The Secret Ingredients
Hillary Clinton. Ursula Burns. Mary Barra. Indra Nooyi. What makes some leaders so successful they reach guru-like status, while others never gain traction? Is it a wicked high IQ? Amazing charisma? Killer contacts?
Maybe. But there’s also a set of qualities that the most powerful execs have in common — and that you can harness. Here’s how.
There’s a slew of leadership studies out there, but the biggest by far was conducted by Barry Conchie, president of the executive leadership research and consulting firm Conchie Associates. He interviewed more than 20,000 people worldwide to find out what followers most admire in the bosses they respect. His findings pinpointed four key characteristics that truly effective directors share.
Numero uno: Strong leaders communicate stability to the people they manage. This means assuring your team that no matter what happens, your core values will never waver.
As long as things are running smoothly, chances are you do this automatically. It’s harder to pull off when the firm is going through a hardship, like a downturn or competitive challenge. Then you need to put in extra effort to show staffers that certain tenets still hold true. “This could be a company-wide commitment — say, that you’ll always go the extra mile for clients — or it could be on a micro level, like a frontline supervisor who promises to consult her team before making a big decision,” Conchie explains.
Do your principles fly out the window when you’re faced with the unexpected? “If people sense that your values are dispensable, you will seem shallow,” says Conchie.
Hone your ideals so that you’re clear about where you stand, get that across in everyday messaging with your team, and don’t forget to keep it top of mind during tough times.
It may sound simple, but many supervisors overlook this crucial leadership truth: You attract more flies with honey. “If you don’t exude a sense of caring for the people who work for you, then they won’t care for you very much,” says Conchie. “Managers who truly appreciate their team reap a huge reciprocal benefit.”
Not only will staffers be motivated to work hard for you because you’re good to them, but making them feel important empowers them to accomplish more. Conchie’s research found that compassion has a massive correlation to low turnover rates and strong employee engagement.
To boost your sensitivity, spend face time with each employee. “The average leader spends so little one-on-one time with people and shows very little curiosity in their lives,” says Conchie. “Find out what’s going on with them on a personal level.”
If you’re strapped for time, even a quick conversation at the coffee machine about how their kid is doing at school will show that you have someone’s interests at heart.
Also, check your response to employee issues that crop up. When someone calls in sick, is your first instinct to complain about how this will throw workflow off track? Ice cold. Instead, express concern about their health before dealing with the ramifications of their absence.
If a staffer requests time off to go to their child’s preschool graduation even though it means missing a big meeting, do you shut them down? “If you grant someone a favor like this, you’ll get paid back for it ten times over in terms of commitment,” promises Conchie.
You probably wouldn’t date someone who wasn’t being honest with you or open up to a friend who gave you a shady vibe. Trust is just as important in the workplace. To lead effectively, people need to believe that you will follow through on your promises and that you operate with transparency (sans hidden agenda).
“Leadership isn’t automatically bestowed upon you once you attain a certain title, nor can it be conferred on you by your boss,” says Conchie. “You get true authority to lead from the people who follow you. Your team will commit to you if you tell them the truth, don’t surprise them, and share information.” Conchie’s research found that trust in a leader increased employee engagement sixfold, and boosted the speed and efficiency at which people worked.
Of course, you can’t build trust overnight; according to Conchie, it takes a minimum of six months to two years. But from day one, start planting seeds that will eventually yield full-on faith. First, make lots of small promises and follow through on every one. “Trust boils down to behaving in a predictable way all of the time,” says Conchie. “Do exactly what you say you will, without fail.”
Along these same lines, develop systems to deal with issues methodically. One question Conchie asked people during his research was whether they could reliably anticipate the actions of their leader in any circumstance. Some employees agreed that they always had a clear idea of what the plan would be; others described mercurial managers who change their mind on a whim. It made all the difference.
Finally, lay the facts on the table as much as you are able to, describing the situation you’re dealing with and the process you’ll go through to address it. “Don’t try to protect people from the truth,” Conchie says. “Instead, see it as a shared journey that you’re navigating together.” That’s how camaraderie — and trust — develops.
Look on the Bright Side
Remember Obama’s presidential slogan, “Yes we can”? It was so powerful because it instilled hope and optimism in people, despite the bleak forecast. That’s exactly what strong leaders are able to do. “They impart a sense that the future will be better than the present,” says Conchie. In his research, 75 percent of people whose leaders made them feel enthusiastic about the future were engaged at work, compared to only eight percent with less inspiring supervisors.
To put this into practice, begin by asking yourself and your team what they’re excited to achieve. “This isn’t Pollyanna thinking,” cautions Conchie. “It’s about sitting down with a purpose and saying we can improve things by doing XYZ.” Then build meetings around those issues, coming up with a realistic plan.
One last tip: During regular staff meetings, close with a galvanizing idea, like a project where employees can really make a difference. “How you wrap things up has a huge influence on how your team feels,” he says. “If you simply finish with the last item on the agenda, then you have lost a powerful opportunity to impact people.” Make sure everyone walks out the door believing that they can contribute in a positive way.
Make Other People Successful
The stronger your team, the more powerful your own reach. “Consider what the strengths of your employees are and how you can unlock each person’s potential,” says Joanna Barash, author of How Remarkable Women Lead. She suggests scheduling a brief one-on-one meeting with each staffer focused on understanding their skills. Ask questions like:
- What tasks in your everyday life do you find yourself getting so engrossed in that you lose track of time?
- What activities filled you with energy and excitement as a kid?
- What qualities do you value in yourself as a child, in high school, in college, and now?
Not only will you learn which duties your employees find most satisfying, but it might also open your eyes to new areas of talent yet to be developed. For example, if a staffer recalls her tremendous creativity as a young child, consider including her in an upcoming brainstorming session — she might bring fresh thinking to the table.
“When people feel valued and listened to, they are motivated and engaged at work,” says Barash. What’s more, a University of California, Riverside study found that the more positively managers viewed employees, the better their performance.
Own Your Decisions
There’s a crucial mindset shift that has to take place in order to become a successful leader: Instead of thinking of yourself as a passive employee doing your job within the constraints of your position or organization, take responsibility for the direction you’re headed. “Leaders exude confidence, action, and a sense of purpose that we all want to follow,” says Barash. “Even if there are things you can’t change, recognize that you always have a choice.”
The first step to taking ownership of your career path is to build a vision for what you want to accomplish. “Start by becoming aware of how you feel throughout the day,” says Barash. “Physically, are you energetic, focused, and rested? On an emotional level, are you happy and hopeful? Spiritually, are you working on stuff that matters to you?” If you have any negative symptoms, use those as clues to investigate what’s holding you back and where to go next.
Consider enlisting a close friend to help you see things in perspective — someone who will be objective, rather than just sympathize with you. Tell her that you’d love for her to listen, feed back what she hears you say, and then ask follow-up questions to suss out what’s going on beneath the surface.
“Leaders think deeply about their thoughts and feelings so that they understand what’s driving them,” says Barash. “Then they choose to make a shift in a direction that will allow them to thrive.”
The hope is that you’ll be able to figure out what matters to you and how to move closer to that.