12 Most Lasting Skills to Develop a Leadership Bond with your Employees
Countless books, essays, seminars and studies have been conducted on defining and identifying the traits and characteristics that make up a strong, effective business leader. If you are in business, then one should assume you have spent a little time on this subject and since there are no new ideas doubtless many of the items on this list will be familiar, but hopefully I have presented them in a way that may be more tangible.
These are the top activities that a manager, owner or executive can do to inspire a sense of leadership within their organization, something I call the leadership bond. These topics will have more of an affect on the culture within an organization than the direction the corporation takes in business operations — someone can lead a company into bankruptcy just as effectively as to market domination, but still you will be hard pressed to find a successful company that does not have strong and, most importantly, recognized leadership at the top.
1. Know your business
Most franchises are weakest in this area as they are designed and promoted as businesses opportunities for someone with little or no knowledge of the specific business they are entering. They provide varying degrees of training depending on the franchisor and the business model but one will always see within a franchise a lack of sense of leadership from the staff to the owner during the critical first few years. They go to the owner with a problem and the owner lacks the experience to assist. It usually takes 3-5 years of hands on work experience for an owner to develop enough knowledge to instill a sense of confidence with the staff.
Doing everything you can to understand the business you operate in is critical for your company. This includes understanding the aspects of the operations you might not be involved in day to day. If you are in manufacturing, you might understand the product you produce, how your client uses the product, but not the equipment you own that manufactures it, or the raw materials required for production.
Find the time to learn this aspect; don’t be afraid to work on the floor alongside you staff. You don’t have to be an expert but you need to have a broad understanding of all that your company does. If you can’t spend time in production, then ask for detailed reports explaining these activities. You should keep a file on every department, or position within the company with an explanation of what goes on there.
2. Know your staff
Of course this is dependant on the size of your company, but the more you know your staff, the more they will look on you as involved and interested in them. Some will say this is manipulation and it certainly could be but that misses the point. It is human nature to want to be recognized and to engage with each other, showing an interest in knowing your staff, learning about their families and history will create a bond of trust and respect from the staff. These emotional links are critical for trust and loyalty that are foundations of leadership. By the way, unless you are borderline sociopathic, you too will be more connected to the staff through this process and have a better understanding of their strengthens and how they may contribute to the company in the future.
3. Involve people
The most important job of a leader is to make decisions, and direct the company in a profitable and successful manner. How this is accomplished is unique to the leader, the industry they work in and structure of the company. But if the company has more than one employee then there is a necessity to involve people. For anyone to make good decisions they need information and leaders will rely on staff to provide this information, but just as important for the staff is the act of being involved, in providing data, analysis and opinion for the leader to weigh and consider. Huge, far reaching, sleep depriving decisions usually involve days of discussion and data analysis, investing hours of work before a leader will act. The employee providing the market data, or sales data or SWAT analysis will feel invested and involved but more importantly, they will have a sense of responsibility to the person making the decision. It is interesting that this feeling of responsibility to leadership is instilled whether the decision is big or small; involving people at any level strengthens the leadership bond.
My wife, who I also work with, would say this is my weakest area and I would agree that I tend to drift when the topic of the conversation moves away from the original intent. Everyone has been in a situation when you are trying to explain something to someone and they are distracted or just not paying attention. If you are the boss and one of your employees is speaking to you then you have two choices: commit to listening to what they are saying or stop the employee and ask to continue the conversation at a later point — explaining that you think this is an important topic and you want to give it your undivided attention which is not possible at the moment. As long as you do not have a reputation of using the latter and then never returning to the employee with this topic, you will strengthen the leadership bond by demonstrating respect.
If you can do it all yourself then you’re not very good at what you do; besides it is engrained in business leaders to grow and expand, and you can’t do that without delegating to others. Delegation is a complex activity and can be defined in many ways. In general , I view delegation as the transfer of responsibilities I currently hold to someone else so I can spend more time on higher leverage activities. As an example, I oversee multiple sales people working with different geographical territories and in order for me to focus on emerging markets I will transfer the management of the individual sales team to a team leader. They will perform the controlling I previously did and report to me on a regular basis. I did not create a new activity, but simply transferred the responsibility to someone I felt was capable of managing it. When it is done correctly you strengthen the trust with the person receiving the new responsibilities. It is an emotional raise (delegation does not necessarily need to be accompanied with an increase in compensation). If there is high degree of trust within the staff, even the people not affected by the transfer of responsibility will be empowered by the principle that they too can be recognized and advance within the company.
6. Self evaluate
Answer a simple question — can you be better at what you do? If you answered no, then please jump to the next section — but if you answered yes, then you need to analyze your skills and look for ways to improve. Techniques for self-evaluation are simple, you can ask for feedback from staff, you can bring in consultants to review your performance or you can simply look in the mirror although I would recommend the first two. Regardless, this should not be done as some secret mission — regularly and openly, you should ask for feedback from staff. Bringing in an independent consultant in addition to the staff feedback provides a comfortable barrier and prevents staff from feeling they may have to withhold information out of fear of reprisal (of course you would hope that there would be enough trust for this not to happen it is sometimes not fair to expect this). Keeping the process open and doing it regularly will demonstrate to the staff you want to be better, that you expect improvement from yourself and that you trust them enough to know you acknowledge your limitations but it is important that you make concerted efforts to improve on at least one deficiency after each evaluation. After all, we do not measure effort but results.
7. Practice humility
Of all the virtues a leader can demonstrate, strength, courage, conviction even honesty (we will get into that a little more in the next section) — I feel humility has the most influence on the leadership bond. Genuine humility allows for people to connect at the basic level of human nature. You are acting in a way that says, “This is not about me, this is about us. I am flawed but we overcome that. I am not better, I am equal but together we are great.” In addition to the immense personal benefits that humility brings to the individual, it is also the opposite of arrogance and nothing will tear down the leadership bond faster. One only needs to look at the life of Gandhi or Mother Teresa to see the direct relationship between personal humility and leadership, it is that powerful. Anything you can do to repress arrogance will make you a stronger leader.
8. Define integrity and apply it
I had the privilege of attending a presentation by my brother-in-law, Ralph Dandrea, president and CEO of ITX Corp. He is a brilliant leader and businessman and much more suited to write about these topics than me. His presentation dealt with the topic of integrity and profitability in business and it started with the premise that integrity is defined as “Doing what you say you are going to do and cleaning up your mess when you don’t.” It seems like a simple maybe ambiguous definition, but if you look at it closely you will see the brilliance.
In a perfect world you would say integrity implies morality. Someone with the highest level of integrity always keeps their word, always tells the truth, always has the best intentions as their motivation. In business and in life this is not possible — please don’t respond to me that we should always tell the truth, that we should never break a promise, or that we should always put the best before the good — this is idiotic.
Focusing on business, one has to have core principals in place to guide the organization. These principals need to both inflexible and flexible. Inflexible in that they glue the corporate vision to the ethics you instill and flexible so that you accommodate human judgment and flaws without failing to reach the goal. As an example, if you have a core principle that you will not break a promise to a client, then how do you respond when you promised not to back order a specific item but the manufacturer could not deliver? Do you change your principal to say you will not make promises? That’s not workable, promises or guarantees are required for businesses. What about honesty? Always be honest, but anyone in sales has heard from a client, “Is this price the absolute lowest you can go on this item?” Do you want your sales department giving away your entire margin?
Defining integrity in this way allows your staff to function according to the principals you value while accommodating unexpected situations. It states, without confusion, they need to keep their word and to do whatever is required to fix a situation and when they can’t. It doesn’t limit them nor does it absolve them of responsibility. Notice it doesn’t say “keep your word and the company will bail you out if something happens,” it is still their responsibility.
How does this strengthen the leadership bond? Simple — an employee who is trusted to make commitments and to fix problems will be more loyal to leadership. In addition, an employee who has a clear understanding of the values and principals the company operates under and if entrusted to protect, will out of respect be more careful not to subject the company and the leadership to a situation where they have violated them.
One last thought on this subject, this goes beyond client relationships — by defining integrity for your company and requiring everyone to operate with integrity, it becomes a system wide process — employee interactions, personal tasks and responsibilities, etc.
We discussed listening, which is in my opinion the most important part of communication. But the rest needs to be mentioned also. Within companies, information flows up, instructions flow down and sometimes that is it, but people like to know the “why” of things, especially if there is a change. Providing communication, especially after a moderate to large decision has been made, is very important to the staff. If you have involved someone for information you needed, then follow up with that person after you make the decision and thank that person for the effort. If there was an opinion provided for a possible outcome and you make a different decision, then it is very important to sit with that person and explain why you are going in a different direction. They are invested and you need them to continue to provide thoughts in the future even if you don’t agree or can’t agree at this time.
10. Celebrate achievement
Do you want to instill loyalty, respect and a sense of pride in a job well done? Celebrate achievement. As a leader you have the responsibility to lift up the people following you, acknowledge skills and ability in people, and shine a light on anybody exceeding expectations. I have never been a big advocate about rewarding the expected — showing up for work everyday on time or not taking sick days when you are not sick does go very far with me. Even hitting a sales target has its limits but exceed this expectation and I think you deserve to be celebrated, and for the employee being recognized it means more then you can measure.
How you do this is up to you — it could be that you take that employee to lunch, or they are mentioned in the company newsletter. Flowers, pizza, a bonus — it doesn’t matter, but what does matter is that you make a person connection to that person — if not you, then the highest supervisor that can needs to celebrate the achievement with the employee.
11. Make yourself available
Leaders are generally busy people. If you are like me, finding time for everyone that needs attention is a struggle. Be sure to make this happen — when you are in the office there should be a few times during the day that for 10-15 minutes, people can just stop to ask a question or run an idea past you. A request for a meeting or a call needs to be placed at the top of the task list and respond to email at least twice per day, even if just to say you received it and will respond fully by a set time. Employees that know they can contact you when needed and you respond, are far more productive and even far more independent in their work.
I have had a number of people come to work for me from organizations where reaching the boss was like reaching customer support at a cell phone company. When they start they reach out to me with the expectation I am not available. Surprise is the usual response when I answer the phone or return the call within a few minutes. For the first few weeks I tend to receive more calls from these people than anyone else as they get accustomed to being able to speak to the boss but within a month these employees are acting independently and functioning at a high level of productivity. It is sometimes me calling them or stopping by to check things. Making yourself available instills a sense of security and safety with the person, they are not alone.
12. Stay focused
Nothing can disrupt a company more than a flaky leader. Generally,a company is full of single task employees — it is their job to do this one thing or oversee this one department, run this piece of equipment or care for this one responsibility. The exception is the person at the top — you are looking for new opportunities, making sure the clients are being taken care of, thinking about efficiencies, worrying about the competitors, etc. You have to do this, and you probably love to do this, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it but for your employees it can be a little unnerving to have a leader who can’t stay on-topic in meetings, who is bringing new business to the table while old business is still unresolved and is running around like a gerbil on crack.
Staying focused and on topic will allow your staff to stay focused. Remember, they are following you and although you may love being in the crashing surf, many do not. If you drag them along it won’t be long before they tire of the intensity of it all. Keep meetings focused, keep discussions on track, and tell your staff to remind you if you are the one drifting. Keep timetables on projects — don’t allow a new project to be started unless an existing one has been completed. All this will instill confidence with the people who work for you and that as a leader you can get to the destination with as few delays as possible.
I hope this got you thinking about your leadership method. I’d love to hear what works and doesn’t work for you as a leader in the comments below.
Featured image courtesy of Thomas Hawk via Creative Commons.