Recently, I spoke to a group of talented executives who’d been, like old battleships, scuttled before their time. Unsure how to navigate a transformed job market, these execs are moving cautiously forward, one maybe-step at a time, into a business world they barely recognize.
I like CEOs. I’ve been working with them for 25 years. But at a certain level, they tend to spend too much time with each other, often far behind the front lines of business. Social media? Net Promoter Scores? Employee engagement? These are just some of the new pillars of growth, but too many veteran CEOs depend on consultants to understand and exploit them.
Asked to provide some inspiration to these veterans, I framed my remarks around the notion that nothing in business has changed as fast in the past 20 years as effective CEO leadership. Command-and-control hierarchies are largely being outplayed by flatter and more co-dependent leadership styles premised on the conviction that management no longer knows much more than anyone else, and that growth flows from harnessing the creativity and commitment of everyone in the organization.
Based on the companies I’ve studied and the entrepreneurs I’ve known, here are my seven key leadership traits for business today. As a PROFIT reader, you possess most of these already. But just to be sure, check with your management team—and maybe the folks in the lunchroom, too.
1. Judgment/common sense: Not as common as we would like to think. In big business, you don’t need common sense—you have well paid management committees to keep you within a few percentage points of consensus. But many smaller businesses are controlled by dominant CEOs with few near-peers to challenge them. That’s why good judgment is a must. When augmented by the ability to ask good questions and listen well, common sense can’t be beat.
2. Bias for action: Great businesses get it done. Understand customer needs, design something great, hurry products into the field, fail fast. Analyze your mistakes, field-test with clients and then do it again. Continuous action keeps competitors off balance and customers delighted with your commitment to innovation.
3. Smart delegation: Running a successful firm is an exercise in continually letting go. But this is far easier said than done. Delegation demands confidence and trust in others. It requires you to spend more time with your reports at first, to ensure they understand what the job is. Delegation compels you to accept that other people do things differently. It also requires you to monitor your delegate’s progress and offer pointed, practical, positive feedback. But once you get it right, the result is golden. You get to do the stuff you’re best at, while other people do the heavy lifting you never much liked to do anyway.
4. Storytelling: This is how business is done now. Today’s best leaders have stories for every situation: where the organization is going, how we’ll get there together, how our products solve customers’ problems and why the future looks so bright. Mere longevity doesn’t make you a preferred supplier; it’s the stories you tell and the promises you keep.
Great leaders also nurture a storytelling culture, because we all learn the most and understand best through stories.
5. Competitiveness: Leaders have to want to win. You have to be passionate about winning, and make it a shared goal. Competition creates adrenaline, fuels employees’ passions and attracts “A” players. Like pro athletes, your team also can give 110%. Competition-based objectives and stretch goals make work more fun, exciting and rewarding. Great leaders inculcate competitive fire throughout their organization, establish metrics to monitor success, offer rewards for big wins and supply the coaching needed to help employees get better at what they do—and love it.
6. Cultural awareness: Entrepreneurial leaders are increasingly recognizing that companies with great culture—morale, motivation and purpose—can outcompete bigger companies with established products and greater resources. More and more entrepreneurs are realizing their principal job is to build a culture of shared values, purpose, positivity and caring. These cultures don’t happen by chance; you create them piece by piece, modelling the behaviours you want, hiring for values, continuously promoting the behaviours you expect and ejecting those who don’t fit.
7. Opportunism: Many business leaders are experts in risk avoidance—they know they’ll be safe if they stick to the tried-and-tired. Growth entrepreneurs know the best security is innovation: new products, processes and services chasing new customers. And great leaders see opportunity everywhere: fixing problems caused by competitors’ products, pursuing emerging niche markets, moving into add-on and adjacent opportunities.
These leaders can’t imagine not chasing these deals. They analyze the opportunity, check it against their own capabilities and jump in, feet first. Without shareholders peering over their shoulder or executive rivals waiting for them to stumble, effective leaders are free to weigh the risks and rewards—understanding that, today, the greatest gamble is standing pat.
Rick Spence is the Toronto-based author of the Canadian Entrepreneur blog and a consultant on marketing, strategy and business growth. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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