by Katie Anderson

What does it mean to be connected? Or better yet, in today’s world, what could it mean if you aren’t?

The pandemic has changed how we can create connections, yet in a world in which we must be physically separated, genuine connection — the type that creates strong relationships, bolsters individuals and teams, and transcends space and time— remains just as essential as ever. Genuine connection goes beyond the number of likes or followers one has on social media; it goes deeper into the core of who we are as humans. Connection is about relationships, about caring, and about respect.

Connection and Intention

In 2014, my family moved to Japan for my husband’s job — for what would be a life-changing experience for us all — and I met Isao Yoshino, a 40-year Toyota leader and one of the most people-centered leaders that I’ve known. This initial meeting resulted in a connection and partnership with Mr. Yoshino that has forever influenced my approach to leadership and has resulted in the publication of the bestselling book Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn Lessons from Toyota Leader Isao Yoshino on a Lifetime of Continuous Learning.

Out of the many rich lessons I’ve learned from Mr. Yoshino, is the importance of leading others to learn with their minds while simultaneously leading from the heart.

And this starts, in my opinion, with connection.

Connection is the heart of intention, and intention is the foundation of people-centered leadership.

When you step into a people-management position, you don’t earn the title of leader without first winning over the hearts of your people. This starts by leading from your heart first and genuinely caring about your people. People-centered leaders seek to connect with their team members and to support each person to achieve their personal and professional goals. These leaders — the ones that focus on connection first — realize that their role extends beyond quarterly reports and business results. They understand that leadership is about how they, too, inspire and support others to be their best selves. Intentional leadership is about connecting the heart and aligning your actions in that direction to fulfill your leadership purpose and help others do the same.

The Connection of Learning and Leading

The Leading to Learn Framework for people-centered leadership, which I highlighted in the August 2020 edition of the theleanmag and describe in detail in the internationally bestselling book Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn: Lessons from Toyota Leader Isao Yoshino on a Lifetime of Continuous Learning, is simple is concept, yet more challenging in practice.

A leader’s purpose is to:

1. Set direction,

2. Provide support, and

3. Develop yourself.

Each of these three components is underpinned by the fundamental principles of connection and caring.

Reflect on some of the most influential leaders that you’ve experienced. What are some of their notable traits? What did they do that had a positive impact on you?

Perhaps they coached you to improve your abilities and championed your career growth. Likely they knew how to motivate and inspire you and the rest of your team toward shared success. they set forth challenges for you, while supporting you through your struggles on your learning path to attain them.

And almost certainly it was the connection that you had — one built upon a relationship of caring and a shared goal of wanting to see one another succeed — that made a lasting impact.

Connections in the Chain of Learning

Mr. Yoshino described this type of connection to me once as a “chain of learning”, leaders and learners linked through a shared experience of learning, passing on wisdom, and achieving more together.

In reflecting on my own chain of learning, I’ve been inspired by managers who modeled the way for the type of leader I wanted to be ¬— and I’ve had some experiences from which I learned how I didn’t want to show up. All are ones I’ll never forget and have shaped how I have created connections with others in my chain of learning.

1+1 = Much More Than 2

Mr. Yoshino once remarked to me as we worked together to extract and weave together his reflections on leadership and learning that “1+1 = much more than 2.” I have taken this motto to heart in all that I do when it comes to collaborating and working with people, as truly the connections between one another create more than the sum of individual contributions.

How to Build Connections During a Disconnected Time

The shift in work to more online, remote, and distributed teams has challenged how we interact and connect. Now, more than ever, we must be deliberate and purposeful about how we maintain and cultivate genuine human connections.

Everyone has been stretched by the uncertainty and crisis of the pandemic. Instead of developing staff for growth opportunities, leaders and team members alike have experienced job uncertainties, pressure to perform, and new challenges that they might not have initially been equipped for. Some of your colleagues may be thriving in a remote working environment, while others may struggle.

Many of the previous methods we used to maintain connections have had to change over this last year. Visibility that we could one count on through casual interaction has been obscured by distance. Because we aren’t in the same space, we miss those hallway chats and informal interactions that foster deeper connection. Spontaneous chats before a meeting starts that inspire new ideas or make cross-company connections don’t happen as easily on video conferencing calls. Monday morning meetings or team huddles are now interspersed with dropped calls, new virtual distractions, and home commitments such as helping children get on their own virtual school meetings. And the virtual environment can make it harder to pick up on nonverbal cues that indicate excitement for a new idea or fear of failure in embarking on a new task.

In today’s world, it can be easy to lose sight of the importance of connections — or perhaps you are challenged at how to maintain connections in a virtual environment. Many connections have been — or could be — lost if we are not intentional about creating and maintaining them.

Reflect and Adjust

Reflect on the type of leader you want to be and the impact that this past year has had on your connections. How are you intentionally maintaining connection with your people? How are you connecting with their mind and their hearts? How are you showing respect and demonstrating that you care?

I’ve put together some ideas for your consideration of three ways that you might intentionally maintain genuine connections by leading with the heart.

1. Go See to Connect and Show You Care

The concept of “go to gemba” -- going to see what is actually happening and checking in on the people actually doing the work -- is one of the core principles of lean thinking and practice. Mr. Yoshino has shared many stories with me on how “going to see” is fundamental to people-centered leadership: one goes to see to both learn facts of a process and to demonstrate that you care about your people.

To some, the thought of “go see” may seem to mean even more online video calls. Too many back-to-back virtual meetings without a break is a problem in itself! “Zoom fatigue” is real. Yet I have found that it’s not the increase in virtual meetings that has caused my fatigue – I actually love connecting and engaging with people virtually all around the world. It is when I don’t actually “see” the people I’m interacting with that causes my exhaustion. Participating in video calls with a sea of blank avatar images leaves me drained rather than energized. Talking to a screen with no visual feedback or connection is exhausting! Attempting to draw insights from emails just isn’t the same or as nearly effective as gathering interactive feedback when I can see people’s faces. It’s the lack of genuine connection that is fatiguing!

While the concept of “go see” may look different with a distributed work force, with less visible knowledge work, and in a remote working environment, you can still be creative and intentional about how you can maintain connections and “go see.”

When you take the time to go “see” and “hear” – not just with your ears from a phone call or your eyes with an email – when you are truly present and engage with each person virtually or in person, you strengthen human connection. Check in with your team, discover facts, ask meaningful questions and show that you care about each person. Your intentional approach to “go see” to show that you care will help you learn about your team’s needs and deepen your connections along the way.

2. Check Your Assumptions to Facilitate Connections

Another important reason to “go see” is that when we don’t take the time to do so, it is easier to make assumptions about what is going on with your people or in the processes on which they are working. While you may have gained expertise from past experiences — and in fact have been promoted because of it — remember that every situation is unique. Your knowledge gained from the past can oftentimes benefit you and your team, and it can also hinder you are not aware of your biases.

When we make assumptions that what is happening currently is the same as what we have experienced in the past, we may miss out understanding the real causes of today’s problem. When we assume that we know what someone is experiencing or thinking, we also may miss the mark in our reaction. We may assume that they need us to provide more explicit direction, but in fact they only needed us to listen and ask questions so they could think out loud through the situation in front of them. When we make assumptions, we limite our ability to genuinely connect with people and understand is actually happening.

Ask questions and listen to what your team is telling you to understand what is happening now — for them and with their work. Maintain your connections with your people by checking your assumptions before jumping to conclusions.

3. Distribute Creativity to Connect Ideas and People

Sometimes, especially under real business pressures and uncertainty, is can be easy to focus singularly on the business targets or goals you need to achieve. It can feel easier to tell people what to do or to give your ideas to get to “the answer” (or what you think is the answer) more quickly. Yet when you default to being the sole idea generator, you limit the richness that comes from collaboration and the generation of many ideas from others, and you end up owning responsibility for solving all of those problems!

When you shift your leadership approach from being directive to being focused on asking others to bring forth their ideas, you leverage the creativity and develop problem-solving capabilities across your team. When you ask intentional and open-ended questions, you give your team the opportunity to be forward-thinking and come up with ideas that you might not even have thought of.

Instead of posing a solution, consider asking your team to reflect on potential countermeasures they see to a given problem. Instead of independently generating ideas, pull together a virtual think tank and give your team the opportunity to openly share ideas that they may have to achieve the goals. By giving your team more autonomy and time for thinking as it aligns with the direction of the organization, you’ll likely find that it allows them the creative space to make the connections of their ideas and, in addition, you will find that you create a greater connection with them as people as well.

Connection from the Heart Binds Us Together

True connection is built on authenticity, intention and vulnerability. It is built on the understanding that we all are undergoing challenges, and yet, we are in it together. It is solidified on the foundation of caring about the whole person — not just the side of them that completes their business objectives. When you take time to make a connection with each member of your team, to show that you care, you demonstrate that they are both worth your time and worthy of reaching their full potential. Connection is what interweaves us all together.

The concept of a connected