armor Holding Inc.’s Ground Vehicle Survivability Division. So he had already proven himself capable of running a billion-dollar business by the time BAE acquired Armor in 2007.
Still, he realizes that the experiences and observations of his employees can make him an even better leader as the company grows. Taking the time to hear employees’ praises and criticisms is a small price for the payoff: the opportunity to improve yourself and your leadership style.
“I just may not have as much experience as somebody else who’s been doing this for a lot longer,” Russell says. “I would be foolish not to take the advice of a bunch of smart people around me.”
How to reach: Security & Survivability, BAE Systems, (513) 881-9800, (800) 697-0307 or www.baesystems.com/sss