published December 30, 2019

How Successful Leaders Make Successful Companies

How Successful Leaders Make Successful Companies
  • Good leadership asks a lot of managers. Not many do it naturally, but it can be learned.
  • Good leaders make their organizations more money but if that’s all that they think a good leader is, they are wrong.
  • Leadership is integral to employee retention.
  • This article features steps to becoming an effective leader.

Why Good Is Hard

Imagine all the bosses you’ve ever had.

How many were good ones?

Probably not many: Managing people is hard. For those entering management, it’s always much harder than they might’ve expected. There’s much one encounters that isn’t taught in business school or included in training. Besides the manager’s own workload, they’ll have to manage the workloads and goals of their employees. Then there’s team dynamics, problem resolution, resourcing, budgeting, coaching, motivating, on and on. It’s stress by a thousand cuts. It’s a lot to balance and the truth is most managers don’t do it well. At least not as far as their subordinates are concerned. It’s very easy to become the kind of boss that no one can stand.

Bosses no one can stand tend to make for far less productive teams. And that costs the organization money.

Employee disengagement leads to lowered productivity and worse. One of the deepest expenses is poor employee retention. Says Travis Bradberry, President of TalentSmart and co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0: “Managers tend to blame their turnover problems on everything under the sun while ignoring the crux of the matter: people don’t leave jobs; they leave managers.”

Jugglers with too many balls

One of the more extreme challenges of the supervisor is meshing the interests of shareholders, employers, and customers. More often, the three parties are more like The Three Stooges—they tend not to get along—often in the extreme. At best the three operate like an unattainable triangle: Satisfying two of them is usually the best you can hope for, never all three.

To wit: Say, an employee needs to leave work on time to pick up a child at daycare. When they leave there’s no one there to cover the phone. The boss needs them to stay to ensure full coverage. And the customer demands continuity in the handling of their project. These interests, as you can see, can mesh like misaligned gears. Something or someone is going to get disappointed.

If the only concern was revenue, the choice would be easy: “Find someone else to pick-up your kid!” (Worry about the employee’s resentment later.) To paraphrase Apple’s Tim Cook’s famous quote: There’s a lot more to leadership than bloody ROI.

What not to do

Some of what bad managers can do:
  • 50% of employees leave their jobs because of bad managers.
  • 45% of managers claim to lack the confidence for developing skills for employees; 70% of employees say they haven’t mastered the necessary skills for their current job titles.
  • They cause employee disengagement—accounting for at least 70% of their ups and downs at work. Employee engagement has remained steady at a discouraging 30%. (See here for a breakdown of how costly disengagement can be.) Consider this: wherever you work, 7 of 10 people in the room don’t want to be there.
  • Managers tend to get promoted to management based on their individual contributions, not how they engage with and get the best out of people. You can see the problem.

It starts with values

There’s the epic story of the owner of Malden Mills, Aaron Feuerstein.

In 1995, a terrible fire destroyed much of his recently refurbished plant a couple of weeks before Christmas. This caused a few thousand people to be without work. The owner reacted by doing something that would become legend: He promised to continue paying his employees’ wages and benefits indefinitely.

Eventually, the promise would cost him $25 million, his CEO position, and a bankruptcy filing in 2001. The company would again achieve solvency with the help of creditor generosity and government subsidies including a $16 million contract from the DOD in 2006. Ultimately the company would never fully recover and it closed for good in 2007.

The glory of Feuerstein was that in his heroism, in his pursuit of doing the right thing he inspired other individuals and institutions to come together and do the same. It was the ultimate display of higher values—spiritual even. Feuerstein’s commitment was true: He wanted to do right by his valued employees and in doing so was willing to share their pain.

As you can imagine, this wasn’t the first gesture of Feuerstein’s values. His employees already had a deep respect for him. He knew their names and he listened. He was involved in the community. You won’t be surprised to learn that when his factory was reopened, his workforce was even more productive.

But high employee performance shouldn’t require an owner’s bankruptcy.

There are other options:

How to be a great manager: Lead with your values

Essential skills of great leaders:

The most important first step is always to be clear about the values that define “right” for you in your leadership role. This will also demand the sometimes difficult task of self-reflection.
  • Lead: Be able to set priorities and motivate team members. This will require self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. You’ll need to be a source of energy, empathy, and trust, and this includes working daily to develop team members through positive, constructive feedback and coaching.
  • Communicate: Learn effective communication in all its forms, written and oral including one-to-one, small groups, large groups, email, and social media. And listening: this may be the most important aspect of communicating. Consistent, personalized communication needs to include excellent listening skills. Listening, however, is not an end in itself. It’s a path to being responsive to needs and conditions. This doesn’t mean that the realities of business are changed and all employees concerns must be indulged. It does, however, mean that they deserve to be heard and at least given an up or down answer. This may include e-mails.
  • Teambuilding: Serve as a role model by modeling good work habits and behaviors, both individually and for teams working together. Support cross-functional efforts and help set collaborative behaviors.
  • Big picture thinking: Understand where and how your projects fit into larger goals and objectives and this can enlarge their effectiveness. Build this into your work funnels and larger objectives. Use this as a platform for making the goals and objectives of your team members even more meaningful.
  • Money: Leaders need to understand how company funds are utilized and invested so they have a better understanding on how these investments may earn a good return for the firm. A manager needn’t respond like an accountant, but it’s imperative that they know how to apply the basics.
  • Task management: Nearly every initiative will become a project and projects become complex and sometimes unwieldy. The best managers will understand and leverage formal project management practices to make sure initiatives follow proper work streams and are delivered in a timely manner.

The job of leaders is divided into the duties of planning, leading, organizing, and supervising outputs and deliverables. These tasks will require the development of technical and functional skills. Those new to management will have to learn them on the job so they’ll also need discipline and people skills. Managers without some affinity for interacting with, supporting, and guiding others—and enjoying it—will not only not thrive as leaders, they will cost their organizations in lost productivity.

The best leadership understands that the role is about the team and its performance, not about themselves. They develop the necessary skills and will work hard doing it. Their measure of success is when their team members succeed. These qualities don’t need to wait until you arrive at the C-suite; they can be built on the way up. When you are ready, others will recognize your value and strive to increase your responsibilities.

Management as a career can be very challenging. It is also very exciting.

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