The MPW Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: What’s the most difficult part of being a leader? is written by Mary Lou Burke Afonso, executive vice president of U.S. Center Operations at Bright Horizons Family Solutions.
I love being a leader. I love connecting with employees, motivating my teams, and planning for the future. While I would say that leading teams comes naturally to me, there are certainly factors that make leading difficult–particularly when you are managing a decentralized workforce. At Bright Horizons, we operate 875 care centers around the world, the majority of which are worksite centers for employers. This means we have a huge workforce to serve and it is important to me that every single employee — despite their role or geography — feel connected to the organization and our mission. But the fact is that it is difficult to maintain connections in a meaningful way when you are leading teams of people who work in multiple locations and are not on computers 24/7.
This type of challenge has required me to get creative in how I connect with remote employees. Video conferencing has helped but this is only scratching the surface. As a leader, I want to demonstrate to the entire workforce that I am a real person who wants to support and lead, solve problems, and work with employees to visualize the future of our company? What I have learned is that little things go a long way. For important accomplishments I like to personally contact employees to thank them for their work and their commitment to serving families. While I try to visit centers as often as I can, finding ways to be present between visits has shown employees that we are in this together.
The idea of being a caring leader leads to another challenge: finding a balance between showing employees you care about them as both employees and individuals, while also holding them accountable. I think being a female leader adds a unique dynamic to this challenge, as you want to be both caring and tough. While there is a job to be accomplished, it has always remained important to me to interact with employees in a genuine, humble way.
Building personal relationships with employees takes a lot of time, and I think this is where leaders often fall short because they are so busy. But simple tweaks to daily tasks, like stopping an employee in the hallway to ask about their weekend, or picking up the phone rather than sending an email, are so essential to building and maintaining working relationships. Leadership is a continual growth experience. There is always something new to learn and stretch in ways you never knew you could. But at the end of the day, it is important to remember that it is your employees who make up the organization, and showing them you care can matter greatly for the ultimate success of your company.