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How to Earn Your Employees' Respect

Lessons from a CEO who worked his way up through the ranks.
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Reaching out: Zoo New England's John Linehan. Photo© Michael Piazza

Q: How do you, as boss, earn your staff's respect?

A: The question has brought even captains of industry to their knees, to say nothing of Rodney Dangerfield. John Linehan, president and CEO of Boston-based nonprofit Zoo New England, began earning the respect of his 180 employees from the bottom of the organization's food chain. Linehan was hired in 1981 as a laborer, a position he describes as "below a zoo attendant." He was named to his current role in 2001.

"I've done just about anything any of them have ever done or will ever do," Linehan says. "That includes all the dirty work, the hard work."

Specifically, over a three-decade career with Zoo New England--which operates Franklin Park Zoo in Boston and Stone Zoo in nearby Stoneham, Mass.--Linehan has given CPR to a gorilla, been speared in the face by an Asian mountain goat and found himself up to his shoulder inside a zebra that was giving birth. In 2003, when a 300-pound gorilla misnamed Little Joe escaped from the Franklin Park Zoo, Linehan gave chase with a tranquilizer gun.

On the subject of respect, he says, "I think it starts with trying to walk the talk."

For Linehan, starting at the bottom has had dual benefits: Staff members know that he once did their jobs, and he has a better understanding of each employee's workplace hardships. "The guy who's cleaning the bathroom," he cites as an example. "It's important for him to understand how important his work is to the organization."

Strangely enough, earning the respect of the people you work with can be more difficult when you enter the company at the top. For those so disadvantaged, Linehan has some basic advice: Listen with an open mind. Communicate honestly. Know your employees. And never forget to treat them with respect.

"There's a huge difference between exerting the power inherent in being a CEO and earning respect," he says.

Linehan has learned that good ideas come from across the organizational chart. He says he'll give time to any employee who approaches him with an idea on how to improve zoo operations. "But it's also not 'yes-ing' them to death," he says. "I think that's not a way to earn respect. Some of the keys are being truly genuine--listening openly, being honest, providing feedback."

Linehan advises bosses to be upfront with their staffs. We've said this before, but it's important: You can't be an effective leader if you're not an effective communicator. Linehan tries to convene a monthly meeting for all employees. In his view, the "be upfront" rule is especially important during difficult times. "In the end," he says, "when you get through the really tough times, that's when you're most reliant on that incredible relationship you've developed with your staff."

Respect, he contends, comes down to authenticity. Without it, even the most capable boss loses credibility. "It's a precious resource," Linehan says. "It's hard to get it back once you lose it."