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A little decency goes a long way

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

In the mid-1990s, Steve Harrison hired an executive coach. He had already spent more than a decade building Lee Hecht Harrison into a large career management firm, but his employees urged him to upgrade his leadership skills. His coach not only taught him to sharpen his leadership but also helped him appreciate the power of "small decencies" as a way to manage people better. Author of The Manager's Book of Decencies, Harrison now serves as chairman of the firm in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., with 240 offices around the world:

MPAW: How did you become a better leader?

Harrison: This may sound silly, but for years I've carried around a list of leadership characteristics that I admire in others. Whether I observe a CEO lead effectively or hear an anecdote or read about one's leadership in a book, I write it on my list. On a given day, I might write how somebody listens well or shows courage.

MPAW: Can you give an example of an everyday act of leadership that resonates with you?

Harrison: Peter Ueberroth [former commissioner of Major League Baseball] doesn't just welcome new employees on their first day. He takes it a step further. He sends something special like a gift basket to the employee's spouse or significant other. He also writes a card in which he personally welcomes them aboard. It makes quite an impact.

MPAW: So you see leadership as exceeding employees' expectations?

Harrison: Actually, sometimes I can?t meet their expectations. When that happens, I'm upfront about it.

For instance, I was running a staff meeting at a hotel. I was in my room preparing to come down to speak to employees when my chief operating officer knocks on the door and says, "Your people want to know what your vision is." I wasn't planning to talk about that. So I began by telling them that I struggle with the word "vision," that I prefer to discuss a more tangible outlook for the next year and beyond. That's what I did, and they responded well.

MPAW: You say that leaders who demonstrate "small decencies" on a daily basis enhance workplace culture. How can you tell if a job candidate will thrive in that kind of culture?

Harrison: It's hard because people are performing in job interviews. I say, "Describe what 'culture' means to you." I probe to find the best and worst culture they've worked in, and the best leaders they've worked for. Finally, I ask, "What does leadership mean to you?" I listen for "integrity" and if I don't hear that word, that gets my attention, big time.

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