Vancouver’s Art of Leadership Conference Preview: Chester Elton

Author and Speaker Chester Elton | BCBusiness
Author and speaker Chester Elton.

The Art of Leadership conference comes to The Centre in Vancouver For Performing Arts on Thursday, April 11. BCBusiness chats with Vancouver-born author and speaker Chester Elton on how to lead right now

You’ve heard the adage for years: great companies have great leadership. They ride out economic uncertainty and industry disruption while competitors fade away because of the inspiring and rewarding infrastructure in place from the top on down. It’s amidst these challenging times for B.C. business leaders, not to mention a possible provincial leadership change, that The Art of Leadership conference comes to The Centre in Vancouver For Performing Arts on Thursday, Apr. 11.

The one-day conference—produced by The Art of Productions Inc. that also spotlights sales, management and marketing—features five internationally renowned bestselling authors who present for an hour each on what organizers are calling “today’s most critical leadership issues.” Attendance is expected at 1,500 and tickets start at $399, but BCBusiness readers get a $50 discount here.
Closing the event is Vancouver-born Chester Elton, author of The Carrot Principle and All-In, whose talk is titled “Creating a Culture of Buy-in and Belief.”
We caught up with the now-Summit, New Jersey native (“It’s right across the river from New York City.”) and asked him to expand on some of the principles covered and myths busted in his books and presentations.
What is the first step that a leader looking to establish culture needs to take?
The first step is get some data and get some input. In small organizations in particular, it can be as simple as a one-on-one with employees or a group meeting where you just sit down and say to your group, “What kind of culture do we want to have here?”

Of course remember that it’s the owners who set the tone, so there needs to be a declarative statement in there that says, “I want this to be this kind of culture—a high-performance culture, an innovative culture, a culture that’s focused on customer service, or an experiential culture where when people walk into our store I want it to look and feel differently. And then you have the conversation about how you can make that happen?

The more buy-in you get from your employees, the easier your life as an owner is going to be and the better your chance of success.
So all in, like your book title?
When we were looking for titles for the book, we heard it over and over again from business leaders. They wanted their employees committed, excited to come to work. “I want them all in—to place their bet on our customers and our products and most importantly on us.”
What should business leaders do next?
Ask employees if that is the kind of culture they’re going to be comfortable and excited to come to work? “Is this a kind of place you’re going to place your bet?”
You’re a big proponent of listening to the squeaky wheels on teams. Why?
The idea of having some tension in the workplace is a good thing. If everyone is always smiling and happy and patting each other on the back, you may be missing opportunities for improvement. Sometimes the squeaky wheel is right. People communicate in different ways and not everybody has a lot of tact or social grace. It doesn’t mean that what they have to say isn’t valid or important. Sometimes the squeaky wheel is the sales person who’s on the road and has direct contact with the client and has some valuable information that can make the organization better.
You also tell business leaders to share bad news fast and get debate going. Isn’t debating bad news with your employees toxic?
The best organizations share do share bad news quickly and they tell employees how their going to fix it and how they need everyone’s help. When things get quiet, people assume the worst and that’s a lot of wasted energy and resources trying to figure out what is wrong. The debate comes in when you share the bad news as a leader, offer a suggestion to solve it and then involve your team in giving suggestions.
You also discount general praise for good work. How important is getting specific with your praise and rewards?
General praise has no impact on people. The “good job, you’re the best, no you’re the best” has zero impact and gets tiresome quickly.

We call specific praise and rewards the great accelerator. Once you have your systems down—you have good pricing, customer who believe in your products, employees who are engaged, it’s recognition that takes you to the next level, and here’s why: recognition is the great communicator. Most people who think about rewards think of the stuff: the watch, the plaque and the trip.

While those are important, because those are tokens and reminders what’s more important for managers and leaders is that when you celebrate a certain behaviour, it’s what you are communicating. We celebrate what we value. “Great job with that customer” isn’t sufficient. What’s the because”?

“Because when that customer came in he was angry about our policy and you took control, got the facts, and said that we could fix that. The customer skipped out the door and he’s a customer for life. And that’s what we mean when the customer comes first. Great job.” It’s a thousand times more impactful than “Great job, keep it up.” I mean, “Keep what up?” So think about what you’re communicating.
It doesn’t have to cost a lot and it doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Pulling your team together in the morning and highlighting what Elizabeth did to stock the shelves to make sure the store was ready doesn’t take time or cost anything. But you’re highlighting the behaviours you want repeated and it’s communicating the kind of culture we want. Most people want to show up to work and know that they matter, that what they do has an impact and that when they do something right, it will be recognized and celebrated. Those are three great elements of great places to work. And everyone wants to be on that list. These are not just nice or cheerful place to work. A company’s financials are better, so there’s a business case for praise and rewards.