Aron Ain_UKG - Social Capital
Aron Ain is the chairman and CEO of Ultimate Kronos Group. UKG

Below is an excerpt from chapter one of the book, "WorkInspired: How to Build an Organization Where Everyone Loves to Work," written by UKG CEO Aron Ain. Aron believes in the power of humility and being what he calls an "Un-Leader."

Let's face it, egotistical, self-interested or self-absorbed leaders of any stripe usually don't inspire people very much. These leaders might elicit fear, respect or admiration, but not affection. And you need affection if you're going to spur employees to pour their hearts into their work every single day.

There's a name for the kind of humble CEO I aspire to be. I'll call him or her the "Un-Leader."

Led by a humble leader, employees become far more willing to open up to their boss, person to person. Do you ever sense that your people are withholding important information -- that you don't know what's really going on? It may be that your people feel uncomfortable communicating. They don't trust you because, to them, you're different. Inaccessible. Unapproachable. You're The Boss, and it feels scary to be themselves around you. So, they keep silent, and you remain ignorant about important facets of the business, not knowing what you don't know. Over time, that lack of knowledge takes a significant toll.

Don't be The Boss. Be a human being. Invite your team members in by staying humble and putting them on your level.

To wield influence as an Un-Leader, you can't just think like one. You have to act like one. Many day-to-day leadership behaviors allow you to project humility and put people on your level. While some of them might feel uncomfortable or unfamiliar at first, none are complicated. You just have to decide to do them! Here are a few to focus on first.

Behavior #1: Forgo special perks

If you're a senior leader, do you insist on taking private planes or traveling first class on commercial airlines? ... Not me. I pass through first class and into coach. Could I always fly first class if I wanted to? Of course. But I'm an Un-Leader. [Employees] know that I fly coach just like they do, and that parity means something. It tells them I'm no more special than they are -- that I recognize everyone's worth.

I'm not saying Un-Leaders should never fly first class. The point is to live by the same rules as everyone else. If employees have to fly coach, then you should, too. Given how much I travel, I sometimes do get bumped up to first class. In these situations, I'll take the first-class ticket. That's fine -- I'm still playing by the same rules as other [employees]. But on occasions when I'm bumped up and I happen to spot a fellow [employee] on a flight, I might trade seats with [them]. Can you imagine what an impression it makes on an employee to have the CEO gift you their first-class seat?

Foregoing perks and playing by the same rules as others extends beyond air travel. I don't stay in luxury hotels when I travel on business (unless that's where everyone else is staying). I don't have a window office, because no leaders in our headquarters do. And I don't get free lunch at the cafeteria in our corporate offices. I'm no better than our employees. If they pay for lunch, then so do I.

Behavior #2: Give others the limelight

When you're in a meeting, it's tempting to take credit, drawing attention away from your team members. Un-Leaders do the opposite. They look for opportunities to pump up others' contributions and stature. As a member of my executive team tells me, I have been known to spotlight the expertise of [other employees] when introducing them to customers, prospects, vendors and other partners. I also tend to pick junior-level [employees] in meetings I attend and tout their role, responsibility and achievements. I solicit their opinions, too, asking questions and listening carefully. When I give formal speeches, I take the opportunity to draw attention to small teams or groups throughout the company, including new employees who recently came on board during acquisitions. These gestures take virtually no extra time and effort. You just have to get in the habit of doing them.

Behavior #3: Show gratitude

Another way to project humility is to thank people repeatedly, even in difficult situations. Like most companies, we hold annual budgeting meetings as part of our strategic planning process. These meetings aren't always easy. Sometimes, people disagree on key decisions, and tempers flare. The junior people on the finance team who run the numbers sometimes feel a bit roughed up, even though they didn't do anything wrong. Sensing this, I turn to them at the end of the meeting and publicly thank them for all their hard work. I do this no matter how rancorous the meeting gets. It's not only the executives making the final decisions who matter. The junior-level people worked hard, and they deserve to be thanked. When that gratitude comes from the mouth of the CEO, or from that of a midlevel manager leading a team, it sends a clear signal not just about the value that every [employee] brings but also about the importance of humility in our culture.

Behavior #4: Remember basic respect

We're all busy, deluged by e-mails and meetings. It's easy to forget basic courtesies, especially when it comes to frontline employees. Take some deep breaths and make it a priority to show respect for everyone. Hold the door. If you're in a meeting and getting coffee for yourself, ask others if they want some, including the 22-year-old intern. If you're walking with junior employees down the hallway, don't walk ahead of them, but side by side. If you're holding a meeting with your team, don't sit at the head of the conference table every time. If you're in an elevator with a group of people, look up from your phone and say hello. If you're in a cab or a restaurant, talk to the people serving you. Ask them about their lives and thank them for their efforts. Practiced daily, little gestures like these make a big difference. And again, they send a message.

Behavior #5: Get -- and stay -- in the weeds

Some leaders believe they should focus on the high-level strategy, leaving it to others lower in the organization to perform more mundane tasks like interacting with customers and handling their complaints. That thinking is ridiculous. We have teams of sales and service people who care for our customers day-to-day, and as CEO I don't micromanage. But I do frequently step in and interact personally with customers to address problems and gauge their satisfaction. In 2015, when customers complained about glitches in our flagship product, I worked with many members of our customer service team to resolve the problem, even though other executives in our organization were already involved. Over a period of months, I followed up with these employees, making sure that they and other teams in our organization were fixing the problems. Because I involved myself directly, frontline [employees] felt empowered. They knew that senior leadership understood their concerns and was taking action. They also got the underlying message: as CEO, I'm not too high up or important to concern myself with their work. Managers at any level can send a similar message. Spend as much time as possible in the trenches and get your hands dirty. Employees will notice.

Behavior #6: Admit when you don't know

As an Un-Leader, I strive to remain keenly aware of the limits of my own knowledge. This opens up a space for fellow [employees] to come forth with their own solutions. Our culture becomes more innovative -- a theme I'll develop in Chapter 13.

As an organization, we've also become adept at recognizing our own limitations, and that has helped us immensely. In 2015, when we were developing an innovative new product, we didn't assume that we knew everything. We assumed the opposite and brought in a series of outside consultants -- customer advisors who met with us every few months during the design phase -- to critique our new product and suggest improvements. Most people want to believe that their baby is beautiful, and it's hard to stomach criticism or acknowledge imperfections. But in this case, the feedback -- which included the need to improve the product's appearance, functionality, responsiveness and overall design -- allowed us to launch a superior product. In one instance, customers told us that it was too difficult to add or schedule an employee and to edit an employee record. It took us a few months to handle feedback like this, but we adjusted the product accordingly, and the end result was much better.

Behavior #7: Solicit feedback

Most leaders and managers know they're supposed to give feedback, critiquing employees on their performance. But think about what it means when you turn the tables and ask others for feedback on your performance. Did they get out of a meeting with you what they had hoped? Did you deliver the guidance they needed? Did your reasoning make sense to them? By posing these questions, you're again putting yourself on the same plane as everyone else. And you're getting valuable feedback that can help you improve.

When I run meetings, I typically go around the room, asking people for their views before taking action. You might wonder whether people will readily communicate unpleasant truths I need to hear. I admit, there's no guarantee that they will. But in keeping with our culture's emphasis on trust (Chapter 3), I choose to take for granted that my people will be open and honest with me. And, in fact, I do receive critical feedback all the time from others around me. Every week, executives or managers will make comments like, "You need to speak differently in front of this group," or "I don't think the meeting you led was all that successful." Such feedback has led me to change my position on how I lead meetings, how I treat customers, or whom I hire for critical positions.

Ultimately, much of what our senior leadership team decides at [our company] doesn't just reflect my ideas but is rather a direct result of employee feedback. That extends to all sorts of decisions big and small. For example, the appearance of our workstations, common spaces, and furniture in our headquarters reflects employee feedback. We had three or four manufacturers of work-spaces set up their products. We didn't tell employees who the vendors were, but we asked them to sit in the spaces and vote on them. About 800 [employees] cast their votes. We made our selection based on what people said they liked best.

Modeling humility can go a long way toward shifting the culture of your team or organization and building engagement. To take it further, the organization can codify humble behavior, integrating it formally into its culture. Several years ago, when we were transforming ourselves into a company with cloud offerings, we set forth key desired behaviors for [employees] everywhere to focus on and embrace. One of these was humility. As we defined it, humility meant assuming "positive intent" and competence on the part of others, engaging others by asking questions and listening, and putting your own "agenda aside to operate in the best interests of the customer and company." We also clarified that humility and "bold" leadership were not opposites, but rather went hand in hand.

(Aron Ain is chairman and CEO of UKG, a multinational technology company. We honored him in the May 2021 feature " Family Matters: 10 CEOs Who Support Our Most Important Institution .")