What are the true qualities of a good leader? Someone who has natural charisma? Polished public speaking skills? An uncanny ability to get people to like them?
Or, do the core qualities of a good leader extend to something more?
This question of, “What makes a good leader?” is one I’ve been asking myself my entire career. Previous to becoming CEO of Know Your Company, I’d started two companies beforehand. Yet even with KYC being the third company I’ve helped lead, this question remains persistent for me, as ever.
For those of you who ask yourself a similar question around the principles of good leadership, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned from observations and conversations with hundreds of managers and CEOs. It’s what I try to keep in mind each day as I lead, and what I believe the best managers do…
1. Know the purpose of your role: It’s NOT to manage.
As a manager, you may think your job is to manage others. Sounds straightforward enough. However, the word “manage” is misleading. By definition, it means to “run, control or supervise”… which isn’t what I see as the role of a manager at all.
I believe the best managers focus on doing one thing: They try to understand what intrinsically motivates people, and create an environment that allows people to tap into that intrinsic motivation themselves. You’re not telling anyone what to do. You’re not controlling anyone or exerting influence on anyone. You’re not even trying to empower anyone.
Instead, you assume that people already have innate talents, gifts, and capabilities within them. Your job as a leader is merely to provide an environment for those inherent qualities to come to light.
How do you create such an environment? Read on…
2. Create clarity.
To create the best working environment for your team, you must create clarity. Do people know what needs to happen, why the work is important, and what success looks like? Do people know how their work fits into the bigger picture? Do people know what standard of quality needs to be met before their work is shipped or goes live? The best managers constantly clarify these things — in meetings, in emails, during one-on-ones. They also ask their team, “What isn’t clear?” or “What’s confusing?” or “What am I not explaining enough?”. Without clarity around the work, the work can’t get done well. There is literally no one else on the team whose job it is to create this clarity. It’s is solely up to you, as a manager, to make things as clear as possible.
3. Provide context.
Once you’ve made it clear what needs to happen and why, you have to make sure your staff has enough training, historical background, tools, and understanding of the stakeholders to make informed decisions. In other words, they need context. If you don’t give them context, you’re leaving them out to dry. As an employee, there’s nothing more frustrating than being expected to execute on something when you don’t have enough context to execute it well. As a manager, asking the question, “How am I getting in the way?” or “What do you need from me to be successful?” can help you uncover what context you need to give your team so they feel supported.
4. Ensure psychological safety.
Your success as a manager is contingent on how honest people are willing to be with you. Without people shooting you straight as a leader, you won’t be able to course-correct should things start to go wrong. For example, if a project starts to run behind, will someone bring that up proactively to you so you can take immediate action? Or will you only find out about it when the client is furiously emailing you after business hours?
Creating a safe environment for your team to speak up starts with going first and showing vulnerability as a leader. For instance, do you admit when you’re struggling with something as a manager? If so, that will give others permission to admit where they’re struggling too. Or, when an employee points out a mistake, do you thank them for being forthcoming and commend their honesty? If so, you reinforce that you want to hear the truth. Consider how every action you take as a manager is an opportunity to show your team that it’s safe to say what’s on their minds.
5. Ask meaningful questions.
We’re predisposed to believe that leaders must have all the answers in order to do their jobs well. As a whole, our society praises people who have the right answers: We give gold stars and A’s to students in school who have the right answer. We award thousands if not millions of dollars to game show winners who have the right answer.
Our society never seems to reward people who ask the right questions. It’s unfortunate, because I believe asking meaningful questions is a core tenant of what makes a manager good at her job.
When you ask questions as a manager, you do two things: (1) You show you care and have deep interest in learning more about your team. As a result, you foster a sense of psychological safety in the workplace. (2) You give yourself the opportunity to unlock valuable information that you might not have known about before.
As a leader, never forget these benefits of asking questions, and how helpful they can be for you. Not sure what to ask your team? Here are some questions you can start with.
6. Respond within 24 hours.
About five years ago, I was an employee at another company. During that time, my coworker vented to me one day: “I asked our boss if I could take a 3-day vacation this summer…. It’s been several weeks, and I still haven’t heard back from him.” I’ll never forget how livid she was. For her, it was a sign of disrespect for her manager not to respond. Take note of this. Your team’s engagement is directly tied to how responsive you are to their ideas, comments, and requests.
In fact, a recent Gallup study shows how much responsiveness matters. They found that the most engaged employees said that their managers returned calls or messages within 24 hours. Keep this in mind the next time you receive an email with a question from an employee, or a suggestion that an employee mentions to you in-person. Let it disappear into a black hole without any response and it will feel maddening to an employee — whether or not you intend it to be.
7. Let go.
When you’re an individual contributor, you’re used to doing everything yourself. The minute you become a manager, that changes. Your job is to create an environment for others to do their best work — you should not be meddling in other people’s work, yourself. You have to let things go. You can’t be thinking to yourself, “I can do a better job at that”… Stop it. You may not be willing to admit it, but that’s micromanagement. I had a friend who’s a CEO once tell me: “If someone can do your job at least 70% as well as you can, they should do it.” 70% is good enough. Just let go, and let them do it. Doing too much yourself encourages bad habits on your team, bottlenecks your team’s growth, and pisses off team members since they can’t operate freely. You know what it feels like… You’ve probably been micromanaged before, yourself! Don’t commit the same sin.
8. Lead from the front.
If you want your team to do something, set the example for it. If you want people to show up on time, show up to a meeting early yourself. If you want people to share more analytics and data around certain decisions, explain and support your own findings with data. If you want your team to be more proactive in taking on responsibility, actively seek out ways to pitch in and take things off your coworkers’ plate. No one’s going to do anything differently if you don’t do it yourself first.
9. Be consistent.
It might be easy to ask employees to expense only up to a certain dollar-amount during conferences… but then make an exception for a friend on your team and cover more of her expenses when she asks about it. “It’s a one-time exception,” you say to yourself. Bullshit. Acting inconsistently — applying different rules and standards to different team members — sets a dangerous precedent for how you’ll behave in the future. While seemingly harmless, that inconsistency bleeds into other areas, and it will be picked up by someone else on your team sooner or later. Regardless of how long someone’s been at your company or what relationship you have with them, treating employees equitably is important. You want to be a fair, just leader. That only happens by being consistent in how you treat all members of your team, all the time.
10. Build rapport.
People are naturally skeptical of those in power. A recent 2016 study found that one in three employees don’t trust their managers. You don’t want to be a victim of this statistic. To build trust, build rapport. Your team wants to know you as a whole person — not just as a boss. So revealing what you care about, what social causes you support, and what hobbies you enjoy outside of work etc. matters. You’re not making a superficial, desperate plea to be liked — that’s not what I’m talking about here. Rather, the more you can show that you are a real, multifaceted person who they can empathize with and relate to, the stronger your relationship with them will be. And, the more trust they’ll place in you as a leader.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t flawlessly practice each of these 10 things as a leader every day. It’s hard! Just last week, I realized that I should do a better job creating more context for our team, and of letting go. But, in writing these 10 things here, it helps me commit to doing each of them better . Hopefully, it is equally helpful for you.