You Can’t Be an ‘Either/Or’ Leader
I have worked with and talked to a lot of business leaders in the past few months about the challenges posed by today’s marketplace. We recently coined the phrase ‘Leading in Turbulent Times’ as a title to capture the business challenges that they all seem to share.
These challenges loosely fall into four categories:
- Keeping customers loyal: Focusing on strengthening relationships and at the same time negotiating requests to cut fees
- Generating revenue and keeping margins: Prioritizing prospects, focusing on key accounts and keeping profitable business
- Controlling costs: Making unpopular but vital decisions and re-engineering processes and workflows
- Increasing employee motivation and productivity: Ensuring that employees have the energy, focus and motivation to respond to the first three challenges
Clearly, leaders in these turbulent times need to jump to address the first three challenges. Every organization needs a solid base of customers who purchase products or services that need to be delivered cost-effectively. It’s the nuts and bolts, the bread and butter of running the business. It gives leaders satisfaction that they’re doing the right things. And it has to be done quickly and effectively.
At the same time, the leaders with whom I work often say the last challenge, increasing employee motivation and productivity, gives them greatest pause. Why? Maybe for the first time in their leadership lives, they must work hard — very hard — to excite people to exceptional performance. The definition of ‘exceptional performance’ has also changed radically, and the energy and drive needed to achieve it is like never before. Leaders are being tested in a new and different way by a questioning and demanding group of followers.
Address your business and inspire your workforce.
The trouble is that smart business decisions about segmenting customers, identifying promising revenue streams or creating a leaner operation won’t deliver if you don’t succeed in securing the commitment and discretionary effort of the people who need to carry out your decisions. Leaders must be able to address employee motivation and productivity as well as they craft strategies for the bottom line. Here are a few reminders for how to do so:
Show the math. You may remember this concept from school, where documenting the process for arriving at your answer to a problem earned you partial credit even if the answer was wrong. In the same way, sharing the decision-making process and rationale for change earns you credibility as a leader — even if employees don’t agree with the decision. Don’t forego this buy-in process in your urgency to move forward.
Build community and significance. When work is challenging and things appear uncertain, it’s easy for employees to grow disillusioned. Individual worries can also evolve into larger (and sometimes unsubstantiated) group fears. So come out of your office and be visible to your team. Don’t neglect traditions or regular practices that reinforce a sense of belonging as a team. Remind your team that they’re part of something bigger. Refocus them on larger goals. Facilitate the personal connections that satisfy their needs for sociability and solidarity. Don’t forget to recognize everyone’s hard work and unique contributions.
Share your enthusiasm. When was the last time you stepped back and considered why you care about your organization and the work your team does? You need to convey your hopes, your personal passion and vision to ignite your team’s engagement.
Don’t make promises. Employees want reassurances and leaders like to have all the answers. This combination of needs has resulted in many well-intentioned executives saying things that are misconstrued and damage their credibility. Remember that even when you think you’re not making promises, your employees may be listening for comforting news that things won’t get worse, staff will remain in-tact and the next quarter will be back to normal. They may not hear the qualifiers in your statements. When in doubt say, “We don’t know.”
The call for extraordinary leadership is louder than ever.
If you’re like many of the leaders with whom I’ve worked, you may be tempted to address each of the leadership challenges I’ve mentioned one at a time or to work on those issues in your comfort zone before tackling the rest. You may even hope that if you make good business decisions the ‘people side’ will sort itself out as a result. But those approaches aren’t viable in today’s business climate. You can’t take an ‘either/or’ approach. It has to be ‘both/and’. Your organization’s success requires quick decisions and flawless execution. To succeed you need to know what needs to be done and have a workforce that is focused and motivated to make it happen.
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