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Leadership Practice – Reflections on Leadership – Part Two of Two

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This is the second part of a two-part series on Leadership Practice. Part one, from my January 2015 blog, highlighted the following key elements that enable effective leadership:

  1. Leave your ego at the door
  2. Be clear and be consistent
  3. Communicate often
  4. Practice empathy
  5. Talk to your people, all of them

Both lists, part one and part two, are based on observations I’ve had over the years while working with leaders and their teams. Through this experience, I have identified attitudes and behaviours that either enable or limit a leader’s success.

Here is the next set of tips that support effective leadership.

1. Define your leadership style

Every leader has a unique style shaped by his/her experiences and learnings. Understanding what makes your style unique, its characteristics and impact, is what distinguishes your leadership from others.

What sets effective leaders apart from others is leading in alignment with their values, playing to their strengths and behaving consistently with their values.

What’s at Risk?

  • Integrity and trust: While there is nothing wrong with embracing qualities of other effective and inspiring leaders, the key is finding your unique style. Copying characteristics from others can appear disingenuous and build levels of mistrust. Be careful as you try to adopt another leader’s qualities by continually checking that they align with your value system and your strengths so you can truly own your leadership style. 

Questions to Consider:

  • How would you describe your core values as a leader?
  • What five strengths do you bring to your leadership?
  • What words have you heard others use to describe your leadership style?
  • What two actions can you take that bring more alignment and consistency to your leadership strengths, behaviors and values?
2. Think several steps ahead

Leaders create. As vision makers and initiators, they need to inspire and motivate others to come on board and deliver on their vision. The best leaders I have worked with are those who lead as if they are playing a chess game – always thinking of the next move and mentally tracking the plays and players. Their ‘moves’ are ones that are calculated and involve risk, and take into account the impacts and ripple effects (e.g. environment, employees, customers, partners, competitors). This ability to accurately see the big picture, what I call the “hot air balloon” perspective, is a key differentiator for effective leadership.

What’s at Risk?

  • Organizational decline: In a change infused competitive marketplace, inability to think several steps ahead can lead to stagnation or decline. This is not to create alarm, but the ability to be several steps ahead of others is a critical leadership quality. If you lack this skill, you may want to identify someone in your leadership team who has this ability to inform your decision-making.

Questions to Consider:

  • What practices do you have in place to accurately capture and represent a future focused vision?
  • What are your key strengths in developing a vision and strategy? Where do you need help?
  • How do you identify those who can best help you communicate and motivate others around your vision and strategy?
  • What two actions can you take to improve your visioning and strategy planning processes?
3. Involve your employees

I have witnessed leaders who are big on employee participation and input and those who work quite independently and share their solution once it’s complete. While both have their benefits, the former is more successful in terms of increasing engagement and buy-in. I advise my clients (regardless of their style) to consider the sandbox that is involved. For example, is this a small sandbox whereby employees don’t have much input or a large one where they can really play and contribute to the solution? Large or small, both still involve employee input and the boundaries have to be extremely clear up front.

What’s important is that you are clear on your philosophy and commitment to employee input and that employees’ perspectives are accounted for. The process you use and the level of involvement really depends on the situation.

What’s at Risk?

  • Innovation: There is a lot of literature espousing the importance of employee engagement as well as front-line voice and involvement. Without tapping into the source that connects the most with your customers and are most informed about your products or services, you are likely missing out on informed innovative ideas and opportunities for improvement. (See best practice on Lean, Six Sigma and Gallup, as well as Axelrod’s Conferencing Methodology).

Questions to Consider:

  • How would you describe your philosophy around employee input?
  • What methods do you use to ensure communication around involvement is clear and well understood?
  • What two actions can you take to build transparency and value around employee input?
4. Coach and mentor others

Leaders I’ve admired are ones who make the people who report to them a priority. Despite being extremely busy leading large portfolios, they carve out structured time to develop and support their direct reports’ skills, strengths and leadership qualities.

Coaching may not come naturally to all, yet it is what I believe differentiates the ‘good’ from the ‘great’ leaders. The ability to take someone under your wing, to commit to developing their strengths and help them thrive and feel valued contributes significantly to building loyalty, retention, increased job performance and an overall high performing culture.

What’s at Risk?

  • Slow learning: If you cannot consistently and successfully coach and mentor others you cannot be confident that you are building a sustainable high performing culture. You may have some great employees working for you, but the degree to which learning and excellence cascades into the organizational culture and becomes embedded in your succession plan is limited. The implications of this are that you end up having to re-boot each time you lose a team member. This will likely trickle down to all levels within your organization as ‘the way things are done around here’.
  • Slow adaptation: The biggest risk of not coaching members of your team is that the team be less able to quickly respond and adapt to internal and external pressures. Possible mentees miss out on seeing the organization from a broader perspective and bringing this information back to the team in an informal manner. 

Questions to Consider:

  • What strengths and experiences can you contribute to developing a coachee?
  • Who on your current team would be a strong candidate for coaching and mentoring? How do you know?
  • What two actions can you take to develop your coaching abilities?
5. Be a change leader

Having worked in numerous industries over the years, from metallurgy to healthcare, engineering, government, biotech, high tech etc., the one constant is organizational change. It is critical for leaders to develop the ability to lead change and lead people through change. It’s up to the leader to find ways to position the change appropriately (messaging constantly), anticipate and plan several steps ahead to mitigate unnecessary impacts and to listen and tune in (empathize) with people. The ability to create a compelling vision, see the impacts on a system wide scale, design a focused and flexible strategy, communicate direction, and develop your employees all contribute to the organizational bench strength to navigate continuous change. This characteristic embodies all of the previous tips – it is the sum of the top nine tips presented.

What’s at Risk?

  • Engagement and performance: Lacking the ability to lead your employees through change, leads to employee confusion, fear and high levels of resistance. When not managed well, such as supporting people through the impact of the change, behaviours can lead to performance errors, sabotaging, absenteeism and exiting the organization.
  • Organizational health: If leaders lack the skills to support others through the changes, organizational growth will begin to lag and the gaps between desired outcomes and current reality will increase. The risk to your organization’s health and continued success are high.

Questions to Consider:

  • What changes have you been involved in that included support for facilitating people through their resistance?
  • What change strategies would you like to know more about?
  • What two actions can you take to help develop your abilities in leading change?

Leaders serve as a compass. They point a direction – they lead. And, if compelling, those they lead will embrace and fulfill on their vision and objectives.

As you read through these tips, notice which grab your attention the most. Ask yourself how you think you are doing in relation to these tips and how to leverage your strengths and move toward greater excellence. If you have an interest to pursue your leadership in any of these areas and are not sure how, consider working with a coach.

Remember, you make a significant impact on those you lead!

For more on this topic check out the following:

  • You Don’t Have to do it Alone, How to involve others to get things done, Richard H. Axelrod, Emily Axelrod, Julie Beedon, & Robert W. Jacobs, Sept 2004
  • Terms of Engagement, changing the way we change organizations, Richard H. Axlerod, 2010
  • Managing Transitions – making the most of change, William Bridges, 2009
  • Strengthsfinder  2.0, Tom Rath, 2007
  • First Break all the Rules: What the World Greatest Managers Do Differently, Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman, 1999
  • Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t, Jim Collins, 2001
  • Firms of Endearment, How World Class Companies Profit – From Passion to Purpose, Raj Sisodia, Jag Sheth, David B. Wolfe, 2007
  • The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership:  Achieving & Sustaining Excellence through Leadership Development, Jeffrey Liker & Gary Convis, 2011
  • Performance Improvement with Mentoring, Margo Murray (Chapter 27, The Handbook of Human Performance Technology, 2nd Edition), 1999

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