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The dividends of caring about people

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Columbia Business School professor Michael Feiner remembers having a boss who would sort mail during their meetings. It made Feiner feel like an ashtray.

So, Feiner tried to practice what he calls “the Law of Personal Commitment”:  To inspire loyalty, you have to give it.

Feiner had been a Pepsi vice president for less than a year when the company faced a potential strike over pensions. A big meeting was planned to address the issue, and since Feiner was no expert on pensions, he would bring along his benefits chief.

A day before the meeting, benefits guru “Dan” choked out the announcement that he couldn’t attend. Feiner thought he was joking. They’d been discussing it for months. At first, Dan wouldn’t describe the holdup except to say it was personal. As Feiner grew increasingly angry, curious and scared that they’d blow the meeting and lose their jobs, he kept probing and learned that it was a family commitment: Dan had promised to take his kids trick-or treating the next day.

“You’ll miss it once,” Feiner said, stunned.

Dan explained how important he felt about his promise to his kids, and Feiner asked why he hadn’t brought up this conflict weeks ago. Turns out, Dan thought that the top dogs, as always, would change the meeting date. As it drew closer, he became too embarrassed to speak up.

Feiner still thought he could salvage Dan’s participation at the meeting. He noted the 5:30 scheduled time and said it wouldn’t take more than an hour. Dan knew that wouldn’t work. He said he had to skip the meeting.

Now, the normal reaction for a bigtime corporate boss would be to tell Dan that trick-or-treating was insignificant compared to this meeting, that he’d have to suck it up and go.

Feiner decided to give Dan a pass. He chewed him out, then asked for a crash course on pensions. The next day, Feiner assured his incredulous boss that he was up to speed, gave the presentation and answered the three questions put to him.

Dan learned firsthand that his boss cared about him. He knew Feiner was demanding and ambitious. But “he saw that he wasn’t just another factor of production in my career dreams.”

Dan worked at Pepsi for another 11 years “and was incredibly loyal and committed to me, to my success and to our organization’s performance.”

Lesson: People are wise to the ways of the ever-hungry organization. They’ll never fully commit to you unless you commit to them.

— Adapted from The Feiner Points of Leadership, Michael Feiner, Warner Business Books.

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