Leadership highs and lows - 8 ways to become a better leader
The following article is by Emma Neary (Head of Talent Acquisition & Employer Brand at Moneysupermarket), an Employer Branding College Graduate and member of the Global Alumni.
Over the years I’ve attended several leadership courses and read many articles on the subject, but none of this has matched what I’ve learnt during my time as a leader. Throughout my career I’ve also experienced different leaders with varying styles and their impact on me has been lasting.
It’s taken me until now to really understand this and I often reflect on what I’ve experienced. I’m fortunate to know the impact that good leadership can have but also the damage that poor leadership can cause and it’s only now with a fair few years under my belt that I feel in a position to share what I've learnt.
1. Seize every opportunity to learn
I’m still learning - as a leader and as a talent acquisition and employer branding professional. I read articles, attend webinars and events, and try and share that knowledge with my team. Last year I completed a certification in Employer Brand Leadership which took several months and a huge amount of effort whilst juggling work and being mum to a 5 year old.
If you expect your team to continue to learn and develop, you should expect the same from yourself. It doesn’t matter how high up the ladder you are, complacency doesn’t have a place in the mindset of a leader. You can always learn something and perhaps where you might not expect. I’m not embarrassed to say that I’ve learnt a lot from the people I’ve managed and worked with over the years and I wouldn’t be who I am today without them.
2. Cut yourself some slack
I cringe at some of the mistakes I’ve made and my default is to beat myself up about it. That stomach churning feeling and reliving the situation would really knock my confidence. I still make mistakes but I’ve learnt to reflect, take a step back and focus on what I’d do differently next time. Where an apology is needed, I make one, and where help is needed, I ask for it.
3. Invest time getting to know your team
Listen, understand, empathise. You can’t lead effectively if you don’t know each person in your team. What makes them tick? What are they interested in? What do they excel at? Are they introverted or extroverted? Do they lack confidence? Are they having any challenges outside of work? Are they self-aware?
My current team is based across three separate locations so we don’t get to meet up too much. Whilst we’d all try to get together every couple of months or so and spend some non work time together pre lockdown, the current pandemic has taught me the importance of making time for us all to connect. In fact, we all agree that we’re closer than ever despite only having communicated via video calls since March.
Having a shared experience of lockdown has helped us have something in common to discuss but we’ve also spent time being curious getting to know each other more. Instead of being “too busy” to make our informal team calls, we now all make them a priority and the benefits are clear to see in how we work together.
4. Create opportunity for others
This is one of the hardest things to do when the pressure is on, but this is part of your role – to coach and develop others. I’ve held on to things in the past, worried about delegating when things have needed to be done quickly. That left me over stretched and my team missed out on opportunities to learn. In recent years I’ve become much better at this and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how people have stepped up and the results they’ve delivered. I’ve felt proud of their achievements and enjoyed seeing them happy to be trusted and gaining more experience and skills along the way.
I’ve had my own experience of this too, being stifled with the limitations of command and control managers to thriving working for open and supportive managers who trusted me to do my job. Working with these managers, I was so much more engaged, learnt so much more and delivered so much more.
5. Provide clarity and be inclusive
As a leader, you often plan and work through things for weeks. No doubt you’ve sat as part of a leadership team, discussing things at length, taking time for everyone to be aligned and everything to be fully understood. What tends to happen is this change can be landed on unsuspecting colleagues without taking them on that same journey which causes confusion, frustration and disengagement.
I once worked at a company where the leadership team had been working with external consultants on the people strategy for the year. This was thrust upon the rest of the People team along with whole new language to get used to. It was hard to keep up and made it difficult for us to be on the same page and do our jobs well.
The funny thing is that when I moved to my next company the whole People team was invited to an offsite with one of these very same consultants. It was an enlightening session. I heard the exact same phrases and language that the leadership in my last company had suddenly started using and this time I was given the context and taken on the journey. Suddenly it made sense!
6. Create a feedback culture
I realised a little later than I would have liked about the impact of opening up two way feedback with your team. Proactively seeking feedback from others and genuinely listening to their input, whether it’s about a piece of work or your own impact on them as a manager, is invaluable. If someone doesn’t share feedback with you, how can you improve?
It’s important to set it up properly though by explaining the type of relationship around feedback that you would like. It’s not easy for anyone to give feedback especially if it’s to someone who is in a more senior position. It’s also not easy to hear feedback that you might initially perceive as negative. You may have a few false starts but get it right and you’ll see better engagement and a closer team whose perspectives are appreciated and listened to.
7. Pause, re-energise and celebrate
When you’re flat out with a million things to tackle, it can be hard to remember to celebrate. It’s easy to box things away and then move straight on to the next thing. If I’m honest I’m still not great with this. I’ve recently started keeping track of what we’ve delivered each month and it’s an eye opener and we need to spend more time recognising our team and individual achievements.
8. Never forget the impact you have on others
I’m ending on this one. Not because I think it’s the least important lesson but arguably the most important. As a leader I consider myself to be in a privileged position and one which comes with significant responsibility.
Unfortunately I’ve seen leaders who might be going through a tough time and they take it out on others. This can be particularly damaging when someone has put a lot of effort into something and the effect of a senior leader being abrasive or not willing to listen can be hugely damaging.
We often speak to our teams about planning for a meeting and how to engage their stakeholders. Well, how about as leaders we’re mindful of the colleagues who we engage with who are trying to do a good job, who give their best, and who are still learning. We're here to inspire, develop others and help them thrive.
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