Leadership is increasingly under the spotlight at present, and not just political leaders, but business leaders, too. They’re expected to do a lot better and to set the right example – practising what they preach – as the world looks to return to growth post-pandemic.
So what will the best leaders be doing in the years ahead?
There’s no question that the road ahead will be more difficult to navigate, for we live in an increasingly VUCA world which means new skills will need to be applied, especially with The Great Resignation which is now under way in so many countries. Although South Africa’s exceptionally high unemployment rate – some 46% of the workforce are unemployed at present – means this could be viewed as less of an issue, it certainly raises the likelihood of the most skilled and able workers looking to move to other countries to meet their growing need for skills, so keeping employees happy here is as important as in the more successful economies.
And this leads me to action #1 – Active listening.
While many executives make a show of listening to their customers, the fact is that listening to your own staff is even more important, and not just because, as Sir Richard Branson said, “take care of your employees and they will take care of your customers”
Given that the primary reason for employees leaving their jobs is poor management (with communication being the most common reason within this category), ensuring a culture of ongoing employee feedback and action resulting from this is critical. Understanding what makes your team unhappy and/or causes frustration with their jobs will improve your processes and service levels, raising both job satisfaction levels and retention, while ensuring happier customers with the additional benefits of better productivity and reduced operating costs.
Of course, without a well-designed system for employee feedback and a clear program of taking action on the feedback, it will be viewed as lip-service: you need to make this visible. I had great success when, more than 20 years ago, I instituted our “electronic suggestions box” scheme at the company I was then CEO of. We had some great suggestions and publicly awarded the authors of those suggestions – some being significant rewards (anonymous suggestions were also allowed, although could not be rewarded, of course, but were still acknowledged in our monthly feedback forum). I subsequently implemented similar systems at the other companies I led, with equally good results. This, of course, was only one aspect of the overall feedback system – ongoing open dialogue, both one-on-one and in group sessions – played an equally important part.
The next action to ensure you’re taking is Clear communication.
This goes to the heart of the business. Everyone wants to be part of a success story and, as a leader, your job is to ensure the success of the business for all stakeholders. This means having a clear vision, mission statement and values for the business, together with the goals that need to be achieved to get there.
One key thing to avoid, though, is causing confusion by having too many goals in operation at once. Typically, each department or division should be working towards one primary goal at a time – all of which contribute to the overarching one.
And this is where communication is so important – everyone within the business should know the vision, the mission, the values and the primary goal towards which they’re currently working, and should be focused on it. The leadership team then feeds back progress on a regular basis. I’ve found that a monthly “all hands” communication session can work extremely well for this, giving feedback on overall company performance and current goals, recognising star performers in the business (very important that this is not just about sales staff!), making any awards for feedback, certification, and other milestones (e.g. long service), welcoming new staff, bidding farewell to those leaving and acknowledging other important personal staff events.
The third area that’s important for successful leaders is Flexibility.
There was often a tendency in the past for businesses to adopt the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In our fast-changing world today, nothing could be potentially more damaging to a business.
Leaders need to be understanding their environment, looking at the patterns emerging and using this to adjust their strategy on an ongoing basis. Simply making a plan once and then trying to stick to it is a bad idea. As Eisenhower said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Just as you drive your car in such a way as to cater to changing road, traffic and weather conditions, adjusting speed and direction accordingly, so should your plans change as conditions dictate, so long as you’re moving towards your overall goal.
Of course, if you’re constantly in “fire-fighting” mode, micro-managing each aspect of your business, you’ll never be able to look ahead in this way and will find your business being left behind, with a disgruntled team, which brings me to the fourth key action – Effective delegation.
Probably the biggest barrier to delegation is the belief that nobody can do the task better than you can. This shows a lack of trust – you’ve hired people to do a job, so allow them to do it and, if they do make a mistake (not always likely by any means) they will learn from it.
Your role is to surround yourself with a capable team that enables the business to achieve the goals and, ultimately, vision that you have set and to do so you have to be the conductor, rather than trying to play each instrument yourself – to use a musical analogy.
Without delegating, your find yourself in the position of the business, in effect, “owning you” rather than the other way around. You MUST be “the conductor” (to continue the analogy) of your business, ensuring all the players are performing correctly and guiding them through the entire performance. To do this, you need the time to decide on what pieces will make up the performance, and in what order, and then ensure you have the right instruments and players.
You need time to think and time for planning. And you must have time to relax, too – see Temptation #6, here. You can’t have this if you’re trying to do everything yourself.
If you still need more information on why you should be delegating, this Harvard Business Review article does it well.
In summary, then, the best leaders ensure a strong company culture – one that is focused on listening & feedback, on clear, open communication, that is agile and flexible and in which delegation is embedded – to achieve business success, as the research referenced here so clearly shows.
How does your culture and leadership style measure up?
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