by Morag Barrett

6 steps to great leadership

Aug 10, 2015
IT Leadership

Soft skills are the "secret sauce" to effective leadership. Here are six ways to take your leadership skills from good to great.

In my experience soft-skills are the “secret sauce” to leadership. However, when I talk to leaders in companies around the nation, those soft skills are often overlooked when it comes to preparing emerging leaders for success. If these skills are the secret sauce, why are they so often neglected?

The misconception is that these skills are inherent, and not learned. While I agree some leaders have an aptitude for understanding people, building relationships and managing emotions, the truth is that like any skill, these talents can be built, and improved upon.

Here are six things that make great leaders. If you can be effective in these, then your reputation will skyrocket.

1. Be an ally

We’ve all experienced the best and worst of bosses. Some people are so much fun to work with that you don’t want to stop. And others? Well…you wished that they worked somewhere else. It’s great to be memorable, as long as it’s for the right reasons. The question is, which sort of leader are you?

An ally is someone who has your back, not just on the good days, but on the tough days too. They are the people who cheer you on when things are going well, and provide the tough-love and candid feedback when needed. Your success is dependent on those who work with and for you, and if you want to create a culture of candor and debate, collaboration and teamwork then the time to take action is now.

Remember that your people are not the enemy. If you treat them as your allies, then you’ll have won them over.

2. Give plenty of feedback

The old adage “no news is good news” doesn’t cut it in a business environment. In the absence of feedback most of us will fill in the blanks and create stories as to how we are perceived, and whether we are valued. Unfortunately these stories tend to assume the worst, to be the bad news, and your employees will be looking for examples of your behavior that support their story – the case for the prosecution.

“He didn’t say ‘hello’ this morning – I knew he didn’t like me”

“She asked everyone else for their input into this project except me – She doesn’t value my opinion”

If you are of the opinion that others should act like grown-ups and recognize that if there’s a problem, then they can be sure that someone above them will let them know. That’s not leadership. That’s abdication.

Part of your responsibility as a leader is to let people know when they’re doing their jobs well. Sharing the good news and not just the bad news on a consistent basis. If you don’t tell them, then they’ll begin to wonder if they are. If they’re wondering, then it means that they’re not focusing on doing what’s right.

3. Make time for people

Leadership does not mean creating a vision for the company and relaying it to the board or your senior managers, all the while hiding in your lofty tower. People want to see your face, and to make eye contact with you. They want you to talk to them; to take an interest in them, in their job, and in their workplace.

  • One –to-one meetings with your direct reports are an important way of building a relationship that ensures they are aligned in the goals that need to be delivered and that you understand their personal goals and aspirations.
  • Town Hall Meetings (where you and your leadership team meet with your broader team) can communicate what’s happening within your function and the business as a whole. Avoid turning these into a one-way monologue, encourage questions and dialogue – and if you aren’t sure how call me!
  • Skip Level Meetings – this is where you meet with a few people further down into your organization. Consider them ‘fire side conversations’, informal opportunities for your more junior employees to meet and get to know you and for you to take a pulse on the culture and organization health. These are not about catching out your direct reports or your people managers.

As you are walking through the office pause by other’s desks and say ‘hi’, ask them what they are working on, find out their plans for the weekend. It doesn’t have to become a huge song and dance routine, in fact avoid making it into a ritual, be the genuine you, your team will appreciate it.

4. Support others, especially when they make mistakes

How you support others when they make mistakes (and when you do, too) will have a huge impact on the candor and accountability within your team. Unless the mistake was deliberate or came from a devil-may-care attitude, you need to support the person who made it. He or she will feel badly enough about it without you yelling, disciplining or firing them.

Few people make mistakes on purpose. Investing the time so you can understand – and help them understand – how the mistake happened and, just as importantly, how it will be avoided going forward, is key. And remember, others will be watching. They will take note of how you respond, and whether you handle it well or badly, they will remember your example.

5. Set the right example

Many people are proud of the fact that they are leading by example. But the truth of the matter is that hardly anyone will emulate an example that they disagree with. In fact, all that will do is make them uncomfortable.

A good example is work/life balance. It’s essential that people work a sensible number of hours. If you’re putting in 50, 60 hours a week or more, then there will be people in your organization who will feel that they should, too. But that will create inner turmoil, because they will be torn between what they perceive as your expectations for them and the responsibilities and, indeed, desires they feel towards their families, and even their personal health.

Don’t force your employees to make a choice. Show them that work/life balance is so important that you practice it as well.

6. Invest in your own leadership development

One of the problems with personal and professional development is that those at the top have the habit of exempting themselves from the training they think that everyone else should get. They plead that they are too busy, too important, or already know how to do it.

I’ve lost count of the middle managers who bemoan that “they” (the bosses) should be in the class, and in many cases I have to agree with them. Learning is a lifelong commitment and while you are successful because of your knowledge, skills and ability, you are also successful despite your blindspots, bad habits and weaknesses.

Pay attention to what is helping you succeed and what might be holding you back, not just for your current role, but for your future aspirations.

The time to hone your capabilities is today, before you need to apply them. What’s good for the goose is also good for the gander. Make sure that you attend the same training that you expect others to go to. It’s part of setting the right example and you may surprise yourself and learn something!

What makes for great leadership?

Over to you – what would you add to this list of ‘great leadership’? and more to the point, how are you doing in demonstrating them consistently?