What makes a good leader?

I thought long and hard about this post – many miles rode on the bike and many laps of the swimming pool. I felt inspired by memories of Churchill speech anniversaries and somewhat conversely, the many digital column inches in the IT press dedicated to the HP/Mark Hurd saga. It got me thinking, what makes a good leader? I’ve also become unashamedly addicated to Undercover Boss on Channel 4!

It’s true that if you ask 100 people that question, you’re sure to get 100 different answers, because every employee or group member responds to a different personal stimulus. Some people are “kick up the backside” people, and some are “arm around the shoulder” people. Of course there are all kinds of subtle shades of grey in between. That said, you’ll probably find a number of places where a wish list of leader’s personal attributes overlap between one person and another.

I’ve worked for all kinds of leaders so far in my career. Some were hands off, some were hands on. Some were calm and collected, others edgy and moody. Some were great communicators, others you literally didn’t see for weeks on end. I personally prefer the “hands off” approach, because I’ve enough self motivation and discipline to get on with it, but others prefer to be pushed. Let’s take a look at some of the things I’ve observed in my career so far…

“My door is always open”

This is a corporate favourite. The CEO or other C-Level executive tries to connect to the wider workforce by giving the impression that their office door is always open for employees to come in and express their views on how things can be improved for the greater good. This can and does work well in smaller companies, say 70 or less. A company of this size is still small enough to be relatively personal, and generally you find most employees know everyone in the company, so this can work.

However, in larger companies, my experience tells me that this can be potentially divisive. In organisations upward of 500+ people, there are teams, organisational divisions, layers of middle management that can vary in depth. The point here is that a low ranking member of the workforce strolling straight into the CEO’s office with some blunt recommendations for improvement (or to voice concern over some middle management decisions) can mean that already the chain of command has been circumvented. The next thing the middle manager knows, he’s in the CEO’s office being grilled as to why productivity or quality levels are falling, or personal relationships have become strained.

By “leaving the door open”, the CEO has created  a perfect storm of giving an unhappy employee a direct route to the top and cutting out the very structure that’s put there to ensure issues are dealt with quickly, quietly and informally. If you’re going to use this ideal, be careful how you use it, and don’t create additional problems when you’re trying to nip them in the bud.

Go back to the shop floor once in a while

If there’s one thing leaders can be guilty of, it’s that they can end up being enclosed in a management bubble. That’s usually through no fault of their own, but they tend to look at the much larger picture. How do we fit into the market? How is the quality of our product or service? Is our marketing message getting through? How can we reduce costs and improve cash flow?

By going back to the shop floor, CEO’s can gain immediate respect from their employees because they roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty and see what the daily issues are. I’ve always said that a company’s #1 asset is it’s employees, but it’s unfortunate that sometimes organisations see their employees more as a hindrance than the engine that drives a company. Undercover Boss has shown me that workers at the “coal face” generally have great pride in their work and have pride in the brand they’re representing. They often go over and above the call of duty for the customer by working longer unpaid hours, performing additional tasks to make the customer happy and generally developing personal trusted relationships with the customer. Latterly, this removes the layer of “us and them” and the customer sees the supplier as a friend and not someone to be treated at a distance.

I remember several years ago, my head of section promised to spend time on the shop floor, just to see first hand what happened at each site on a daily basis. This would remove him from his bubble, promote positivity within site staff and also mean that he could speak to customers face to face and find out what they liked and didn’t like about what we did and how we did it. I noticed several interesting things from this commitment:-

– Site manager’s initial reactions were one of scorn. “He’ll never do that”, “he doesn’t have a clue what we’re faced with” etc

– The section head was visibily nervous at the prospect and did not inspire confidence he would follow through on the commitment

– He gave off the impression (to me at least) that his “bubble” provided a security blanket he could not live without

– He did not provide firm dates for visiting sites, did not interface with site managers on what his tasks would be and did not outline mechanisms for how he would feed back what he saw

From the above, we can learn a few key points:-

– Make the commitment to work on the shop floor, wherever that might be (even if the site is not a commutable distance)

– Provide firm dates on when you’re going to go (preferably within the next quarter, not “sometime early next year” etc.)

– Ensure the time period on the shop floor is sufficient to see many different customer/employee scenarios (ie. a week, not one or two days)

– Notify site/middle managers of your intention to feed back your observations at the earliest available opportunity, detailing the framework you’ll be using to do this (one to ones with managers, larger meeting of all managers, written reports and feedback of wider issues up the management chain to the board, if appropriate)

– Don’t be afraid to criticise failings if you can do it constructively – no-one wants to hear negative comments, but if the ultimate goal is improvement, employees will buy into the process very quickly

– Provide praise where appropriate too – you will find stories of individual excellence where you least suspect it

– Keep an open mind, without this, the whole process is a waste of everyone’s time

– Rewards need not be massively financial, think about structured training plans using in house resources or give someone a job title that reflects better their experience, skills and responsibilities

– More often than not, organisational or operational tweaks are more appropriate than wholesale changes to make improvements

In my particular example, this section head (to the best of my knowledge) never did follow through on his commitment.I’d like to think that had he done so, it would have been a rewarding experience for all concerned and we would have made organisational changes that would have benefitted all.

“Communication breakdown..it’s always the same….”

Ah, communication. Often talked about, often stressed as vital, often missed completely. But then again, communication is a very expansive term, can we distill it down to make better sense?

We often think of communication within an organisation as flowing from the top down, from the board to the coal face and on things such as “how is the business doing”, “changes we are making”, “why the CEO has a new BMW”. OK, maybe the last point is erroneous,  but think about it, is that what an employee on the shop floor is likely to be thinking about you? Do they feel disenfranchised?

The above example is a common mistake in business. While it is vital to have an information flow from the top down on such matters on how well the organisation is performing, future plans and more, it’s equally important to ensure the flow of information is bi-directional, not uni-directional. How can management improve services without feedback from the delivery mechanism? Some of this refers back to my initial point of “my door is always open”. In a large organisation, ensure your workforce has an up to date organisational chart, so they know exactly who they are responsible to. Middle management is there for a reason, make sure you use it. Otherwise, it becomes needless bloat that reduces efficiency. Should structure changes be made, new divisions or teams created,  make sure the organisational chart reflects this. This way, an employee on the shop floor knows exactly who they should be speaking to.

One company I worked for had a quarterly “all hands” meeting, where all staff came to the head office for presentations from each section head and also from the CEO. I think this worked very well, and for those not present because of holiday or customer commitments, the session was recorded and made available for playback on the corporate intranet. This idea is brilliant and should be used where possible, because:-

– It is regular, and employees know exactly where and when the event will occur

– It is permanent. Even if it’s been a slow quarter, there’s always something to talk about

– Every department knows what the other departments are doing. Sometimes cross-pollination of skills and ideas can occur in an organic way

– It provides employees with an identity of who they are within the company as the engine that drives the business and if their department has had notable success that quarter, the whole business gets to hear about it personally and the section head and CEO can provide praise to those who deserve it – always a massive morale booster

However, on the other hand, there can be pitfalls:-

– Don’t regularly concentrate on particular departments for praise, this can lead to instant divisions (i.e. “This has been our best Sales quarter ever, aren’t Sales great?”)

– Remember the unsung heroes, without whom the organisation would not function. More often than not, these are the internal, unglamourous departments the customer rarely sees, such as the stores department, payroll, development etc.

As well as quarterly “all hands” meetings, it can often be useful to provide something more regular, such as a monthly e-mail or newsletter or a blog from the board that’s updated on a regular  basis. If you’re going to commit to something like this, make sure you do it regularly and you keep it up – employees will come to rely on it.

Remember the small things make a difference!

Whilst company barbeques and white water rafting expeditions are nice, it’s often the small things that make a bigger difference to your employees. To keep them motivated, reward such things like attendance with an £20 Amazon gift voucher (it needn’t cost the earth). Have an “Employee of the Month” scheme where excellence is rewarded and publicised, even if it’s an “internal” employee that customers never see.

Employees often react well to regular performance reviews – if all targets are met over a quarter, why not reward them with some personal improvement time? Or even an extra day’s holiday? Be creative – often the small things make the biggest difference.

Hopefully in my next blog, I can provide some thoughts on middle management and what techniques can make you a better leader. But for now, this blog entry has been by some distance my biggest ever. Please leave any and all feedback, I’d be interested to hear the experiences of others.


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