Type “leadership” into a search on Amazon and you will get thousands of results; books, magazines, leadership courses, you name it. The goal of this post is not to add to this jumble of advice, but rather to step back and define, from my experience as a leader, the critical aspects of leadership that often get overlooked. I believe that most issues (or if you prefer “corporate speak,” opportunities) in the corporate world do not require deep, insightful solutions. Rather, they require a return to basics as we corporate crusaders, stuck in the hyper-fast paced world of “it needed to be done yesterday” rarely get time to stop, think, and reflect on these basics.
We have all worked for bosses who have big titles but are not leaders. That is, they don’t inspire their teams and they fail to get results. On the other end of the spectrum, we all likely know of people who may not have a big title, or even a team they manage, but have a reputation for consistently getting results and having a positive impact on the business. This begs the question: what is a leader, anyway? It’s clearly not based on titles as anyone, at any level, can develop their leadership skills.
I propose the following definition of leadership: a leader is someone who inspires others with a shared vision and motivates others to achieve the vision. Let’s break this down further:
A leader needs vision.
The corporate world is full of distractions as the urgent often supersedes the needs of the strategic. As such, employees get tunnel vision and focus on tactical, short-term activities over longer term strategic priorities. In the worst case scenario, companies become completely tactical and are like ships without a captain–they drift along randomly until they hit a reef. Leaders (regardless of level or title) focus on a vision, a long-term statement of what is possible and rally others to their vision. This is a good segue to the next part of the definition…
A leader inspires.
What is inspiration? It is getting people to look beyond the constraints of today to what is possible tomorrow. Also, it is getting the team to understand their job can be more than just 60 hours of drudgery and a paycheck; work can be a place to learn, get excited about new things, and help customers be more successful. Work is boring, inspiration is fun.
As you have already guessed, a good vision should inspire and motivate in terms that are personal to employees at all level of the organization. A vision of “In 5 years we want to grow share form 28% to 40% in the athletic shoe market” is meaningless and not inspirational, but a vision of “in 5 years we want to use analytics to disrupt the boring, old-fashioned shoe design business to bring mass personalization to amateur athletes so that everyone can feel like a sports star when they exercise” will get people excited. Good leaders understand the need for cohesion on teams and use vision to motivate and align team members.
A leader motivates others to achieve that vision.
Thomas Edison famously said, “Invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Leadership is the same way. Finding the right inspiring vision is 1% of the work while the other 99% of the heavy lifting is around making that vision a reality. In short, this means (aside from constantly reinforcing the vision) putting together the infrastructure (structure, processes, and discipline) to track progress toward the vision. Good leaders understand the progression from Vision → Strategy → Structure/Process → Goals → Measurement and set up a Management Operating System (or MOS; the series of standing meetings and operational rhythm by which you drive toward your goals) to ensure goals are met.
So, what does a (good) leader actually do?
Okay, so now that we have a shared definition of leadership, what exactly do (good) leaders actually do? I think it boils down to four key activities, in no particular order:
They are accountable and hold others accountable.
My current boss, who is also a strong leader, gave me the following piece of advice: “When there is success, say ‘we’ and credit the team. When there is failure, say ‘I’ and work with the team to improve.” This simple mindset helps clarify my role as a leader and is a wonderful piece of advice. When I think of all the (good and bad) leaders I have worked with, the best always took accountability when there was underperformance–they never made excuses or assigned blame. When there was success, they made sure everyone on the team felt like a winner.
They lead by example through discipline, process, and metrics.
All leaders have bad days (sometimes bad weeks, months or quarters…) but the best leaders are able to motivate themselves to smile, be positive, and continue to motivate their teams in good times and in bad. I believe that adversity doesn’t create character, it reveals it. Understand that as a leader your team looks to you for direction and inspiration and even little cues (a bad attitude, snapping at employees, or sloppiness in your routine) can influence the mood, culture, and performance of your team.
One of my first mentors had a saying: “You respect what you inspect.” What this means is that if you are not measuring the performance of your team and using data consistently, why would your team do the same? Be clear on metrics (track publicly when possible, including your OWN metrics), review consistently, and ensure your processes are rock solid.
Think of it this way: if you are not coming in day in and day out with a strong sense of urgency and discipline and bringing your processes to life through data and metrics, why would your team? Leading by example is key to running a strong team and becoming self-aware of your own actions and attitudes is key to leading by example.
They coach others.
Good leaders are good coaches. Think back to the best coach you have every had and think about what they do. Coaches focus on winning by getting the most performance out of their team. Good coaches help players through difficult times by providing clear direction, specifying the role of each team member, creating a strong sense of urgency to achieve a goal (e.g. the importance of each game toward the ultimate goal of winning a championship), and always trying to strengthen their team by developing players and bringing in new talent.
Great coaches take personal ownership for the development of their players and often form long lasting relationships. Take a minute and think of your team (whether they work for you or are peers). What are the strengths of each individual? Are there opportunities for improvement? What motivates each individual? How can you create a winning formula that will enable the team to perform at a higher level? These are the questions any coach asks in order to develop their teams. If you can think of yourself as less of a “corporate” or “functional” leader and more of a “developer of talent and performance” you will take your team from good to great and your team will thank you for it.
They celebrate success.
This last factor is important but few managers celebrate success effectively. In my current role, I have 28 direct reports across two countries. The company I joined nine months ago is wildly successful and has grown at 3-4x market growth for the past 8 years. In spite of this, team members had low morale. They felt unappreciated, overworked, and felt they were “always letting other functions down because we cannot meet all of the needs that come our way” (this is a direct quote from an employee). What a shame!
To address this issue I took a number of actions. First, I sat the team down, shared my vision for the function, defined our role, defined what success looked like and the top three critical priorities for the year. I then discussed how this vision feeds into the corporate vision and got buy in from the team. Second, I created clearly defined metrics for the team (including my personal metrics for the year) and posted all of them outside my office wall so any team member, at any point, can review progress toward key metrics. Third, I asked the team what their major “stress points” were (examples include last minute requests from other functions, long work hours, working on non-value added activities, etc.). Then, as a team, we identified the top non-strategic stress points and agreed as a team to NO LONGER DO THEM. Monthly, we review the team metrics and many of my team members were surprised at how we the team was actually performing against the key strategic priorities. When our metrics are consistently green for the month, we celebrate (bring in pizza, go out for happy hour, etc.).
The results are amazing: absenteeism is down sharply, our annual employee satisfaction survey results are up, and morale in the office has noticeably improved. Finally, I make it a point to personally thank people for their contributions when they do well, and give public recognition when a team member performs particularly well.
Again, think of good sports coaches. When a game is won the team celebrates. When the team loses, it results in more practice. That said, it is important to celebrate successes (and there are always successes) even when business performance is down. In fact, this is the most critical time to make sure people are motivated and engaged. A kind word, a thank you note, or even a team lunch to celebrate a success can go a long way.
To summarize, leadership can be demonstrated by anyone at any level within any organization. It is also a skill that can be practiced and honed every day. Become more self-aware about your leadership style and your verbal and non-verbal cues. Dig deep into the strengths and weaknesses of your team. Set a compelling vision, drive toward it, and celebrate victories along the way. Your team will appreciate your efforts. I can ensure you it will both help your career as well as make your job more fulfilling.