For most of her career, Jeannie Diefenderfer’s professional life focused on ensuring her customers – consumers and enterprise — didn’t have to worry about their backbone infrastructure going down. At Verizon, she ran network operations and guaranteed the global network encompassing 150 countries was reliable. Central to this was making sure things didn’t break. But since things always fail, she made certain customers had zero impact when they did.
Today, as the CEO of Higher Ambition Leadership Alliance, she helps CEOs and leadership teams develop the actions and practices of leading with purpose – the higher ambition way.
When leaders practice these three behaviors in the way they lead, resilience results. These actions build a muscle of employee engagement and trust, which translates into not only individual resilience because of the trust level, but team resilience and enterprise resilience when the organization needs it the most.
Leaders who practice deep listening build resiliency. Rather than deliver a quarterly monologue to report on the company’s progress, they meet with employees at the ground level. No agenda. No pre-approved questions. They are genuinely interested in listening to what employees say – even if they don’t agree with or understand the company’s strategy or actions.
Doug McMillon, president and CEO of Walmart, is this type of leader. He walks around stores and introduces himself to the associates. The person he’s most interested in talking to is the one who doesn’t join the others fawning over the CEO visiting but the one who turns around and walks away. Doug focuses his energy on that employee, doing what he needs to do to engage them in a discussion.
Because of Doug’s style and deep listening practice, the employee he searches out will eventually share their thoughts and concerns. With this insight about what’s wrong from the employee’s perspective, Doug learns a lot about what changes are needed.
This human-centered leadership practice of deep listening is much more effective than traditional methods, such as going into a factory with an entourage of senior leaders, giving a canned presentation, and handing out donuts and coffee before running out the door.
Representing and Showing Vulnerability
There’s a mistaken belief that CEOs and senior leaders don’t experience any problems. If they do, they’re not supposed to talk about them for fear vulnerability is perceived as a sign of weakness. Many CEOs don’t participate in town halls or any unscripted interaction with employees, as if getting asked a question they don’t know the answer to is damaging to their reputation.
A CEO builds resiliency when they show vulnerability. When a leader is human-centric, they practice vulnerability. It isn’t an act. They don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I’m going to be vulnerable with my team today.” It’s how they operate; it’s just who they are.
Exhibiting vulnerability allows everyone in an organization to realize they can connect with top leadership on a personal level.
Like riding a bike, the more a leader practices vulnerability, the more comfortable they are. And here’s what’s wonderful about that: If the top dog does it, the rest of the organization will too.
It’s also a bit of the flywheel effect, the concept developed by Jim Collins in the book Good to Great, because it creates a habitual mechanism by which the culture operates.
During COVID, a healthcare industry CEO I know held a companywide call every day. The call’s purpose was for the CEO to share honestly about her struggles. Nothing was off the table, from dealing with the pandemic to what was tough about working from home to trying to manage her kids’ school schedule simultaneously. Simply by presenting vulnerability, the CEO made it acceptable for all employees to be more open about their struggles.
Stakeholder management is a popular phrase, and for a good reason. Leaders who know treating each stakeholder as an important partner through their actions ensure the resilience of the enterprise. This includes recognizing everyone as a cog in the wheel of infrastructure. The enterprise doesn’t stand alone, but it stands because of suppliers, shareholders, employees, advocacy groups, communities and even employees’ families.
Resilient leaders treat each stakeholder as vital because they deeply believe that’s how you must treat the ecosystem. The beneficial consequence of this behavior creates a more resilient enterprise.
COVID was a silver lining in many ways for organizations because nobody had a playbook — it was a great equalizer. Whether or not you’re rich or poor, big or small — COVID didn’t monopolize a particular set, but in fact it gave people an opportunity to really dig deep and bring out these human-centric leadership behaviors.
Some leaders who led and believed stakeholders were essential during COVID did things to make those stakeholders feel valued. Leaders called up their suppliers and said, “Even though you’re not going to be able to provide the level of service and the quantity we’re used to, we’re still going to pay you. We understand you also need to survive and not go out of business. We are in it with you for the long haul.”
Others told customers they didn’t need to pay their regular 30-day invoice cycle because everyone was struggling to meet payroll.
This shared ownership and responsibility during this time – on the receiving and giving end – made the ecosystem more resilient.
Human-centered leadership is crucial to building resiliency in your organization. When you practice deep listening, exhibit vulnerability and manage stakeholders as if they are essential to your success – because they are – success and resiliency result.
About Jeannie Diefenderfer
Over 28 years of technical and operations experience with more than 10 years in executive leadership positions in Verizon Communications, including a 10,000-person global customer care organization for the largest enterprise customers. As the Senior Vice President of Global Engineering & Planning, Jeannie led the implementation of over $10 billion in capital to expand Verizon’s global backbone network across six continents, including its nationally renowned Fios network. Jeannie also served as the firm’s network leader to translate for Verizon’s business customers, its technology benefits from the end-user point of view. In addition, as the head of Strategic Sourcing, Jeannie managed a $10 Billion-plus purchasing program for the company.