Leadership 360: Thriving With The Forgotten Middle Ground With Russel Lolacher

by | Nov 30, 2023 | Podcasts

SWGR | Missing Middle

 

True leadership goes beyond titles. It involves a strong commitment to supporting not only the top performers or those who are struggling but also the often neglected group in the middle. In this episode, we have Russel Lolacher  talk about the nuances of effective leadership and its impact on organizational success. Russell addresses the misconception that a leadership title alone defines a leader. He discusses the vital distinction between responsibility and leadership, emphasizing the importance of creating an environment that fosters growth, respect, and the development of future leaders. He also highlights the importance of focusing on the “missing middle” and nurturing the core workforce, who are often overlooked but consistently contribute without recognition. Listen now and lead with purpose!

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Leadership 360: Thriving With The Forgotten Middle Ground With Russel Lolacher

Russel Lolacher, welcome to the show.

Thanks for having me.

Before we start the questions I have for you, I’d like to know who would be your dream interview. If you could share the stage with anyone who’s no longer with us, who would it be, what would you ask them, and who should be listening?

I’m going to be super Canadian here. I’m going to pick John Candy, the actor. I grew up with John Candy being a part of SCTV which was the Canadian version of Saturday Night Live. There was the presence of this man who was well known in his industry as being accessible and kind. We lost him way too soon, but I loved his ability to be creative and relatable. You can argue whether he was a great actor or not, but he certainly knew who he was. He knew his brand. He knew how to connect with people and he did it at such a large scale while being extremely personal. I can see there being so much to learn from John Candy. That’s probably going to blow people away going, “John Candy, really?”

I remember him well. Let’s say you were interviewing him for your podcast, what would you ask him?

As my podcast is all about relationships, I would ask him about relatability. That’s the biggest question I would ask. He plays the lovable schlubs, planes, trains, automobiles and so forth, “How do you play this character?” He didn’t ever venture far off from being close to who he was as an actor. Michael J. Fox is very similar to that in his acting. Needless to say, I would ask him about his relatability, “No matter what environment or story you’re telling, how can you continue to be a relatable person that people feel like they can connect to?”

He played the lovable funny guy. He was never the romantic lead. He was always the funny sidekick, but he would be the lead actor in a movie. That’s pretty good.

That is a skill. That is not something that people show up and do. That is a leadership skillset that is missing in that relatability because we get lost and move on to whatever we’re working on. There’s that connection that sometimes can get lost over time.

SWGR | Missing Middle

Missing Middle: We get so lost and move on to whatever we’re working on that connection sometimes can get lost over time.

 

He has a great character actor to lead the movie and be the lead person. That tells you something. I’m talking about relatability. Your work is all about relationships at work. You don’t mean love relationships. I bet you get that question a lot.

“The hardest 'leaders' to deal with are those who shine their light up, focusing on their bosses, leaving their teams in the dark.” - Russel Lolacher (@russlol), inspired by Kevin Oakes (@KMOakes) Click To Tweet

When I first started, for sure I did. I would have a lot of guests. I get these pitches about, “How to find love at work?” I’m like, “You don’t listen to my podcast, do you? It has nothing to do with making out or or building that kind of relationship.”

How you get along with your colleagues or not is such an important part of our lives. Most of us, in our working lives, are working in a huge amount of time. For leaders, since this show is about among the many things leadership, stepping forward, and claiming your leadership, where are leaders missing opportunities to make the workplace relationships in their workplaces better?

I’ve said this repeatedly. The first step before we get into any sort of tactics or direction is that any leader needs two things. I always call them you’re superpowers. You’ll never be perfect, that’s why it’s an ongoing process. It is self-awareness and situational awareness. You can’t move forward in how you impact the organization until you understand what your impact is now, your relationships now, and how you show up.

As I was saying at the beginning about relatability, “Are you relatable? Do people feel like they can connect with you?” You can’t build relationships if you’re the narcissist as everybody assumes you might be being in a lofty position of power. People think, “They think it’s about them. They’re doing another presentation. It’s about them.” That may be the furthest thing from the truth.

I remember watching a panel exercise of executives once. It was the CEO and his suite of executives answering questions from the organization. Anytime anybody but the CEO answered a question, the CEO came in and either clarified or felt they needed to add information at the end of the response. Literally, live in an organization-wide video chat, he was micromanaging his executive team. It was not a good look.

That happened in 2007. I’m picking a random year. Years later, I was doing a presentation set up in the organization. This was some other unrelatable thing that had completely nothing to do with it. I was working with one of the staff who was helping me set up the presentation. Three years later, she brought that up going, “I remember when he did that in front of everybody.” Not only was it something that happened. It wasn’t an isolated innocent in a moment of time. That reputation is carried with that person. They weren’t even in the organization anymore, but they still remembered that as a litmus test of what leadership should look like in front of the organization. The self-awareness of that individual is non-existent.

You said a test of what leadership should look like. Do you mean what leadership should not look like or was he the example of what it shouldn’t or should not look like?

Sure as heck not look like. He had no concept of that’s what he was doing, that he was undermining a leadership team that was supposed to be driving his vision and mission. Meanwhile, he’s sitting there going, “You’re not getting it right,” in front of everybody. His situational awareness at that moment and his self-awareness of his brand were both horrendous. Anything to start down the path of improving your leadership is self-assessment. It’s understanding who you are, how you show up, react, and communicate. Who are you as an individual?

To start down the path of improving your leadership, you need self-assessment. It's understanding who you are, how you show up, how you react, how you communicate, and who you are as an individual and as a leader. Click To Tweet

As a leader, it’s working your way into understanding the organization. There are many surveys out right now that certainly ramped up over COVID where they would interview executives and employees. The gap between what the executive thinks is going on versus what the employees know is going on has been getting wider and wider. As an organization, you need to take that seriously. That comes from pulse surveys and check-ins. Understand your organization because then you can understand what to lean into and what you might need to address. It’s knowing you and them before you can lead anything.

What do you say to the people who said, “I’m the leader, so they should do what I tell them?” In some countries and organizations I work with, that is the attitude from senior management, “I pay you. You do what you’re told.”

If you have robots and widgets, that makes a lot of sense, but if you work with humans, that makes no sense because humans need personalization. They need to feel like their work is valued. That manager will say, “For money and because of my role,” I’m guessing their employee retention probably isn’t that great because people want relationships. People want to feel like they go to work and it matters as opposed to feeling like a cog in a wheel that serves somebody rather than serving a purpose. By sheer definition, that is not a leader. That is a manager and an order giver.

They are not showing leadership. It’s very interesting because I work a lot in Europe. I work with German companies where people care, but the hierarchies are important. Whereas you and I are from North America and the West Coast, which is even a little bit less formal. Nowadays, post-COVID, people will leave if they’re unhappy. A lot of organizations have not adjusted or recognized that.

There was an empowerment that happened over COVID. I had a conversation about this with a colleague about how it generationally seems to be changing too. I’m a Gen X-er. I was raised by Boomers. I understood Baby Boomers, “You start a job. You worked there for 30 years. You work yourself up the ladder. You are retired. Celebration. Here’s your watch.” As a Gen X person, we knew that wasn’t it, but we didn’t have any other model to rely on.

It was still like, “That’s how it’s supposed to be because of my parents. It is not the experience I’m having, but I keep being told because that’s what my parents experienced,” and then Millennials come along and they’re like, “I don’t want to go to meetings that don’t matter. This could have been an email.” As Gen X, it is like, “You can do that? I knew this meeting was crap, but I didn’t know you could say that out loud.”

Millennials are showing that there can be boundaries and understanding. This is international. I interview people much like yourself all around the world. Even though cultures are very different, the feeling and need to be valued and the need to feel like your work matters is universal. They might not be speaking up as much because the culture is different, but it is there.

Millennials are showing that there can be boundaries and there can be an understanding. Click To Tweet

It’s also important to understand the culture. In an international business world now, quite often, we’re working remotely with people who are in several time zones. I think about time zones a lot. Sometimes I talk to my friends who work locally and they said, “How do you calculate the difference between Pacific, Central, and Eastern time? Do you mean there’s another one?” Nova Scotia has another time zone. In an international world, I’m working remotely, how can we still improve relationships when you can’t walk into somebody’s office and say, “Happy birthday,” or something like that?

I believe that the rise of remote work demonstrated the lack of leadership development we have across the board. There are many people in leadership positions and great people who have no leadership experience whatsoever or training for that matter. The reason I bring that up is you are not a good leader or a bad leader by defining the geography of your staff. Just because your staff is in a different location, doesn’t mean how you build a relationship, intention, or effort and changes. By putting digital in front of something doesn’t make it a different thing. There’s no such thing as digital leadership. It’s just leadership.

SWGR | Missing Middle

Missing Middle: There’s no such thing as digital leadership. It’s just leadership.

 

By having remote work, then having screens on matters because I get to see my hand communication. You get to see the inflection more of my voice and my facial expressions. That is extremely important when building those connections. I’ve worked with teams remotely and in person. I have great relationships with both because the only difference between remote is you have to be more intentional and put in more effort because you can’t walk past that cubicle and because you can’t just stand in a hallway and have a conversation.

Having said that, you can have a quick message on instant Messenger and go, “Do you have minutes?” and pop on a quick call. It can be that spontaneity as well. It doesn’t need to be structured just because it’s remote. it can be human. It can be very more relatable as a conversation by not being stringent and going, “Unless I’m having a meeting. I’m not talking to people.” A missed opportunity by any stretch is be spontaneous. Be that person to show up and go, “How was your weekend?” You can do that over a video call. You don’t need to do that in person.

It’s very interesting the way you’re talking about this. I talked to people about this a lot as a host and in my work. Let’s talk a little bit about the balance between being friends and leading, having those boundaries. I have certainly worked with many women who have lost their power because they wanted to be friends with everybody, then when they needed to say, “Just do it because I said so,” people didn’t. Where’s that balance?

You’ve highlighted right there where the challenge is, and that’s when leaders lead with, “Let’s be friends,” before, “Let me be your leader.” There’s no established respect, competency, and consistency as a leader if you lead with, “We’re just buddies.” Very much, you can’t grow leadership from friendship. You can grow friendships from leadership. You need to set the baseline in that, “We are here to do a job. I’m here to back you up. I am here to be a good leader, defend, and work with you to do the job.”

You can't grow leadership from friendship. You can grow friendships from leadership. Click To Tweet

That can’t be friendship to start because if you start with friendship, people have expectations of what a friend would do. What a friend would do is let you get away with stuff you may not get away with normally. It’s, “That’s okay,” or, “Let’s hang out after work.” You were setting a standard where it’s not about delivery, productivity, and growth.

Equality is across the board. That has nothing to do with it. It’s how the relationship is set. I’ve had a lot of success with this. If you start as a leader and show, “This is how I discipline. This is how I don’t let you get away with anything, but we still have mutual respect. This is how I handle things when it’s a difficult conversation,” then people have a baseline and a foundation in which to understand you where the friendship can grow from there.

Also, giving clear direction, being very clear about who’s responsible for what exactly you want them to do. As you’re talking about this, I think about some of the mistakes I made earlier in my career. I’m sorry. That was not very good. I think about a few of the times when I wanted to be friends first. I wasn’t giving clear directions, and it was a disaster. Hopefully, you learn that one in a not-too-stressful situation. I think about some of the ways I screwed up.

You can have amazing friendships. I don’t want to take that away. Relationships can be amazing. You can have the deepest most robust relationships from the workplace and a colleague standpoint, but you need to set a baseline or the employee or the team will put expectations on you that aren’t appropriate as a leader. You can have both. You just have to start with leadership.

Hierarchies are there for a reason. It is a way that an organization can function if you know who’s responsible for what and when. As we’re talking about this, let me say that people are busy now. Most of us, if we open up our emails in the morning, there are five different fires to put out. It is taking the time to engage with your team and find out how it takes time. How does a busy leader find the time to create that engagement that’s also going to keep them on the team instead of having them one day don’t show up?

You can’t be a leader if all you do is go from one meeting to the next to the next. That’s not leadership. That is your commodity to the organization. You are just a bubble that’s being moved around. That’s not leadership by any stretch of the imagination, regardless of your title and self-perception. Where the leadership comes into this is intention. I found this extremely helpful. The intention is to schedule time with your team for one-on-ones.

You can't be a leader if all you do is go from one meeting to the next to the next. Click To Tweet

I found it extremely successful to set up a time with them. It’s their time. For half an hour, it can be once a week, once a month or every other month. It depends on your relationship and the needs of your employees and your team members, but you have to know them well enough to know what meets their needs. It’s about putting them first and going, “One-half hour a day, it’s your time. We can talk about anything, your growth, career, and challenges. We can talk about nothing about work. We can talk about you as a human and some of the challenges you might have at home and maybe what you’re learning opportunities are.” It can be 5 or 30 minutes.

It’s your time to define what that conversation is. I’m not saying you don’t organically talk to them every day check-ins and get to know them, but having that additional effort of providing them a sandbox in which for you to have that conversation and connection is astronomically useful. I remember doing this with my teams. I would even try to cancel it because I’m like, “Are they still useful?” They would be still pissed and bothered in the idea of even canceling these things because they found such value in it that they got to pull themselves away from the day-to-day and be themselves in a safe psychologically safe environment.

That comes back to self-awareness, situation awareness, and understanding relationships because they may not show up authentically to begin with, and that’s based on the relationship you’re having, but being consistent with that time can grow your relationship as a leader and team member, and maybe hopefully friendship down the road, but it absolutely provides them a space to grow and build that relationship.

Let’s redefine the word friendship and think about respect. You might not be the best buddy that you’re going to go out, have coffee together, and talk about your lives, but you have respect for each other and you enjoy being with each other. I think about my mother used to say, “Manners are the grease that keeps the wheels of society going.”

Another thing that I’m thinking about as you’re saying this, especially in our diverse environment, hopefully, you’re in an organization that’s trying to be diverse and making an effort to get more diverse employees. That’s where it could be safe for someone to say, “This is a picture of my family. That’s my mom and all my aunts wearing their saris. My uncles wearing turbans. Here we are,” where before, they didn’t feel safe talking about it.

I want to challenge any leader with the diversity statement as well. Diversity isn’t always obvious. Diversity isn’t always cultural, the color of your skin, or your accessibility. Diversity could be introverts, neurodivergent people, and night owls. They could be completely different ways of working or how they communicate and how they build relationships. To your point, it absolutely allows them to be themselves in that half an hour or whatever allocation of time you work with them that will build that further relationship.

SWGR | Missing Middle

Missing Middle: Diversity isn’t always obvious. Diversity isn’t always cultural, the color of your skin, or your accessibility.

 

I shouldn’t say friends. I say colleagues more than I say friends because in colleagues, you can grow in that familiarity, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to a movie on Friday night together either. It’s that mutual respect of, “I’m here for you. You’re here for me. Let’s do it,” thing. That’s the foundation of respect.

There’s the old phrase that a collegial relationship is that you are working with your colleagues. You have a good collegial relationship. Let me ask you. As we were doing our preparation for this interview, you mentioned how this has to be part of a leader’s personal brand. I thought, “I often think of personal branding and leadership as two separate things.” You are putting them together. Tell us about that.

An old statement of the brand is, “What do people say about you when you’re not in the room? What is your reputation within the organization?” That goes hand in hand with you as a leader. What is your reputation as a leader? What is your brand as a leader? We mentioned earlier about that busy person who never has time for their staff but call themselves a leader. I’m like, “I bet you that most of your team doesn’t. I bet your people in the organization don’t,” but that’s your brand. Your brand within the organization is what people say about you. You can say whatever you want, but if people have a different perception of you, that’s their perception and that’s more truth than your own.

Talk about the difference between a title and a brand.

You can have the best title in the world. It doesn’t mean anything if the reputation you have within the organization. I don’t care how many executives you have at the end of your title or letters after your name. It means nothing in regard to you as a leader. It’s a responsibility, but responsibility and leadership are not the same thing. Responsibility is when you have something you have to deliver for stakeholders and customers or within the organization to get to that point. That’s where your title begins and ends.

Leadership is what we’re talking about growth, respect, building other leaders, and how you contribute to the health of the organization because just because you make money doesn’t mean your employee retention is sticking around, people turning over like crazy, or your succession plans are horrible. There’s so much to the value of individuals that is not tied to anything around your titles. Titles have nothing to do with the health of the organization.

On another line, as a leader, everybody reports up to somebody, no matter what your title is or where you are in the hierarchy. Part of it is you have a responsibility to deliver results and to recognize, and this is the friendship thing here, that the people who have higher positions probably have ten times as many responsibilities. Part of being a good leader if you are a leader of a team that is then helping somebody who’s a little more senior is to deliver the information that the person who’s looking at the larger picture can use.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “leaders” where if an employee or team member comes to them and go, “What’s your job to the leader?” the leaders’ response, I hate to say this, but I’ve heard this, is them saying, “My job is to make my boss happy.” If I were that employee or team member, my heart would break and I’d be looking for a new job within the next five seconds because that should never be a leader’s job.

Is it to create an environment or a widget? There are deliverables, but your boss will be happy if you’re creating great leaders and if you’re contributing to the health of the organization. If you manage up, you’re not leading. There was a great book by Kevin Oakes about reinventing culture. He talks about how, “If you’re shining your light up only, you’re leaving your team in darkness.” You’re not leading at all. You are just helping that person individually at the top of the hierarchy.

SWGR | Missing Middle

Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company by Kevin Oakes

Say that one again. That’s going to be one of our quotable quotes here.

It’s not even from my mouth. It’s a Kevin Oakes quote where he talks about in his book, Culture Renovation, where he basically says, “If you’re managing up only, you’re leaving your team in the dark.” You are not helping and supporting. It’s all about the people above you. It might be management, but it’s not leadership.

I could talk to you about this for hours here, but we’re here shortly to spare our readers. Is there one skill that a leader should manage, look at, or pay attention to first? People who are reading are saying, “I need to pay more attention here.” What’s one thing that people could do?

It’s understanding your organization. I want to break it down into the missing middle. It is where I would like them to focus their time. In every organization, there are the rock stars and those who are the challenges that demand your time. Every organization has challenges. Everybody does, but the thing is those 10% or 20% at the top are the people you go to. Those are the rock stars. Those are the great people who you know are going to get the job done. They’re self-directed, and then there’s those bottom 10% or 20% that need your time to work yourself through difficult conversations. The problem is we’re ignoring the middle of that.

We spend so much of our time at the top and at the bottom that there’s this missing middle of employees who aren’t getting the direction, support, connection, and relationships because they might be working in a different way or they might have other responsibilities outside of work like family that doesn’t allow them to be knocking at the boss’s door every five minutes with, “I’m awesome. This place sucks.” They need leadership. Because they are not obvious, they are ignored and not nurtured. They’re your succession plan. They’re the workforce that wants to matter. If you’re spending all your time at the top and the bottom, you are not leading the majority of your team.

I like this concept. This is a good idea. Pay attention to the people in the middle, who are indeed often the people who are doing the job and do that. For the people who are the ones who come in, do your job, and do whatever you can do, talking about that is a skill that is easy to ignore because you’re not the trouble person or the rock star. I have a whole program, especially for women about the value of things not going wrong.

The great Bonita Banducci says it very well that we have a culture that is geared to celebrate the firefighters, the people are putting out the fires and, “Hooray,” but nobody talks about the ones who make sure that the sprinklers are charged, the smoke alarms are charged, and makes sure that there’s not going to be a fire. You get all sorts of attention for putting out a fire, but meanwhile, the house is burned down and the family doesn’t have any place to live. No one’s talking about the neighbor who makes sure the fire doesn’t start.

I love that. It is a great metaphor.

Russel Lolacher, this has been so much fun. I love this conversation. I love the way we’re talking about it. I am delighted to have you as a guest. If you enjoyed this, please tell your friends. Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts because that’s the one that counts. Subscribe to us. Spread the word so I can get more great people like Russell Lolacher to have interesting conversations. I’ll see you on the next one.

 

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About Russel Lolacher

SWGR | Missing MiddleRussel Lolacher is an international keynote speaker and advocate for meaningful work relationships. He’s the creator and host of Relationships at Work – the leadership guide to creating a workplace we love. This is a podcast and YouTube show where he talks with global experts on how to improve leadership, employee experiences and workplace cultures. He’s held successful leadership and communication roles for almost 30 years, retaining one team for almost 12 years. His work and expertise in building employee and customer trust has been recognized on international stages, in global publications like Forbes and as a 4x named Top Thought Leader by the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI).