There are hundreds of books and thousands of web site articles written on leadership, but at the end of the day to become a better leader, and to get the best out of your people, you need to distil the information down into bite size behaviour that you can implement daily.
My view is that leadership is the Achilles heel of many business owners. They don’t understand it, they don’t like doing it, and they are not good at which in turn makes it very difficult to achieve a productive, collaborative team environment, or in fact grow their business. If you fall in to this category, then get some leadership coaching and work hard to become a better leader.
I have identified 12 key leadership criteria to have top of mind and continuously work on. These are required daily behaviours to implement, not personality traits. Everyone will have a slightly different leadership style based on their personality type, that’s fine. The behaviours listed below are independent of personality type. Good leadership is largely about confidence and believing that you can be a good leader. As with everything in life, to
be good at it takes practice and dedication to the cause.
Leadership – a definition
First let’s get a definition of leadership. Leadership is the art of influencing someone to do something that you want, because they want to do it out of respect for you. It’s about setting a direction and shaping the behaviour of individuals or teams to meet desired objectives or outcomes. Leaders achieve results because people respect, trust, and are motivated by them.
One of the key outcomes of good leadership is that you release the potential in your people, so they take responsibility and ownership. This differs from ‘management’ as management is about managing things, not people. Managers largely achieve results because of their authority (power) position, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are good leaders.
As you read through the following key behaviours of good leadership, give yourself a rating of poor, fair, good or excellent for each one. Just one tip though – rate yourself hard as it then creates space for improvement.
1. Be Approachable
Employees want to feel connected, respected and valued by their leader. Those are the team members that will work harder and stay with you longer.
Depending on their capability level, ideally we want our employees to be empowered so that they can perform at their best. If you have employed people with the appropriate skill sets to perform their role then micro-managing doesn’t work for most people. They don’t like it as it doesn’t allow them to fully use their skills and initiative, and it smothers responsibility and ownership. The key here is to be approachable, supportive and give people adequate space but with very clear guidelines. Give them your undivided attention when approached, don’t dismiss them. Listen carefully and use powerful motivational words or short phrases of encouragement such as ‘great job with that’, ‘have a crack at it’, ‘love your work’, ‘I reckon you can fix that – get at it’.
You also need to carefully manage your responses to questions, so you are not fixing things or finding solutions for your team members. If you do that the chances are they will keep coming to you instead of trying to find a solution themselves, and you will have an endless queue of interruptions. Your listening ability is super important. Listen with the intent to understand, not respond. You need to ensure that you do not sound hurried or aggravated or dismiss their idea or concern as that is a definite killer of being approachable.
Learn how to manage your environment so you are visible and approachable on a regular and consistent basis. This could include such tactics as setting aside a time of the day to do a ‘walk around’ to different areas of the business or having an ‘open door’ for say two hours of every day. Whatever works for you and your team.
I think we have all at some stage reported through to or worked for someone that we’ve had to walk around on egg shells. It doesn’t work.
2. Communicate Crystal Clear Expectations
One of the professional development courses I did many years ago presented the three key reasons people ‘get upset’. They are; undelivered communication – you want to say something that is important to you but are not given the chance, or you’re howled down; thwarted intention – you have confirmed in your mind something you wish to do or a particular way of doing something important to you, but are not allowed to; unfulfilled expectation – you have an expectation that someone is going to do something to achieve the result you want, but they don’t do it or do it poorly. The last one is huge and gets right to the heart of performance management.
Good leaders consistently communicate firm but calm crystal-clear performance expectations and boundaries for their people to operate within. These expectations are primarily focused on responsibilities or tasks to be performed, quality of product or service, and culture.
Some people tend to ‘wander off’ unless you have daily or weekly communication with them. You can’t expect them to do what you want if you haven’t clearly and consistently communicated your expectations. The more you communicate expectations, the less upset (cranky) you will be.
One of the tools that can really help you here is the good ol’ position description. However, I suggest you change the structure to a table format so that for each task on the position description it has a corresponding section titled ’what success looks like’. This will be either quantifiable such as ’20 new business appointments per month’ or qualitative such as ‘all stock lines and patterns easily located within their place’.
3. Hold People Accountable
This is one behaviour where personality type can make it a bit difficult for some. Quite a few business owners’ I work with are a ‘South’ personality, that is, they are people centred, patient, sympathetic, non –assertive and shy away from potential conflict. This is their natural, hard-wired state. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just how they are. ‘Southies’ can find it difficult to lead employees who are a ‘North’ personality, that is; assertive, fast-paced, decisive, confident, controlling, impatient.
If you fall into the ‘South’ personality group then you will probably need to work hard on this behaviour, because it is unlikely to come naturally to you. It’s so important though. Never lose sight of the fact that people are employed to perform their role and to add value to the business, not just take home a pay packet. It’s your job as the leader to hold all employees accountable for the tasks they are meant to perform, and what they have been asked to do. If you don’t, you are basically telling them they can do what they like, which I know causes long term stress and frustration to owners.
You must firmly, calmly and privately hold people accountable by giving them regular feedback on their performance. Use your new position description format outlined above to refer to the desired behaviour or outcomes (what success looks like). Don’t criticise them but do firmly communicate your expectations again and if need be, the consequences of continuing under-performance.
Remember, it’s extremely difficult to hold others’ accountable if you can’t hold yourself accountable.
4. Setting the Tone
Tone is best described as the ‘feel’ of the place. It’s the first impressions that a customer, supplier or new employee would have when coming in contact with your business. As an example, if you want a team that is excited, passionate, motivated and energised then that’s exactly how you must be. If you’re sullen, cranky, negative, unresponsive or easily stressed, then you can bet there will be some of that happening elsewhere in the business. Team members will derive their behavioural queues from the leader. In the absence of a strong tone-setting leader, other voices become stronger. The whiners, pot stirrers, and the under- miners get to spread their message.
Culture is largely caught not taught so your business culture will generally reflect your communication style and behaviour. Leaders create the buzz, or not. When you next go through the exercise of reviewing your business core values, make sure that you clearly identify the expected tone. I did this exercise recently with a client and they agreed on the following tonal elements; positive, professional, energetic, constructive, cheerful and respectful. We want these tonal elements to flow through the business. To achieve that it must start at the top.
Tone also has a major impact on customer service levels. It is no coincidence that the best service providers are those businesses where tone setting is consistently used by the leaders, which in turn is reflected in how clients are treated by the employees. You can’t expect your employees to provide an upbeat, positive client experience, if they are experiencing the opposite in the workplace. Tone will also impact on employee stress levels. If your mood is tense, stressed or cranky then your employees will feel that stress, which in turn will likely reduce their productivity and will certainly reduce their longevity. Don’t suck the life out of them.
So, the question is ‘how do you implement tone’? Firstly, clearly identify the expected tone that will be shared and embraced by all team members. Secondly, you need to keep these tonal elements absolutely top of mind to the point that you check yourself before you respond or react to every communication or situation. This will be challenging at first but will become a natural behaviour over time. Thirdly, set the tone every day. Set it at the start of the day by doing a walk-around and spending a minute saying good morning to your team and being optimistic and upbeat about the coming day. Good people want to be led by someone who exudes positivity, optimism and upbeat energy and demonstrates that solutions can be found to all challenges. Consistency is critical. You can’t have a negative day, even if you feel like it.
5. Walking the Talk
Good leaders inspire people because they have engaged their emotions. One of these emotions is trust. Trust can take a long time to build and about one second to destroy, and once it’s gone it is very difficult to get it back. Trust is easily destroyed when leaders don’t ‘practice what they preach’.
Consider the supervisor or line manager who asks the team to be hard working and productive but takes a long lunch twice a week. Or the manager who preaches that every idea and opinion is important but dismisses them out of hand. Then there’s the General Manager who speaks of watching spending, then purchases expensive office equipment for his office. These may seem trivial to the aspiring leader but leading by example is as important as leading by words, if not more important.
This is the essence of the footy captain. They inspire their team through their actions on the field. They lead the way by doing it themselves; the hard things, the things that win the game. It’s the same principle parents use every day when practicing good parenting; they lead by example because they know they are being watched by little eyes and listened to by little ears.
Good leaders push their people forward with excitement, inspiration, trust, and vision. If you lead a team that doesn’t trust you, enthusiasm will disappear, and productivity will drop. The vision you’re trying so hard to make happen may lose its appeal, all because your team doesn’t trust what you say anymore. You absolutely must lead by example and walk the talk.
Let’s face up to it, we like to be around some people more than others because we feel better in their presence. We are usually naturally attracted in friendships to people with the same or similar personality type as us.
As a leader in business or elsewhere you need to be careful with this one because people want to be treated fairly, that is, no favouritism towards employees you ‘like’. Being treated fairly is a fundamental human need. Be friendly and respectful to all employees but be careful of forming friendships with those who report through to you.
Fairness is different from and shouldn’t be confused with treating everyone equally. It’s alright to treat people unequally or differently based on for example their performance. Consider the gun employee who works longer and harder everyday than everyone else and consistently pulls exceptional results for the business. That person will potentially get demotivated if the ‘slacker’ is treated as an equal.
The key again is to consistently communicate what success looks like and communicate the full context of decisions relating to such things as task allocation, employee promotion, and reward structures. Employees need to understand the basis for decisions, so they can ascertain if they have been treated fairly. Be fully transparent and you can’t go too far wrong.
Fairness is a massive respect building block, to the point where good employees will leave you if they believe they are being treated unfairly. Regular performance feedback is the key here again. Communicate regularly with those you lead to ensure they have a voice, and an opportunity to discuss any concerns around fairness within your business. At an absolute minimum you must implement your business policies fairly across all employees.
Have you ever worked for someone you perceived to be less competent than you? If so, the chances are that you were less inclined to follow their lead or direction. This will potentially be the case with those you lead if they believe you are incompetent.
Competence doesn’t mean that you need to know how to do everything in the business, but it does mean you need to know what to do and how to get it done. An incompetent leader has many opportunities to be ineffective. Competency is not something that occurs overnight. It is a combination of experience and knowledge seeking and retention. The three key areas of knowledge required are:
Operational knowledge – how each business function works, where the weaknesses lie and how to overcome them.
Strategic knowledge – what direction to take the business, why and how.
Compliance and risk knowledge – what external rules and regulations you need to comply with, e.g. Fair Work Australia, and what business risks to manage and how, e.g. WH&S risks.
Effective leadership is not about going it alone, but it is about knowing where your competence strengths and weaknesses lie, and therefore knowing what expertise to surround yourself with, and what knowledge to gain. Competence engenders confidence, trust and loyalty in a leader so if you have any operational, strategic, compliance or risk knowledge gaps then work hard to improve your knowledge of these areas.
It is vitally important because it is the cornerstone of making well thought through decisions and good choices. It also enables you to peer through the smoke and understand what’s real and what’s not. To paraphrase the Greek philosopher Socrates – ‘the person who clearly knows and articulates best what ought to be done is the person who will most easily gain the following of others.
A final word on competence; use care to never upstage or embarrass someone else as you demonstrate competence. In the end, leadership is about the success of your people, not about you or your ego.
8. Emotional Maturity
Otherwise known as emotional intelligence, this is your ability to understand and manage your own emotions, and those of the people around you. Leaders with a high degree of emotional intelligence know how they are feeling and why, and how to regulate those emotions, so they don’t impact negatively on other people. This is otherwise known as self- awareness and self-management. In a nutshell it’s about being calm under pressure.
Again, consistency is critical here. Employees don’t want to be led by Dr Jekyll one day and Mr Hyde the next. They need to know what to expect so communicate predictably. You will get the best out of them if your communication style is objective, calm, pleasant, positive, collaborative, passionate and respectful because they need to feel valued. Criticism, yelling, negativity, interrupting, cynicism, self-righteousness and impatience are all examples of emotional immaturity. They are leadership killers.
It’s common for aspiring leaders to have emotional maturity ‘blind spots’, that is, they are unaware of their behaviour or communication style and the impact it is having on those they are trying to lead. Or worse, they are aware of the negative impact of their communication style and choose not to modify it. Either way it’s a leadership killer.
So, what to do about it? Firstly, it’s very beneficial to understand the four primary personality types, and how to identify them. Drop me an email and I can share a useful tool for this with you. Secondly, there are numerous training workshops and on-line assessment tools available for emotional intelligence improvement. It is a life skill that has relationship building benefits far beyond just effective leadership.
A very large Australian company where I had worked with dedication and loyalty for 10 years employed a new competent General Manager, but unfortunately he lacked emotional maturity and couldn’t engage the hearts and minds of his employees regarding the changes he wanted to make. The result, I and many other long term loyal employees bugged out rather quickly. It demonstrates the important of being effective in all the 12 key leadership behaviours, not just some of them. Retention of key employees is critical.
9. Change Agent
Henry Ford once said, ‘if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got’. In an ever increasingly competitive business environment you must absolutely lead change to survive and prosper. You need to lead change to the point where it should be reflected in the culture of your business. You need to instil a culture of continuous improvement and initiative, so you can raise the bar and make your business better than it was yesterday, every day.
Change success is not just about setting a new direction or developing a new strategy. For example, you can map out the best growth strategy going around however strategy commonly fails because of poor implementation. Poor implementation occurs because leaders fail to engage the hearts and minds of the employees responsible for implementing the change.
Often an employee’s first reaction to change is to resist it. This is because they get comfortable performing tasks they know, the way they know how to do it. This comfort provides them with security as they are masters of their environment. They will often fear change because they perceive it will impact on them negatively or disrupt their comfort zone. They may even feel that they don’t have the capability to adapt, their job might become harder or they might lose control of their environment. The last one is huge.
You need to remove their fear, so they move from an attitude of change avoidance to change acceptance. So how can you do this? Firstly, you need to convince them of the need to change by communicating what’s not working and the impact it is having or will have on the performance of the business, and its competitive standing. Secondly, they then need to see a benefit from the change for themselves. These may be things such as learning new skills, the security of being part of a more competitive business, or less problems that they need to deal with daily. Thirdly they need to have confidence by knowing that they will be supported through the change, there is good change process in place, and that their input and effort will play a significant part in change success.
Again, I encourage you to instil a culture of change and continuous improvement. Encourage your team to use their initiative to come up with better ways of doing things, every day.
10. Sharing the Pathway
Seeds will germinate in the dark, but crops won’t grow and yield without sunlight. Employees are the same. You will not get the best out of them by keeping them in dark. People need to feel wanted and connected, because they want to understand how their daily tasks and input is helping to shape a better future. It ‘connects them’, and without this connection they are unlikely to come to work with a real desire to assist the business to move forward.
The General Manager preceding the bloke I mentioned above used a very simple but highly effective method to engage his 240 staff. Every quarter he would hold several ‘pathway’ presentations around the country. The ‘pathway’ was exactly that, a three-year diagrammatic path leading to a better future; revenue, profit, market share, return on net assets, employee numbers, and other key objectives. Along the pathway were diagrammatic representations of key strategies; new manufacturing facilities, new product introductions, new registrations for existing products, changes to the sales channel structure, new marketing campaigns, proposed new suppliers and key employee events. At the same time, he would share the company results for the preceding quarter.
Talk about engaging the hearts and minds of his troops; we would walk out of those meetings thinking about new ways to smack the competition! It was highly motivating. His call to action at the end of each meeting was ’be number one but always act like your number two’.
It’s up to you what level of information your share with your team, but you must share.
11. People Development
A wise man once said, ‘it’s better to train your people and have then eventually leave than not train them and have them stay’. Or as Richard Branson puts it, ‘train your people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to’.
Those leaders that have heard of Abraham Maslow’s 1954 theory of ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ know that self-actualisation sits at the top, followed by esteem. Maslow was a 1900’s psychologist who studied positive human qualities and the lives of exemplary people. Self-actualisation is basically the need to achieve one’s full potential, and esteem is the need for a feeling of accomplishment.
Now I’m not sure whether these two needs sit high on the list of some of the characters we see roaming suburban streets after hours, but they definitely sit high on the list for the type of employee we wish to have on our team. What I’m saying is you must invest in the development of your good people because they want to learn and improve their knowledge and abilities, they want to achieve, and they want to feel a sense of accomplishment. They are likely to disappear at some stage if you don’t provide them with these opportunities.
It’s your responsibility as a leader to develop your people. It’s easy to come up with excuses or reasons not to but remember that they are your competitive advantage. Why wouldn’t you invest in sustainability!
Developing your people comes in many shapes and forms including performance feedback and coaching, product training, efficiency training, competency or skill training, and leadership training and mentoring. You need to identify the gaps in your business, so that you can identify the required development.
If you have employees in a ‘management’ position, then make sure you get them some leadership training. Good employees leave because of an inadequate relationship with their manager.
The other important part of people development is succession planning for key roles. I see it a lot where a business will be humming along quite nicely, then bang, someone in a critical position leaves and it throws the place into turmoil because there is no one ready to slide into that key role. I encourage you to think ahead, ear-mark people for key role succession and develop them. If your business size or structure makes that difficult, then you must have in place a good recruitment process.
We’ve heard it a thousand times, ‘your people are your greatest asset’. It’s true.
12. Moral Courage
Some might argue it’s more of a way of being or personality trait than a behaviour, but I’ve included it because as leaders we must absolutely demonstrate it in all we do. I’ve saved this one until last folks because it’s the behaviour that underpins all the preceding eleven behaviours.
As leaders we need to be strong and sometimes assertive, and this takes courage. As leaders we need to make hard and sometimes highly unpopular decisions, and this takes courage. As leaders we need to communicate crystal clear expectations and hold people accountable, and this takes courage. As leaders we need to build the desired culture and have high level emotional maturity, and this takes courage. As leaders we need to set a direction and drive change and action, and this takes courage. I think you get the picture.
Leaders fail when morale courage is missing. With morale courage you will do what you believe to be right while upholding your values, regardless of the personal consequences. With morale courage you will face the future with a solid resolve to succeed. With moral courage you will maintain composure under pressure which will allow you to peer through the smoke, and hence allow you to stay focussed on your core business.
Believe in yourself and be courageous.
One of the mistakes that aspiring leaders often make is trying too hard to be liked or to be popular, as opposed to being effective. Focussing on being likeable can lead to weak leadership, but what employees need and what works is strong leadership, and where required, assertive leadership. The need to be liked is natural, but make it a side benefit or outcome, not a leadership goal. If you work hard on consistently displaying the twelve key leadership behaviours, then you will be liked, and you will be popular.
My view is that poor leadership is amongst the top five factors limiting business growth, because it’s difficult to retain quality employees in an environment with inadequate leadership. Good workers want to work for good leaders. Conversely poor workers often tolerate poor leaders because it provides them with an environment where they can ‘hide’ and exert their often difficult and undermining behavioural traits throughout the organisation.
Remember, good leadership is largely about confidence and believing that you can be a good leader. As with everything in life, to be good at it takes practice and dedication to the cause. It’s not something that happens over night, but if you work hard on the twelve leadership behaviours and have a tool for consistently self-assessing your leadership, you will become a better leader.