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How to Have Lunch with Your Employees

A speechwriter reveals a communication technique that can help senior executives understand who they're leading.

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Leaders, if you are writing a speech, knowing what your audience thinks of you matters. Do they believe you respect them? Are you teachable by the guy making 4% of your salary? Do they see you as an ivory tower leader or as someone who genuinely gets it? It isn’t about whether they like you or not, per se, but about whether your leadership is the kind they respond to when hard decisions and subsequent announcements are made.
A brilliant speech isn’t brilliant if it misses the mark. Not knowing how your audience hears you is a key failure in speech development. You don’t need to fail. 

Need to fix this?

Have Lunch

Do it privately-ish. No, not the executive lunchroom. That can be too intimidating unless they are at that level. Avoid the cafeteria. This isn’t a time to be available to your staff or other employees. Take a long hour and get Chinese food somewhere. Take off your suit coat. And turn your phone off.

Coming together this way will help your speeches, your leadership and your morale. One stop shopping, all for the price of a meal.

Simple, Man, Simple

Don’t rely on a survey or a one-off conversation. Keep it simple. Maybe you offer, “My door is always open.” So what? Their door is also open. Go to your employees. Don’t wait for them to come to you. Brown bag it and otherwise avoid communicating, “I’m able to eat sushi at Masa in NYC and you can only afford Waffle House.” Share your meal and talk about non-work things.

What Happens in Vegas…

When you sit down, to allay any concerns, make sure the employee knows everything is confidential. You won’t tell his supervisor. HR won’t hear about it. If the employee offers something amazing over lunch, ask if you can share it.

Getting Into It

In her Harvard Business Review article “How Are You Perceived at Work? Here’s an Exercise to Find Out,” Kristi Hedges suggests to ask employees two things:

  • What’s the general perception of me?
  • What could I do differently that would have the greatest impact on my success?
I agree but I would like the approach to be less formal. Be organic.

Find a genuine unique overlapping interest. No, the local ball team doesn’t count. There’s no danger there. I don’t mean you should dig into some controversial political issue, but get away from those generic beige khaki topics that fill water cooler chats.

In my case, I might talk distance running, coffee shops or classic rock. You never know where such conversations will go. I found out one client’s son is among the top runners in his state and how this transcended her pride in her remarkably successful business. I learned another client also read comics books as a kid. We argued if Peter Parker is more interesting than Tony Stark. Another client saw first-hand the travesty of human rights in China during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, an event which impacted me profoundly. We learned from each other.

Don’t (Just) Listen

Avoid being the leader in the conversation. Carry equal weight. You might need to encourage this a little as you are the Big Boss but be careful. That can be daunting for some employees. Be vulnerable.

You aren’t there to just listen. You aren’t there to pick their brain. That’s not balance. That’s not developing engagement. The gap between employee and boss remains if you are a mere note taking manager. Discuss. Do more than sit there and ask questions. Get into it. Have opinions. If you look at some company issues, explain some hard questions you are working through. That dynamic won’t change if your heart is right.

From there, you’ll build a relationship and be able to ask honest questions and get honest answers. Morale will improve and you’ll both feel better about Monday mornings.

There’s more you can do, of course, if you are genuinely interested in bridging the gap, but do this and you’ll be on the right track.
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