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Leader's Edge Stand By Me

Don’t try to go it alone. Support your staff, and they will support you.

By  Julia Kramer

Now in my fifties, I am encountering both the joyful and the painful life events that come at this stage of the game. I am saying good-bye to children headed off to college and to elderly loved ones who have reached life’s end. I am acutely aware of and incredibly grateful for those people who stand by me through it all. Grateful, and sometimes surprised, because the support hasn’t come from just close friends and family. It has also come, in spades, from those I work with and work for and from other professional acquaintances. This blurring of the edges between career and home life was unanticipated, but it is overwhelmingly positive.

The more I think about the powerful effect of “standing by” someone else, the more I realize that we could and should do more of this on the job. Not just in times of trouble, but also in the normal course of events. Whether taken literally or figuratively, standing by someone involves trust, reliability, empathy and understanding. It is benevolent and all but guarantees that when it’s your turn to ask for support, it will be there.

Try the following to make a positive difference in both the quality of work relationships and the results you get when interacting with others.

Come stand by me and learn something new. When a child is small and experiencing something that may involve risk, a vigilant parent will say “stand by me” to allow the child their freedom, but within eyesight should something unexpected happen. In a friendly crowd, you’ll see mothers and fathers pulling their children close, but they don’t scoop the child up in their arms or hold their hand tightly—the mere proximity offers the needed level of protection. Next time a young producer goes on his first sales call, a new executive attends her first major meeting, or an experienced employee takes charge of something challenging and new, stand by them. Don’t carry them or overshadow their need to be independent, but be there to open professional doors, pave the path, support them when they inevitably falter and reposition them if they head in the wrong direction. This support will ensure that in short order, and with positive memories of your guidance, they will be successful on their own.

Come stand by me and let’s do this together. Sometimes you experience something new for the first time along with someone else. A team approach—even if there are only two of you—sets the stage for mutual support, reduces anxiety and risk avoidance tendencies, and provides each of you the benefit of the other’s wisdom, experiences and abilities. This approach is particularly powerful when a manager is paired with a direct report. Some of my most positive experiences have come when a more seasoned or higher-level manager has come to me and said: “Here’s where I think we need to go. I’m not sure how to get there, but I am sure you’re the one I want to have on my team. Let’s figure this out together.”

By leveling the field, and communicating the desire to work hand-in-hand as colleagues, both parties can comfortably let go of prescribed roles. The resulting freedom to think creatively and communicate outside of the normal employer-employee box leads to amazing results. And not just because there are two of you to shoulder the load, but because no one has to prod, push or otherwise motivate the other. You each have the same goal and as much to gain, or to lose, as the other.

Come stand by me. I need your help. We all know that it is sometimes more difficult to ask for help than it is to give it. This may be because you are very lucky and in difficult times you have experienced spontaneous outpourings of support and assistance without asking. Maybe you’ve asked for help but your expectations have not been met or you’ve been penalized for not being able to get something done on your own. Or it may be that you feel it is more rewarding to accomplish everything on your own, including overcoming each obstacle without help. So be it, but in the situations where you will suffer unnecessarily and even fail if you do not ask for help, it is only the foolish who plod along alone. Learn to ask for help, or reframe it and learn to include others in your life and in your experiences.

The most successful firms succeed with the help of good people, and to be most productive, good people need to feel included, cared about and valued. You probably want to feel the same things yourself. So stand by your staff and let them stand by you. Life’s too short to do it any other way.

Kramer is The Council’s Senior Vice President, Office of the President.

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Got a human resources problem you can?t resolve? Ask our HR guru Julia Kramer, SPHR, how to handle those sticky personnel issues everyone wants to avoid.