What makes an Effective Leader?

Leaders often run large-scale teams with several direct reports. But what makes a leader effective? Guest post by Simon Brown.

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Leader as Career Coach. How good is your boss at doing this?

Leaders often run large-scale teams with several direct reports. All of you in those teams are, of course, interested in personal development opportunities, including a visible and realistic career path with the possibility of upward progression, or to other parallel roles within the organisation. So, leaders have an important role to play in enabling growth and development for their team, whilst recognising that it is the individual employee who owns the responsibility for their career.

An important question to ask the team of the leader is: How important has your boss been in furthering your career?

Given that personal and career development support is a key motivator in attracting and retaining employees, leaders certainly need to recognise this as part of their responsibility if they are serious about having a fully engaged and productive team. Motivating a team also requires leaders to find other ways to interest and engage the team to provide that extra, discretionary effort and to go the extra mile to delight the customer when providing services or products.

Top Leadership Characteristics needed for successful leaders

In earlier research over the past 10 years, I established 4 Key Principles for effective Leaders.

Principle 1: Characteristics;
Principle 2: Engage and Manage;
Principle 3: Effective Boss; and
Principle 4: Sustainable Energy.

In my more recent survey, I asked employees to list the top five most important characteristics for successful leaders. The top answers were consistent with the themes I identified all those years ago.

The Top 5 Characteristics for Effective Leaders are:

1. "Provides a clear vision of where we are going and leads by example”.
2. "Drives for continuous improvement in all that we do”.
3. "Empowers us and trusts us”.
4. "Builds teamwork and employee engagement”.
5. "Enables personal growth and career development for individuals and the team"

Interestingly, the next highest-rated characteristics related to how leaders work with their team to manage change effectively; offer support; provide regular coaching; stand up for the team when challenged by others; and demonstrate strong positive values that align with the culture and values of the organisation.

So, for teams the "top quality" of leaders is about sharing a vision; setting clear and stretching targets; leveraging empowerment and engagement; and managing talent.

Given that we always hear that "people are our greatest asset," it’s not surprising that good people skills for leaders – often described as the "soft skills" – score more highly than technical skills based on systems, processes, KPIs, policies and procedures, and the ability to leverage data and technology. It could be argued that these hard skills are best delegated to the expert within the team to manage, or the consultant you bring in to implement these with you. Thus, freeing up the leader to focus on leading their people.

So, what do good leaders do best?

Firstly, the brand personality of a good leader is characterised by strong and effective communication, focused, driving for results, skilled at obtaining the buy-in of top management, as well as capable of putting their function, department, and organisation in a good light all the time, via effective relationship building ( stakeholder engagement ) with key players in the organisation. This leader has a positive – glass half full or more – attitude, communicates a clear vision, mission and goals, and sets stretching yet achievable challenges for the team. A good leader is a people person, an effective coach who is good at listening, and has the experience to delegate tasks, empower individuals, and help the team to do well. The leader has a strategic outlook and aligns the work with the organisation’s overall strategy, and role models the core values and behaviours.

At the next level, an effective leader always supports and cares about the team, especially in difficult circumstances, and has regular team and one-to-one meetings. An effective leader has good business knowledge, is organised, aware of the financials, leads by example, measures performance through metrics, meets deadlines, leverages best practices, and is someone you can trust, who is open to listen to feedback and welcome new ideas. They actively promote diversity, equality and inclusion and create a work environment to support and enable their team to give of their best. Often this leadership style is referred to as servant leadership ,where the leader is not focused on commanding and controlling their team from a point at or near the top of a hierarchical organisational pyramid, but one who flips the pyramid upside down to provide a wide-based team for action at the top, involved in making goals and objectives happen, with themselves on a sharp point at the foot to work as a supporter of the team, encouraging, empowering and championing their team.

And what could leaders do much better at?

Those leaders who are not yet performing at the optimum leadership level in the eyes of their team need to:

"Trust us more, be more direct, provide more recognition, give praise, engage more with the team, provide more training and learning opportunities, build the team, "promote more fairly," involve others in the decision-making process, be consistent in word and deed, and "be more charismatic as a leader!"

Obviously, some of the characteristics of effective leaders are also shortfalls for ineffective leaders and "communicating more effectively" is a big ask. Particularly needed is the ability to "give more information about the strategic targets of the company," and "be more inclusive in charting progress on a road map and sharing challenges." And to recognise that in times of change key messages need to be given much more than once to be fully heard, recognised, understood, internalised and converted into the new ways of working habits.

Other development needs for leaders include "Being more visible to the lower levels", and "not making promises to the business without first knowing that we can deliver."

Often, leaders who fall short for their team are not so good at defining and working within the scope of the services the team can provide. They have no clear roles and responsibilities established. They have no clear menu or operating model agreement but respond to those customers who shout loudest. They don’t "fight for the cause" effectively and are not good at engaging with the business or selling the benefits of the service the team can provide broadly enough. They could certainly do more to provide customer service training to their team.

Leaders must regard talented people in their team as an asset to the organisation, a person to grow and develop for mutual benefit, not a prisoner of their own function to hide away from talent seekers. And good proactive organisations also implement mentoring programmes so that team members can gain insights beyond those of their line manager, from a mentor, and good line managers are open to mentors too, don’t see them as a threat to their authority, and are not defensive about their role, but see the mentor as an equal partner to help develop knowledge and career insights for the employee as mentee.

Showing more patience, sensitivity, respect, and improving employee engagement would certainly help some leaders to be more highly regarded by their own team. Last and not least they need to be better at listening to the ideas and opinions generated by the team and acting on some of these!

So, all these points above are the actual views of the teams about their leaders. But that’s not the whole picture. Many leaders have also shared with me their best and their most embarrassing moments! Their anonymity is protected but the details of what they did is not.

In the global survey I conducted with over 250 people managers I asked: as a boss what has been your worst leadership gaffe? And here are the top ten most embarrassing moments for leaders...

1. Not knowing the names of some of the people in my team. Ok it was a big team, but I had been there for over a year!
2. I corrected a team member's English in front of others. I recognised my mistake immediately, but it was too late to save her embarrassment and the embarrassment of others on the team.
3. I sent an IM to one of my team leaders asking if he had got feedback on a rogue employee in the team. At the time he had the entire team in his office with his screen projected so everyone could see my IM.
4. I decided not to train anyone in my team last year to save money on the annual budget.
5. I didn’t challenge my team hard enough and accepted mediocrity as the norm.
6. I didn’t confront disruptive behaviour, change resistance, early enough.
7. I forgot to manage upwards when introducing my new business function.
8. I let myself be bullied by my team. They tried to mob me out of the job.
9. I didn’t listen to the views of my team before taking action. It turned out they were right!
10. I didn’t empower my team to deal with an important task, didn’t delegate effectively at all and ended up doing the work myself – all weekend!

And to end on a high, here are the ten best moment’s leaders shared with me:

1. Developing those around me to do my job effectively.
2. Building high performing teams and turning lazy organisations into active and motivated organisations.
3. Getting a home-made "best boss award " from my team.
4. Seeing 80% of the team get promoted into the new GBS functional team.
5. My team regretting it when I left my employer. They gave me a great send-off party to show their appreciation.
6. My greatest pleasure has been to mentor and develop staff. I have almost no turnover as a result and the staff has grown, received the needed training, and can articulate clearly their future professional goals. 7. Getting good feedback from my team in the annual employee engagement survey.
8. Being assigned a demotivated and frustrated team. After 6 months the team is now highly motivated and very efficient.
9. Successfully completing the full transformation project from decentralised businesses to a consistent and effective global business!
10. Getting great feedback from one of my peers over something they'd heard about my team doing well.

So, there you have it. Does it ring any bells or press any buttons for you? I would be interested to hear your feedback on how this view of leaders and the needs of their teams compares or contrasts with your own views?

Guest written by PushFar Advisory Board Member, Simon Brown. Simon Brown works with people and organisations in the areas of talent management, employee engagement and change management. He is an advisor, coach and mentor and is now also currently a volunteer mentor for 3 mentees at PushFar.
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