My first car was a 1963 blue Ford Mercury Comet! It had an inline six-cylinder engine with a three-speed transmission that generated a whopping 101 horsepower. The gear shifter was on the steering wheel column. I bought it for $250, and it got me around Glendale. It was donated to our high school to use as a training aid in the auto shop. I knew everything about that vehicle. I restored it along with my other classmates. We rebuilt the carburetor and engine, replaced the transmission, driveshaft, U-joints, turned the brake drums, and installed new shoes.
I wanted a safe and affordable car, my high school made me a deal I couldn’t refuse, and the Comet served that purpose. Every time I filled the tank with gas, I made a habit of checking the tire pressure, fan belt, battery, and most important pulled the dipstick to check the oil level. Today, everything about my vehicle is noted on a display embedded in the dashboard. I bought a new car four months ago and have yet to look under the hood. Why should I? On the console touchpad, using the tip of my finger, I can scroll through the various system screens and check for notifications: It’s time for service, the left rear tire needs air, the interior air filter needs to be replaced, the front end is out of alignment.
I can even talk to it! Touch a button and ask the question. To be honest with you, I don’t even know where the dipstick is! I could ask, and I’m sure my car would tell me what to look for and how to find it.
Then and now
How we drove and now drive business is analogous to how we drove and now drive cars. A few decades back, electric typewriters and whiteout prevailed in the office. There were no cellphones and computers, just the hardline telephone and written correspondence. Desktop and handheld calculators simplified the financial transactions in your business. If you needed information or guidance, you went to the library, called the other party, or visited them in person. In other words, you were doing dipstick checks several times a week to ensure the business engine was running smoothly.
Today, you can accomplish almost all work from your office cockpit. Most of us are wired into a local area network, cloud resources, and heads-up displays on customized dashboards. We immediately look online and tap into social media and the worldwide web for answers to our information needs. We’re reluctant to pick up the phone or visit a subordinate, coworker, business associate, or customer. Why should we? We can avoid some level of interpersonal discomfort and go virtual or email, text, post and Snapchat ourselves to believe we have a handle on our business without ever doing another in-person dipstick check. And if that’s what you do, no matter what level of contribution you’re making to an organization, what a shame.
The dipstick check of the oil level in an engine gave you immediate information about its health. You diagnosed problems with accuracy and confidence if you frequently checked: gasket leak, piston ring wear, engine temperature. The same is true when you do dipstick checks in your organization and with external stakeholders. The check itself is as easy as asking a few questions: How’s your family, what can we do better to support you, how responsive is our leadership in addressing your inquiries? If you check often enough, you’ll diagnose organizational problems with accuracy and confidence: homelife stress, underperformance, low morale, inadequate training, unresponsive leadership, inferior service.
The essence of leadership is making an internal and external emotional connection with those associated with your company. Create a leadership routine by doing dipstick checks and feel and gain an understanding of the ebbs and flows of your organization, the people in and those served by it, and how it relates to multiple constituencies. It can’t be relegated to a tweet, text, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, cockpit display, an executive assistant, or any other of several means of distance communication or filtering.
Most frustrating, I’ve noted several C-Suite executives often rely on assistants who gatekeep internal and external constituencies, filtering out perceived distractions from an already distracted and time-mismanaged executive. I’m often told, “He’s slammed and doesn’t have a calendar opening for two months.”
“She’s unbelievably busy. Nonetheless, she does want to meet with you. Come back in a month, and we should be able to get you 15 minutes.”
What’s lost in all this contrived busy-ness is the leader doing their dipstick checks.
So, unbuckle the seatbelt from your office cockpit chair, stand up and step away from your customized display, resist the urge to tweet, text, or email, then frequently visit, engage and relate to your constituencies in person. Make the emotional connection that solidifies your relationship and incorporate dipstick checks into your leadership routine. Doing this is sure footing to achieve exponential growth. This is how you lead, think, plan and act. Now let’s get after it!
Retired Col. Paul A. Raggio is co-owner, with his sister Lisa, of One True North INC Leadership and Business Coaching Solutions. Paul and Lisa mentor and coach business owners on leadership and management principles in achieving and sustaining their business growth and profitability goals. He can be reached at [email protected]