Many years back I hosted a dinner at my home for members of my team and their spouses. My investment office at the time was really taking off. As a leader, I had to grow fast, and I was trying to understand how people in the office felt about their jobs and the office environment. Seated to my left at the dining table was the wife of one of my company’s executives. She was a dynamic conversationalist, and we talked about everything from kids and family to travel and our favorite books. At one point long into the discussion during our meal there was a pause and she said, “Chris, you’re a really nice guy!”
Red flag. You don’t need to dive deep into the analysis of interpersonal communication to perceive her statement as an honest reaction to what she had been thinking all along: “My husband comes home from work and complains about what a jerk you are.” It was a sobering moment.
I decided that dinner parties are an effective way for leaders to learn how colleagues really feel about them. If you spend time with the friend, family member or significant other of one of your employees, you can obtain some interesting tidbits of information. Not necessarily because they’re going to be an open book about how your employee feels about you, but because, if you read between the lines and are intuitive to speech, language and tone, you can get a sense of what’s really going on. My work buddy’s wife didn’t say, “Wow, my husband is right—you are a really nice guy.” She was shocked because she thought I was going to be a not really nice guy. Apparently I had some repairs to do back at the office.
To be fair, this was at a time in my life when I was at a turning point in my leadership development. When I was younger, I used to look around the office and think, “These people are so lucky to work for me.” That is an ego-driven mistake that budding entrepreneurs make. Since then, I’ve matured enough and seen enough ups and downs to appreciate when I have an extraordinary team that is working toward a shared purpose, relying on me for that vision, and want to be a part of it. Now I look around and think, “I’m so lucky these people want to work with me.”
It took me a long time to learn how to be a leader, and I’m still learning. Growing up in Philadelphia, I started very young as an entrepreneur and had to go with my gut. There weren’t many rulebooks for people like me in the early ‘80s. Entrepreneurial spirit was alive, but wasn’t encouraged the way that it is today. Most of the people I knew were focused on the security of long-term careers with established companies. Here I was on my own, overwhelmed by the responsibility of managing people internally, and our vendors, investors and partners.
You’ll never know what people think of you as a leader until you ask. Too often, employees will tell you want you want to hear, or what is in their best interest. It takes time and empathy to understand who is happy and who is not and why. You have to ask deep questions.
At dinners, consider starting with the loved ones closest to your team. I try to get a significant other to open up. I ask what he or she thinks we can do better. Trust me—they’re surprised that you welcome their feedback. They might not be comfortable enough to be direct, but they will give you valuable insight. Recently, when I mentioned a current project, an employee’s husband said, “That’s so interesting, Chris, my wife was just saying how excited she is about the progress of that collaboration.” I’ll toast to that!
Christopher Burch is the founder of Burch Creative Capital.