Leadership shadow Featured

7:00pm EDT January 29, 2008

Robbie Anderson had to fight a lot of naysayers when he arrived in Cleveland nearly three years ago.

As senior director of the Cleveland hub for Continental Airlines Inc., he had to knock out rumors both internally and externally that the airline was taking the next flight out of town. For Anderson, the best cure was calmly repeating a message that combined reality — Continental committed millions to improving the hub — with his sense of humor, telling people if they knew something he didn’t, they should tell him before he settled in. Building that cool confidence is part of being a leader to Anderson because he believes he sets the tone for his people and needs to be cognitive of that. That means he is constantly looking for ways to instill a positive feel into the company and help his 2,200-plus employees grow.

Smart Business spoke with Anderson about how important it is to be positive and why you need to know the aspirations of your leadership team.

Listen to where your leadership team wants to go. One of the most rewarding aspects of leadership is watching people grow and helping them succeed.

When I first arrived, I sat down with each member of my leadership team and spent time talking to them and asking what their goals and aspirations are. I asked them about their backgrounds and experiences, and I said, ‘Where do you want to go, what do you want to do, and how can I help you get there?’

Using some of Zig Ziglar’s thoughts, you can get anything out of life if you help other people get what they want. That’s really a motivating factor with people, somebody who takes the time to listen and really cares about them as far as both their personal and professional aspirations.

Help employees move toward their aspirations. One of the things we do to help employees who want to advance is we give them a mock interview. We know the skills and attributes it takes to be successful and we apply that to the process, so we’ll sit down and say, ‘Let’s do a gap analysis; let’s see where you are versus where you need to be.’ And we do that, and we give them feedback. We say, ‘You’re lacking experience on ... ’ We give them tangible feedback and then develop a plan of action tailored to their needs. We say, ‘Let’s give you that experience; let’s help you walk through that.’

That helps tremendously. When you look to your past, you can find a few people that took time to be a mentor and that really helped foster your personal growth. It goes back to the old saying, ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,’ and this really shows that you do take a genuine interest in who they are and what they’re about.

Have an open discussion with your staff. One of the ways I communicate is a round-table discussion. I’ll go out to the break rooms and just have an open-door session where I give them a company update, then I open it up to a Q&A.

Employees are very quick to let you know if something is not going right, so then we sit down and say, ‘Tell me why you think that.’ So we’ll go through the analysis and either go through the authorization to do what they need or explain why we can’t.

That’s critical; it’s part of having credibility with your team. They may not like the answer, but they know that you are at least going to give them an answer and explain why.

The other thing is you have to make sure with the open-door policy you guard against not using the proper chain of command. Usually one of the first things I ask is, ‘Have you talked to your supervisor about it?’ because I don’t want to undermine what they’re about because they’re supposed to be the credible leader for the agent to be able to get the resources needed to do their job.

Be a positive influence. Something that you constantly have to be aware of is what attitude you have. We have a concept here called ‘shadow of the leader.’ It’s just being cognitive that you are always casting a shadow, and the biggest thing you can do as a leader is encourage the employees and give them reason to have their mood elevator go up.

We all make better decisions when we’re happy versus angry or concerned about our future, so I do a self-check with my employees where if they see that I’m concerned, then I’m casting the wrong shadow.

You can always find negatives in life, and you can always find positives. We always have opportunity to improve, and we never want to take our eye off the ball, but let’s not focus on the negative, let’s focus on the positive.

Be willing to say you don’t know. You get listening thrown out a lot as lip service, but I’ve found that I don’t always have to have all the answers if I ask a lot of questions and really listen to what my employees or customers have to say.

At the end of the day, it’s really my employees and customers that best understand what’s going on.

You can only go through so many years of college and training, and one of the best ways to learn is through other’s experiences. So if you don’t know, don’t be afraid to ask. And don’t be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know.’

HOW TO REACH: Continental Airlines Inc., (800) 523-FARE or www.continental.com