The Fundamentals of Leadership

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I remember one of my first major job interviews in the technology sector. Coming out of the world of yellow pages advertising, I was green, eager, and ready to start this next chapter of my sales journey. After successfully navigating multiple rounds of interviews I met with the Area VP of Sales.  

When it came time for my turn to ask a question, I talked about how I valued continuous learning and was curious about what the company did to support continuous improvement in their associates? The response, “we don’t, we’re looking for the best, and if you’re still a work in progress, then you’re not it, and not a fit for me.”  

Although it happened many lifetimes ago, this incident still bothers me. If this senior sales leader did not think coaching was a part of leadership, then what is?  

I bring this up because as part of my continuous self-improvement journey, I recently started a new course, as part of the edX MicroMaster Core MBA program, called Leadership and Influence, that has me once again thinking about the qualities of what makes a great leader.

What is Leadership?

First and foremost, what is leadership? Is it your title, the role you play, or something else entirely? 

Throughout my twenty-year sales career, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many great leaders. The qualities that stand out the most to me are those who focus on their people, who adapt their approach to suit the present conditions, and are able to inspire the team to be the best they can be.

This ties in quite nicely with the definition provided by Kevin Kruse in his article for Forbes, and slightly modified by edX to say, “Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the sustained efforts of others, towards the achievement of a shared goal.”

In order to maximize the effectiveness of their team, leaders will oftentimes need to be different things to different people. Leaders will need to work with each individual within their team to understand the core factors that motivate that employee and then tailor their approach to meet each employee’s needs.

According to SHRM leaders of high performing teams need to be able to:

  • Keep the purpose, goals and approach relevant and meaningful
  • Build commitment and confidence
  • Ensure that team members constantly enhance their skills
  • Manage relationships from the outside with a focus on the removal of obstacles that might hinder group performance
  • Provide opportunities for others without seeking credit
  • Get in the trenches and do the real work required.

The Importance of Adaptability

As COVID has proven, the world of work is everchanging. The realities of yesterday could be vastly different from today.  

Whether you directly manage teams, indirectly steer large groups of people, or are one of many individual contributors, it’s essential to embrace change, self-reflect, and honestly ask yourself if your current approach best reflects the realities of today.   

As I discussed in my earlier article about the six different leadership styles and how the style that worked in one setting may not work in the next, to be an effective leader, you must adjust your style to meet not only the needs of each employee but also the situation at hand.  

To quickly summarize, the six defined styles of leadership include:

  • Coercive – “Do as I tell” – Successful when the cost of failure is high but may create resentment.
  • Authoritative – “Come with me” – Delivers quick results and guides through change, with the risk of becoming authoritarian.
  • Affiliative – “People come first” – Successful in stressful situations but may allow mediocrity to become acceptable.
  • Democratic – “What do you think” – Great when you need buy-in, with the risk of too many meetings and too few decisions.
  • Pacesetting – “Do as I do” – Delivers quick results with the risk of lowering morale and trust.
  • Coaching – “Try this” – Develops employee’s strengths, provided the manager has the right expertise. 

Beyond the different styles, it’s also important to consider all the other factors that could come into play, such as the group’s age, the corporate culture, trends affecting the industry, and current employee engagement trends.

By failing to adapt, a leader who experienced great success in the past may apply the wrong approach, to the wrong people, at the wrong time, thereby driving down engagement, and lowering morale. The end result, devastating impacts on employee productivity and turnover.

Situational Leadership

According to edX, leadership is driven by the interaction between the leaders, the followers, and the situation.

With this framework, the leader should be analyzing and developing the unique things they bring to the table, including the experiences, skills, training, insights, and relationships they have to offer.

A true leader also needs to consider their follower’s personalities, level of trust, experience, excitability, expectations in leadership, and of course, their expectations of leadership.  

Finally, an effective leader will adjust to the situation at hand. Important factors to consider could include external factors such as COVID, industry trends, the political climate, as well as internal factors such as internal changes, company health, and current project pressures.

These three elements are dynamic, everchanging, and constantly interacting with one another.  

Monitoring these factors can happen in many ways, including one on one coaching sessions, group meetings, and with the aid of modern technology, by implementing and tracking employee engagement on a regular and consistent basis. 

The Power of Engagement Surveys

According to Investopedia, employee engagement “describes the level of enthusiasm and dedication workers feel toward their job. Engaged employees care about their work and about the performance of the company, and feel that their efforts make a difference. An engaged employee is in it for more than a paycheck and may consider their well-being linked to their performance, and therefore instrumental to their company’s success.”

It is evident that engaged employees have less turnover, are higher performing, and deliver better business outcomes.

With the growing pervasiveness of technology, many companies are embedding engagement surveys directly within their self-service tools. 

By measuring employee engagement in real-time, leadership can incorporate strategies based on actual data that boosts retention, improves employee satisfaction, and drives productivity.

A well-designed engagement survey will be short, simple, and test for the three factors that drive engagement, which Gartner defines as:

  • Organizational Trust – Employees should feel like the organization and their leadership have the best interest of themselves and their customers at heart. At the same time, they feel like they are meaningful contributors to a larger and inspiring goal.
  • Commitment to Coworkers – Employees should feel like they are part of a larger team that values their input, encourages collaboration, and values their support.
  • The Right Capabilities – Employees should feel like they have the right tools to help facilitate their success.

Developing Yourself as a Leader

The question then becomes,

If my goal as a leader is to maximize social interaction amongst my team while maximizing others’ sustained effort towards a shared goal; by analyzing myself, my team, and the situation.  

How do I go about incorporating these changes?

The answer is beautiful in its simplicity. Like anything in life, small changes, tested, and iterated off, can lead to massive improvements.

As an example, to take a step away from the world of leadership. Rarely in my own life has significant change come about via something transformational that I’ve done, but instead via an act of continuous change, reflection, and self-improvement.  

For instance, once COVID hit, I had to refocus and revise my 2020 running goals, ultimately deciding this past September to attempt a personal best in the 5k.  

Being an endurance athlete, I spent hours reading books like 80/20 Running, watching Lionel Sanders train for his 5k personal best on YouTube, and studying training plans. I developed a plan, implemented that plan, and ultimately ran my 3rd fastest 5k of all-time.  

Although I finished short of my goal, the best part is like every journey in life, it’s not over. I’m running more than I ever have, feeling better about running than I have in a long time, and have identified the changes I believe I need to make to get better.  

With the foundation now in place, I’m running into 2021 with the confidence of knowing that my quest to run my personal best is only a few small tweaks away.

Like anything in life, be it developing as a leader, improving your role in a team, or becoming better at your passions, the key is to never be happy with the status quo.

To develop your skills, you need to take the time for honest self-reflection, ask yourself the hard questions, identify your weaknesses, and strive to become better.  

To get better, you need to set a goal, decide how you will measure progress towards that goal, implement small changes, and iterate off what you learned.  

Life is everchanging, who we are as people, the teams we work with, and the situations we find ourselves in.  

To be the best leader or person we can be, we need to continually ensure our approach focuses on our people, maximizing their effort towards that shared goal.

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