You can’t judge a great leader by their salary, or how many years of experience they have under their belt — that’s only part of the picture and not even a telling one at that. If you want to identify a great leader, look no farther than their team.
Assuming the responsibility of developing internal talent is what typifies the bad from the good; the good from the great. All leaders understand the importance of attracting top talent, but what you do with that talent once they’re officially on your company’s payroll is what truly matters.
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Are employees being nurtured into leadership positions? Or, for those not interested in titled positions per se, are they being supported in forging their own path within the company? If not, that’s troubling, for both the workplace and its leaders.
Leadership isn’t just a title
Acquiring and retaining top talent is not just good for morale and for the company’s bottom line, it should be enmeshed in the business strategy. This is where leaders often run into problems. They believe that employee happiness — and, therefore, retention — is tied into gimmicky perks like company-wide happy hours or free office snacks, but it’s not. Employees want job security, health insurance, and unlimited vacation. Additionally, they want professional development, and this progress is your responsibility.
Leaders who don’t see the value in meaningful growth don’t run people-first companies. They see their title as a status symbol and turn their focus inwards, rather than viewing their role as an ongoing responsibility to their team. When this happens, employees become stepping stones to notoriety when they should, in fact, be part of the success.
Mike Myatt, the author of Leadership Matters, says that entrepreneurs shouldn’t be “in the business of creating followers, but of developing leaders.” It should always be people over process because, when it’s not, “we’ll continue to find ourselves in a crisis of leadership.”
How you approach this development is entirely up to you. Praise your employees’ achievements individually and office-wide, offer generous perks like flexible schedules, or, like Richard Branson, just simply show your employees you’re listening to them by writing their feedback down. These may sound inconsequential, but the impact they have is powerful — Branson even credits a people-first approach to his billion-dollar career.
When people come first, so should culture
Employees, not customers, should come first. This may sound backward to some leaders, but the way you treat your team directly impacts the customer experience. When you put them first, they’ll be happier and more engaged, which translates into more satisfied (and loyal) clients.
Whether you’re a startup or accomplished entrepreneur, I believe that it’s always a good idea to begin the way you mean to go on. What I mean by this is that you should work out the nuances of your company culture from the very beginning — as early on as when you’re deciding on your company name and brand. The emphasis on culture should be built into your values, your mission, your everything.
Part of developing your talent is realizing that leadership isn’t a hierarchy. Yes, roles and responsibilities vary, but important decisions don’t just happen at the top. Encourage employees to take ownership of the company, and support them in doing it. This means developing managers and seniors, but also developing leaders who don’t necessarily hold traditional leadership titles — taking the lead on a project counts as leadership, too.
A culture of leadership is collaborative and open, where involvement drips down to even the “lowest” positions within the company.
Support progress and grit
Creating great leaders takes more than just vision, it also requires actionable steps. You can build it into your values and company culture, but that means nothing without training, internal and external development opportunities, and your guidance. Passive leaders don’t create great leaders. Hold your employees accountable in meeting your high standards by challenging them to push themselves.
Yet, it can’t just stop there, you must also support their progress. Being a great leader means being tough, but protective. Sarah Robb O’Hagan, the author of Extreme You, says that leaders must “push hard, but support harder.” And as employees begin to take ownership of their talents under your guidance, it’s important that you also recognize when it’s time to step aside and nurture more independence from them.
Gradually, they will gain more confidence and, once they know they have your trust, can begin taking on more leadership responsibilities. They should believe, not just hear, that they are experts in their role.
Be transparent about your own development
When you model great leadership, you can expect your team to do the same — even though it should go without saying that everyone will come into their own leadership styles, and that’s okay. But in being a role model, however, we must remember that it’s not demonstrating that we’re experts because we’re “the best.” Instead, it’s about showing employees that even we are still learning.
Powerful leaders aren’t esteemed by a know-it-all attitude. Rather, a powerful leader is one who admits they are still learning every single day. Be transparent about your own development as you discuss goals and growth with your employees. Leadership is never something you can “get” and then that’s it — it’s a practice you will continuously adapt and evolve.
Unsurprisingly, when we’re focused on the development of our employees, it will, in turn, strengthen our own leadership approach.
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