Successfully starting and running a business requires leadership skills, and each phase of your business will need different abilities to do so effectively. Additionally, markets and society rapidly change, which also requires evolving your leadership approach. Because of this, you can’t afford to stop growing as a leader, or you will find that your competitors, your customers, and your team may soon be following someone else. Changing leaders is becoming more common, as indicated by this study which shows the business CEO turnover rate last year was the highest in 10 years and may go even higher this year.
Real business leadership requires continuous improvement, just like your products and processes. Fortunately, contrary to popular opinion, the evidence is that leadership is not a birthright and can be learned and improved. Most people agree that leadership is primarily a set of behaviors that capitalize on relationships and a current market and customer understanding in a complex world. It’s not about a title, raw intelligence, or domination.
Based on my own experience in large and small businesses, as well as mentoring entrepreneurs, here is my list of behaviors which will keep you ahead of the pack:
- Focus on managing relationships more than tasks. Leaders in new companies who had to do much of the work themselves in the beginning sometimes find it hard to make time for the people who are now critical to their future. Building new relationships, inside and outside the company and nurturing old ones, is a key to long-term leadership and business stability.
- Be the visible role model for accountability and trust. Team members and other constituents carefully watch what you do as well as what you say. If you are too busy to be visible or don’t practice what you preach, their perception of your leadership will diminish. You can’t hold others accountable if you don’t take the high road yourself.
- Spend more time asking questions than dictating answers. Top leaders are always looking to grow by asking probing questions and gathering new insights from a broad range of relationships rather than advocating their own views. They show empathy to constituents around them and encourage followers to step outside their safe zone.
- Practice active listening and give full attention to those present. It’s common for a business owner to have many pressing issues weighing on his or her mind at all times. Because of this, it is easy to tune out of conversations or revert to multi-tasking, which results in diluted leadership. However, this habit hampers your ability to learn from those who likely are most in tune to what’s most important to your venture’s growth. Only your fully-focused attention on new input will keep you at the forefront of your changing business and outside influences.
- Restrain emotions and ego when you hear critical feedback. Resist the urge to be defensive. Instead, focus on learning the “what” and “why” of every opposing point of view. Avoid the appearance of interrogation when questioning disagreements, and use your emotions carefully while making a point or reacting to criticism.
- Take more time to celebrate the success of others. Many new venture owners have trouble disengaging from the escalating demands of their businesses to celebrate the achievements of the people and customers who depend on them. However, when you invest the time to praise others, you become a more attractive leader.
- Work on being a facilitator rather than a driver. The best leader personality for larger organizations is one of providing help and resources, rather than extracting performance. That means placing a priority on coaching and mentoring, as well as training and tools, before focusing on results metrics.
- Eliminate the use of “off-the-record” comments. The world today is much less accepting of off-the-cuff remarks from business leaders. What you might perceive as a casual remark to friends may cause emotional reactions in others that can damage your leadership and business.
- Control your non-verbal cues as well as your words. Such signals include body language, tone, inflection, and other elements of voice, dress, and association. Practice the positive body language of eye contact, smiling, and confidence rather than contempt, disgust, or anger.
Recognizing and practicing these behaviors doesn’t require any super-human skills, but does require continuous effort and focus. Not sure how to learn these new behaviors? Acquire a mentor who practices the techniques we’ve outlined in this article. Also, begin listening to the trusted voices around you. Soon, you’ll be well on your way to being a long-term leader.