Do I Know You?

WHILE CONDUCTING leadership training with my second lieutenants in the Marine Corps, I posed this question to them from a real-life experience.

You have a Sergeant working for you who does an outstanding job every day. You have never had a problem with him or his work. One day, you notice that he just cannot do anything right. How would you go about getting the Sergeant back in the game?

The answers ranged from “take him aside and chew him out” to “formally counsel him” and the ever-popular “nothing – we all have bad days”. I then told them how I handled this situation.

I asked the Sergeant to get a cup of coffee and follow me outside. Once outside I said, “I noticed you are having a hard time concentrating today. I can tell something is bothering you. What’s going on, Sergeant and how can I help?” The Sergeant told me that he had to take his wife to the emergency room the night before and they had admitted her with pneumonia. He barely got into work on time because he had to get his son off to school after being awake all night with him at the hospital and he had no idea how he was going to get him after school. I told him to go home and take care of his family. To call in each morning after he got his son off to school so that I knew he was okay and then go sit with his wife until they released her from the hospital. Once she was home, get her back on her feet before you come back to work. I told him I would take care of informing everyone else that needed to know.

I then looked at my lieutenants and asked, “How come no one thought to ask the Sergeant what was wrong?”

When you have been entrusted with the leadership of a team of individuals, you have an obligation to know your employees and to look out for their welfare.

Now, admittedly, the solution offered in the above example is something that can only happen in the military environment, but we do have ways to ensure we can take care of our team members when they need our support the most. So, here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Put your employees’ welfare before your own. I remember my first year at Jackson County that our interim County Manager had all the folks on the top floor of our office leave at noon on the day before our Christmas break. The payroll clerk said they would have to take vacation time for the time off and he informed her that he would personally sign the payroll adjustments so they would be paid. When the receptionist stated she would have to stay and answer the phone, he told her to show him how to work the switchboard phone and he would sit there all afternoon and take care of incoming calls. When she protested, he said, “Don’t worry. Len will stay here to keep me company and see to it I do your job correctly.” I enjoyed the afternoon of his storytelling and they enjoyed time with their families.
  • Correct grievances and remove discontent as quickly as possible. Nothing will create discord faster than allowing personnel problems to fester. If someone behaves in a manner that violates established policies, correct it. If someone is a gossip, correct it. If someone is not carrying their share of the workload and others constantly have to take up the slack, correct it. Be fair but be quick about resolving personnel issues before they explode and you have someone filing a formal grievance. Once that happens, then you are the problem.
  • Make sure that you see your employees every day. Stop by their office or cubical, engage them at the coffee pot or copier, invite them into your office but always be approachable and available to talk to them. If possible, create a nice sitting area in your office with a table and two comfortable chairs so that you can sit in a position of equality with your employees and not in the dominant “behind the desk” position.
  • Get to know and understand your employees. If they have special interests outside of work, asking about that interest will open the door to conversation. In this manner, if there are problems in the air, they will be willing to be open and honest with you about what is bothering them. They will also be willing to share ideas and thoughts with you that may lead to process improvements that will benefit the entire team. Open communications are vital to team building. But you must be absolutely sincere about your interest. Nothing will hurt your communications with your team faster than faking your interest in their personal life.
  • Let them see that you are dedicated to their success. I had the privilege of working with a very motivated intern recently. On the days that he worked and before he left for the day, he would ask me to give him a leadership lesson. So I would pose a question and let him answer and then share my experience with him. It was so enjoyable to see him grow because toward the end of his internship, he was coming up with really good solutions to complex problems. On his last day, I gave him my business card and told him that when he needed a reference, I would be honored to recommend him. When he called, I asked him one simple question, “Do you really want this job?” When he said yes, I knew I could get it for him and he works there today.
  • Help your employees get support from available personnel services. I opened up with an example of how I helped one of my Marines during a crisis in his life. I did what I knew I could legally do to help him. You should know all the programs your company has to help employees in their time of need. If you don’t know what is available, visit your Human Resource office and start educating yourself today. Get to know what charitable organizations in your area are available to help should your employee need assistance that is outside the realm of your employee assistance programs. Always remember, it is your responsibility to care for your employees so don’t just pass the employee off to HR and expect them to handle your responsibility.
  • Ensure fair and equal distribution of rewards. Employee of the Month, Employee of the Year, and Certificates of Appreciation are designed to motivate your team but can quickly create problems if the same person is always in receipt of these awards. It is your responsibility as the leader to ensure each team member grows so they are eligible for these special recognition awards. But never forget, a “thank you” or a “good job” spoken in front of their peers is priceless and should be handed out sincerely and freely.
  • Finally, encourage individual development. Give your team every opportunity to attend training, participate in webinars, conduct in-house training, or go to school after hours. When they raise a question, take the time to give them the big picture answer (i.e. the who, what, where, when and why the answer you are about to give is correct under the current situation so that they understand the logic and motivation behind the answer) and not just a quick yes or no. If you want them to be successful while on your team, make sure they have the tool of knowledge that will ensure their success.

I once had a veteran working for me who was suffering silently with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When the “whispers” made their way to my ears, I invited him into my office for a cup of coffee. Slowly, I began peeling the layers of his defenses until he admitted just how bad he was suffering. He wanted help but just did not know what to do and feared that if he admitted the problem, he would lose his job. I sent him back to work and told him I would get with him later that day. I called a contact I knew at the Veteran’s Administration and found out that there was a group of veteran’s with the same problem meeting in our area but that he would have to call them himself. They were very protective of their group since people with PTSD were often misunderstood and they would ensure this was a person with a real problem and not someone looking for headlines. I provide the information to my employee and told him it was now up to him to help himself – he had to make the call. Later, after he had attended several meetings, he thanked me for caring enough to help him find this group. He now knows that he was not alone and that he will be able to overcome the fear in time.

If you want to be an exceptional leader, get to know your team.


Len Bernat
Len Bernat
LEN is a leader groomed by 20 years of molding and shaping by some of the finest leaders in the United States Marine Corps. Their guidance helped Len realize his full potential as he moved from an enlisted Marine to becoming an Officer of Marines. Len became known for being the leader who could turn any lackluster organization into a strong, functional unit. Upon his retirement, Len worked in several positions before finally starting a second career in governmental procurement. His experience and leadership skills enabled him to be recognized as the 2011 Governmental Procurement Officer of the Year for the Governmental Procurement Association of Georgia and opened doors for him to teach at many of the association’s conferences. Len was also called to the ministry and was ordained at Ashford Memorial Methodist Church in November of 1999. Today, Len is the Pastor of Maxeys Christian Church in Maxeys, Georgia. Len has been married to his wife, Hazel, for 36 years and they have three daughters, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Grab your copy of Len's new Book – Leadership Matters | Advice From A Career USMC Officer. Using his life experiences as examples, Len takes the eleven principles of leadership and the fourteen traits every leader should possess—which he learned during twenty years in the Marine Corps—and teaches the reader how he was molded and shaped by some of the best leaders the Corps had to offer.

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  1. After doing it for 20 years, I’m still in awe of the impact a “walk-about” has for increasing you’re team’s engagement. You set up the same time every day where you walk around the whole floor(s), a time where everyone will see you walk by and hear you engage with key people. They see you talk, they see how you treat people, they see you’re someone they understand. Engagement naturally grows from there.

    • Chris – Great point. Just being available will increase your ability to engage with your team and key individuals so that you have your pulse on the daily challenges your team faces daily. Great input to this important discussion. Thanks.

  2. Len, as you speak with such confidence, and insight from your personal experiences, the readers hearts are touched. Your advice through personal experiences are practical, simple and yet so very powerful.

    I too have been privileged to work in different cultures in many countries and the one thing I ALWAYS do is to get to know the strengths and the weaknesses of the team entrusted to implement any humanitarian program in socio-religious sensitive environments. I would dare say that knowing, evaluating and understanding these weaknesses of your team members are as vitally important as their strengths. Most are ‘afraid’ to share their weaknesses..but that is where Tact comes into play. Genuine empathy with understanding goes a long way in creating the right environment where all members are comfortable and each knows the exact roles they have to play in order to achieve the goals set out.

    Just recently in a Kebab get-together (Indian version of Barbeque evening) we looked at the ingredients we had on hand – mainly different veggies, onions, garlic , simple spices. We acknowledged the important of the fragrant flavors made possible by the blending of these items in predetermined quantities and the qualities of each ingredient eg. garlic being and antibiotic, antioxidant, antiviral, antifungal…… these qualities can be translated into a unique harmony of goodness – goodness that each one can participate in a team.. Onions the basic ingredient in almost all Indian cuisine, though having similar properties as garlic… comes in layers and as one peels each layer at times we may cry.

    We can learn great lessons from these simple ingredients and that particular evening we all decided to play our individual roles to create the very best blend of ‘flavor’ in submission to our levels of uniqueness.

    Question of the evening – What is your uniqueness – contribution towards the success of your team?

    • Jonathan – First, thank you for your very kind words. Second, your example from your current experiences in India punctuate the lesson to be learned from this article. Thank you so much for sharing these insights so that those who take the time to read the article and the comments will gain a complete understanding of how to interact with their team and how to care for them. You have honored me by your willingness to compliment my writing with your story.

    • Carol, thank you so much for your encouragement. You are so right in that the principles of leadership taught in the Marine Corps have been such an important source of guidance for me and I am sure for every Marine who has entered the civilian work force.