As a leader, that’s the same question you should ask: “Why would anyone follow me?” It takes courage to step up to lead. But no one will follow if you’re not leading for the right reasons. Talent seeks out other talent. And talented employees want leaders who can open their worlds and make them better. So what kinds of leaders draw and develop the best talent? Generally, they possess many of these qualities:
1) Service Mentality: You hire people to make your job easier. You probably imagine how they’ll free you up to pursue those big picture projects. Sure, your employees are here to serve you. But it runs both ways. To lead talented people, you must focus on serving them. Your job is to level obstacles, to clear a path free of distractions (and excuses). You streamline processes, find resources, and keep the political nonsense at bay. Bottom line: You figure out what holds them back and fix it. By putting their interests front-and-center, you eventually make work easier on yourself too.
2) Juice: Want to know the worst word ever associated with a leader? Gutless. Talent expects their leaders to have clout. No, I’m not talking about those sycophants who go along to get along. They may be savvy and practice good politics, but ultimately no one respects them. And courageous leadership certainly isn’t executing a plan. That takes vision, focus, and stamina, but real courage – guts – means you confront issues, no matter how unpopular it makes you.
That means you don’t look the other way when your superiors adopt shady practices or engage in conflicts-of-interest. You stand up for what’s best for customers, employees, and society, unafraid to put your job on the line. You manage up by championing the important ideas and picking the right battles. You’re deft when the stakes are small and direct when they’re larger. And you’re oh so visible by staying out front. In business, that gives you juice: The credibility that commands attention and compels others, top-to-bottom, to take you seriously.
Talented people are naturally rebellious. To them, popularity is nice; influence is a means; acting honorably is the ideal; and getting things done is the point. And the best people want to work for someone who shares that spirit – and has the juice to turn ideals into business-as-usual.
3) Experience: Everyone has to start somewhere. But gifted people really care about where they want to go. And they’ll choose you if they believe you can get them there. They’ve done their homework. They know you were once a young striver like them. But you made it – and they want to see how it’s done. So take some time to help your people understand the business. Expose them to every part of the operation to round off their skills. Your best people want to climb. Like it or not, this job is temporary to them. Develop and groom them. Give back and make it worth their while. They’ll only perform better if there’s something bigger in it for them.
What’s more, plug them into your network. Help them find new connections and mentors – and you’ll get better solutions faster. Fact is, you’re growing your “tree,” preparing your protégés for greater responsibilities in other divisions (or the larger world).
Alas, jobs and good fortune are temporary. You may someday need your prized pupils for a reference (or a job). Pay it forward now.
4) Personal Attention: You know the drill: Give the new hire a laptop and tell him to go “make it happen.” And it often fails. To become a great leader, you must make your reports’ success into your personal mission. The best leaders are always out talking to their people. They take the time to coach and train, knowing neglect only reinforces bad habits, stagnation, and disengagement. They provide regular feedback on performance, knowing the best people crave candidness and loathe sugarcoating. Most important, these leaders pay attention. They care about their people and stay in touch on a personal level, knowing their inner lives influence their success as much as any guidance. That’s how they know when to push and when to pull back. Bottom line: The best leaders make their reports feel valued – or inspire them do those things that’ll ultimately make them feel better (and make your organization run better).
5) Openness: Want to know what separates the great leaders from good ones? The great ones are always learning – and so are their people. You can’t level off once you get some authority. And that’s one area where true leaders excel. They’re constantly asking questions, insatiably curious and never satisfied. They aren’t wary of people with different backgrounds and greater expertise – They utilize their abilities. And they recognize that change isn’t a threat, so they adapt to it (Even lead it). Most of all, they understand one of the oldest maxims of leadership: The fastest way to lose credibility is to lose touch with what’s happening – and show no interest in catching up.
Talent is always looking for a way to say yes instead of no. So leaders listen. They aren’t afraid of bad news and criticism, even when it reflects poorly on them. They’re open to constructive disagreement and debate, knowing it ultimately leads to possible alternatives. They don’t hold grudges or rub someone’s nose in it when he’s wrong, focusing instead on what was learned and moving forward. In short, real leaders absorb input and take action. Why does that matter? Even when they lose, talent knows their voices were heard and the process was fair. And that keeps them thinking, inventing, and coming forward.
6) Space: You know this all too well: Talent doesn’t color inside the lines. And they quickly tire of taking orders. That’s why top leaders give their people ownership. They don’t stand over them. They get out of the way, turning them loose to explore, test, discover, and interpret. Their role is to ask questions and guide their people towards finding choices. In other words, they give their people space to figure out how to solve issues themselves. That’s how people learn. And that’s how you can prepare your team for more complex and ambiguous issues.
The best leaders operate from trust. They don’t constantly second guess. They understand you can’t control every variable. When mistakes happen, they back their people up instead of sacrificing them. Through their belief and support, they give their most effective people permission to do what they do best: Make things happen. In return, they get their loyalty.
7) Excellence: Great leaders don’t “demand” excellence. That’s already established by the example they set. Put yourself in an employee’s shoes. When you work for a true leader, you know the bar is set high and big things are expected – every day. Your leader is always asking, “Is this the best we can do?” She makes you set goals to keep you focused and out of ruts. She pushes continuous learning to keep you sharp. And she demands results, regardless of precedents, politics, and predicaments.
Sure, you resent the occasional excesses, but you also know that your leader holds everyone accountable for sharing the load. If she plays favorites, it’s strictly on the basis of performance. Most of all, she recognizes limits. She understands that you probably can’t do what she could in her prime. But she also knows that it’s her job to nudge you to that level. That’s why her team – your team – outperforms everyone else. And that’s what it takes for you to do the same year-after-year.
8) Bring Out the Best: Every morning, the best leaders commute to work asking this question: “How am I making my people better?” How can you do that? You start by not pigeonholing your people. When you look at an employee, don’t focus on what he can’t do or what others say about him. Look at he can do – and what he could do. Most times, they’re capabilities that he didn’t realize he had.
You see, the best leaders don’t just hire people for today. They also weigh their potential. They keep their eyes open for personal interests, since that’s where their people will ultimately find their underlying abilities. Knowing that, leaders seek opportunities to help their talent build confidence. Even when their people fall short, they know it takes time, trial, and error before they finally flourish. In short, superior leaders see what others can’t because they look for it. And they push their people to a level they couldn’t envision on their own. And they reap the rewards as a result.
9) Passion: Talented people want to be part of something bigger. They dream of saying, “That’s me. I helped create that.” But they know such big moments are rare. Well, great leaders recognize those moments and capitalize on them. You see, you can’t rev up talent with a rah-rah speech, no matter how much conviction you have. Your people are adults working in the big leagues. They want to know that they’re part of a greater purpose, with leaders who have a vision and a plan for making it a reality. They want to feel essential, to see their ideas and sweat produce something significant. Most important, they want to share in the benefits (and receive some credit). People come-and-go in business, including you. That’s why you must focus on building loyalty to a mission that ultimately outlasts you.
Of course, buy-in – and the passion it produces – requires more than talent knowing where the organization is going and why. It also stems fom the day-to-day. People can only pump themselves up so much. That’s why leadership requires you to bring a contagious enthusiasm. Talent is always looking for positives and progress. And they want to laugh and have fun in the process. But a purpose only brings people together for so long. As a leader, your job is to be the person who reminds everyone why they still work here; why their work is still relevant; and what they (and the larger world) will gain from their continued affiliation. That entails more than delivering a few carefully-calibrated phrases. It means reinforcing your message, with every interaction, in both word and deed. That’s commitment. That’s passion. That’s leadership.
10) Fairness: Ever notice how most ‘boss’ humor involves double standards? From Dilbert to Meeting Boy, we hold leaders to standards that we ourselves cannot meet. Leaders and followers are hypocrites alike. That’s the human condition…and it’s comical and tragic. But true leaders – the ones who inspire loyalty, trust, and excellence – work to hold themselves responsible to the same rules as those they lead. They don’t lead from on high or from behind: They lead by example. And they view their people as equals – and don’t mind getting their hands dirty with them.
Yes, leaders have rules. But they can accept deviations and mistakes, provided they stem from the right intentions. They focus on their own behavior before judging others. And they weigh what’s important and what’s not. That’s how they know what’s truly fair. And that’s how their people know they’re being treated fairly too.
11) Consistency: You never have to wonder with good leaders. You know what to expect. They’re reliable and responsive. They deliver on what they promise. In adversity, they remain composed and focused, so others control their emotions. They don’t point fingers; they gather facts and take action. Bottom Line: They understand that everyone takes their cues from them. And they act in the same way they want their people to react.
You’ll hear experts claim talent, culture, and strategy makes-or-breaks companies. That’s true in the macro sense. In the micro world, success is all about relationships. That starts with trust. And trust is grounded in consistency and character. The best leaders are genuine. You always know where you stand with them. They don’t carry hidden agendas or say one thing to you and something else to another. They boil decisions down to what’s in the best interests of employees and customers, not what’s easiest or most profitable. And they make themselves approachable and available. They recognize that keeping doors open and confidences private supplies them with a resource most leaders sorely lack: Reliable information.
12) Recruiting: Talent is drawn to other talent. And the ability to attract the best people is one way leaders measure themselves. Great leaders are constantly looking for new talent who fit with what they need now…and where they want to go. These days, anyone can attract good people from failing competitors and disrupted industries. Question is, can these leaders keep that talent productive and happy? Have they fostered a culture where talent is developed and valued – or does their pitch belie a sweatshop mentality where people are used up like commodities? Either way, you’ll have turnover. But would you rather be a manager who squeezes people into roles or a leader who grooms talent to become bigger than their roles? Believe it: Word gets out. And when you get results and help people get where they want to go, a funny thing happens. Talent goes on the look out for you.
Jeff Schmitt, Contributor