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Leadership Communications: Learning From LeBron James
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Holmes Report
News and insights from the global PR industry

Leadership Communications: Learning From LeBron James

Today’s work environment demands not only individual excellence, but more and more teamwork as well.

Holmes Report

In the fervor leading up to this year’s NBA final, I experienced a highly validating moment while listening to ESPN’s Mike & Mike in the Morning show.  One of the Mikes shared this assertion from a fellow sports analyst: You could take LeBron James and put him on any team in the NBA today, and that team would win the championship.

Why? Because James is different from other superstars. Yes, he shines brightly. But he also makes everyone around him better. In other words (and why I felt validated),  LeBron James is what we at CEB would call an Enterprise Contributor. And we would assert that productivity—on the court or in the cubicle or out in the field—is directly linked to that type of team contribution.

Here’s why the LeBron model is critical. Today’s work environment demands not only individual excellence, but more and more teamwork as well.  In fact, CEB research shows that one’s commitment to one’s co-workers has an increasingly significant impact on performance.

A little reflection renders this unsurprising. Think about what your work life looks like these days.  Probably you’re working with more people than ever before (or at least getting emails from them).  Probably you work with a few people you’ve never even met. And you’re in good company. CEB surveyed more than 23,000 employees asking them about how their work environment has changed in just the past three years. Three data points we found especially compelling:

  • 57% of employees said they are increasingly working with people who are somewhere else.  

This is a coordination challenge on any level. Consider even the most basic: in an email exchange between Taylor Martin in Dallas and Vidhaya Malik in Delhi, odds are good that they’ve never spoken to each other, aren’t certain of the other’s gender, and have at some point accidentally addressed the other by their last name, thinking it was their first. And yet we’re asking them to collaborate effectively to help us run a global company. 

  • 50% of employees said more people are involved in decision making. This provides complication not only in getting things done, but in extracting optimal direction and performance feedback from what may increasingly resemble management by committee.  
  • 76% of employees say they’re spending more time sorting through mountains of information as a necessary part of their jobs. The New York Times ran an op-ed earlier this year touting the perils of doctors being forced to rely on pharma reps for drug information because the amount of data out there is too much for a body to single-handedly digest.  Surely many of our own employees are up against a similar quandary. At worst they’re distracted, or paralyzed into inaction. At best they have to rely on others to help process all the information necessary for them to do a good job—ideally helpful peers with the same strategic objectives in view.  

Coming to grips with the reality of how we work takes us back to LeBron as a Network Contributor.  We define a Network Contributor as someone who does their job really well, and also demonstrates a high commitment to their co-workers—near and far—by sharing skills and knowledge and best practices, and generally making their work world a better place.  

Research shows that this commitment to peers provides a significant boost to an employee’s performance. Sadly, the actual number of these Corporate LeBrons nets out at about 17% of our employees. Happily, there are things we as communicators can do to bring out the 'Inner Network Contributor' in everyone—and a good place to start is with our senior leaders. 

To that end, here are three pieces of advice for helping our leaders elicit greater productivity—through greater network contribution—from the ranks:

Stop Inspiring People

Sound controversial? Well, we don’t totally mean it—people of course want leaders whom they admire and who help them feel happy to work where they do. But data shows that helping employees feel really, really committed to the company does absolutely nothing to boost their productivity. 

And it’s not even what our employees want—yes, they like a good story and free branded fleece now and then, but a recent CEB survey shows that only a fifth of your employees care a lot about being inspired—while 80% say they just want leaders who equip them to get their jobs done more effectively. 

The great news is that we don’t have to spend as much effort trying to turn leaders who are average communicators into charismatic icons.  We’re better off anyway just coaching them on, for instance, storytelling tactics that encourage that network contribution.

Model Peer Support

How did your leaders get to where they are now? And how do they make good decisions and just get things done day to day? Chances are they didn’t --and still don’t-- do this in a vacuum. But they tend to talk only in terms of final decisions and conclusions.

In your next town hall, maybe they could try talking instead in terms of lessons learned, or how someone helped them solve a problem, or how the influence of others fed into strategic decisions.   

Rethink Incentives

Let’s just go all-in on the basketball analogy. Is our company rewards system based on individual points scored, or assists? Probably a good balance is healthy. But from a recognition standpoint, we typically reward the generation and implementation of great ideas rather than the successful sharing of those good ideas with others. You might imagine a corporate culture where silos are slowly crumbling in the wake of best practice sharing and a cultural willingness to share lessons learned.  

This is a fundamental, but relatively easy, shift in how we talk to our employees and the tone we set for our company. And MVP employee performance will go a long way toward setting us up to win.

Dorian Cundick is an executive advisor at CEB

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