Throughout my career, I have met and worked for many leaders—some great, some not so great—and I learned from each of them about leadership.
I’ve also read a lot of great books on the topic and have tried to apply their lessons, at some times more successfully than others. Regardless, I’ve always discovered ways I can improve as a leader. Most of all, I’ve learned that being a good leader is hard work.
In this column, I’d like to pass along some of what I’ve learned about good leadership ... some of which may be familiar, while some is atypical (but no less effective) fare.
Get Everyone Pointing North
Years ago, when I was training teams on company strategy, I loved to conduct a quick exercise that was great for illustrating the importance of understanding a company’s strategy. I’d ask everyone to close their eyes and, on the count of three, point north, then open their eyes. Of course, people pointed in different directions, every time.
The lesson: Unless we all know where north (aka our strategy) is, we’ll make different decisions or set different priorities.
The best way to ensure everyone has a clear sense of north is to always explain the “why” of our decisions to employees. “We’re changing this policy because …” or “We’re launching this initiative because …”, in relation to your company’s strategy. The more your employees know about why you make decisions, the more likely they are to understand them, embrace them, and act upon them.
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Empower Employees Gradually
When I hear a manager say, “I can’t let them make decisions because they might make the wrong one,” I share a lesson from one of my former managers: “You don’t have to give employees unlimited decision authority. Empower them gradually, with limits, until you can be confident that they’ll make the right decisions.”
For example, give a service technician authority to make decisions on whether to repair an out-of-warranty item up to $100. The more the technician gets it right and makes decisions like you would, the more you can safely increase the cost limits and the tech’s decision-making authority.
Share How You Think
A manager reporting to me once said, “I hate taking vacation because all hell breaks loose when I’m away and it takes me a week to dig out of the messes.” Knowing that he was using his perceived indispensability to try to impress me, I replied, “You must not be a very effective leader.”
A great boss of mine taught me that unless you provide clear direction and help your team know how you think and make decisions, you’ll always need to make all of the decisions.
To avoid that trap, when someone knocked on my office door asking, “What should I do about …?” he taught me to respond with, “What do YOU think we should do?” If they offer the right answer, you can say, “That’s exactly what I would do, and here’s why ... ” If they don’t respond with the right answer, it provides a great learning opportunity: “Here’s why I would handle that situation differently ... ”
Unless you provide clear direction and help your team know how you think and make decisions, you’ll always need to make all of the decisions.
After a time, I was able to get my team members to always come to me with a solution and not just a question. My vacations became much more enjoyable and worry-free.
Always Provide Learning Opportunities
My all-time favorite boss showed, by example, how it was my responsibility to provide my team with as many learning opportunities as possible. Here’s a sample.
1) Read together. Whenever he read a book on leadership or business principles, he’d provide copies to all of the managers who reported to him and would host a book review session so we could share insights and learn from one another.
2) Encourage cross-training. If a team member needed to learn more about construction practices, we’d set up a learning schedule with one of our top superintendents for an hour or two each week.
3) Implement a “walk a day in my shoes” program. Allow employees to choose someone on the team to “shadow” for half a day, learning more about their role and how their work interacts with other company functions.
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Speak Last in Meetings
Strong “leaders” tend to suppress debate when they make pronouncements instead of offering ideas.
As a young manager, I had the bad habit of wanting to share the rightness of my thinking with everyone in a meeting. I was often the first to speak, with conviction, unknowingly shutting down any direct report who may have a different opinion. And if they did take the risk of offering one, I was quick to explain why they were wrong.
The more employees know about why you make decisions, the more likely they are to understand them, embrace them, and act upon them.
A great boss and mentor gave me simple but powerful advice: If I want ideas to be shared and debated, I should be the last to speak at meetings.
His other advice to me: Know that my idea is one among many, and that in a lot of cases, the outcome of the decision doesn’t really matter a whole lot. Sometimes, it’s OK to let someone else’s idea rule the day. Let it be.
Know Everyone’s Name
Sometimes you learn about leadership by observing what not to do. Like the CEO who enters a satellite office and heads straight for the conference room instead of spending a few minutes walking around the office greeting members of the team.
The simple act of greeting the team, especially when a leader can address people by name, goes a long way toward showing employees that they are important to the company’s success.
Another great way to show your interest in your employees is to set a policy that every new employee meets with you as part of their orientation. Spend 30 minutes with them getting to know a little about their lives and backstory and sharing what’s important to you, what the company stands for, and how they can be a part of it. And memorize their names so you can say hello the next time you see them in the hall or in the field.
Manage by Wandering Around
Tom Peters gets the nod for introducing this idea in his landmark book, In Search of Excellence. Peters argued that the best way to know how things are going and what’s working and what’s not, is by getting out of the office or conference room and simply wandering the halls, sincerely asking employees how things are working and how they would make things better if they could.
I once worked for a division president who spent every single Friday in the field, visiting communities. When asked why he would take 20% of his precious time away from the office, he’d reply, “The field is where our business takes place. I learn more there than I ever could in the conference room.”
Wise counsel indeed.