Leadership skills that matter – and how to master them

Leadership is, without a doubt, one of the key factors for success in any business. You can have brilliant strategies, clear goals, useful tools and productive tasks in place but without an effective leader motivating and supporting the team, they won't mean as much.

So, what exactly does it means to be an effective leader and how can you develop the skills to support, grow, and motivate a team to deliver the business results you want?

What makes someone a leader?

We've all heard someone be described as a 'natural leader' - inclined to be supportive, inspiring and encouraging. It's tempting to think you're either born a leader or you're not, but Professor Richard Hall, who teaches and develops leadership programs at Monash Business School doesn't believe that's the case. He says that while some people have a predisposition to certain personality traits and characteristics which might make it easier for them to move into a leadership role, a truly effective leader is largely made, through lessons and actions.

"We all have the capacity to learn and develop effective leadership behaviours," he says. "There's training and development you can undertake to be a better leader, but being mindful of the lessons you learn through the experience of doing it is probably one of the most valuable things."

Hall says the common characteristics of a great leader include conscientiousness, connection and the desire to 'do good' for others. "Genuine concern for others is often the single most important factor," he says.

"People who are able to build connections by being able to relate to others are thought to be more effective leaders."

What style of leader are you?

While you may have heard of different leadership methodologies (such as collaborative, facilitative, democratic, authoritative, coaching or strategic), Hall says that "there isn't a shopping list of leadership styles you can pick and choose from."

He says that leadership models are useful for self-reflection - what you are doing and not doing - but when it comes to developing your own skills, you're better to focus on coaching and supporting your team and being willing to change depending on their needs.

"Leadership is always so contextual," he explains, which is especially relevant for small business where there are a limited number of employees, fewer established processes and rules and possibly even less structure. This means understanding the environment you're in and being willing to shift and change things to suit. For example, if there are two of you in a small business, your leadership responsibilities may differ compared to if there were fifteen other team members.

Great leadership is an acquired skill.

Great leadership is an acquired skill.

How do you become a better leader?

Hall believes that one of the common dangers small business owners face when they take on a leadership role is becoming a micro manager.

"They are accustomed to doing everything themselves and having a high degree of autonomy. As the team grows and builds they still want to be doing everything [and] you can't do everything by yourself." Hall warns that micro management - not being able to let go and allow a team member to do something by themselves - is one of the key reasons people quit their jobs.

As your business grows and your role within it changes, it's important you recognise that you have an executive position now. Hall advises keeping in check by asking yourself, "Are you working in the business, or are you working on the business?" This is because the job of a leader is to primarily work on the business. "You need to understand the strategic goals of the business, but most importantly, you need to ensure they are really clearly communicated to your people."

Being able to lead by example is an incredibly effective way to demonstrate the behaviour you want and value. "Modelling behaviour is always better than directing," Hall says.

Support your team - and then get out of their way and allow them to deliver.

Support your team - and then get out of their way and allow them to deliver.

Why focusing on your team makes you a better leader

Hall says that how you relate to, motivate and empower your team is vital to being a strong leader. He refers to the business concept shared by Peters and Waterman that outlines "loose-tight properties, where you concentrate on shared values and goals as a business, but allow your team huge scope to deliver on them.

"Whenever you are asked by a team member, 'How should I do something?' the first thing you should be saying is, 'How do you think you should be doing it?'" Hall suggests. "This will get them to clarify their own solutions and the implications."

Your team should feel as though they can come to you in the role of a coach - you ask the right questions ("have you considered this, what if this happens, what about that?"), you're supportive, you give them what they need, but then you get out of the way and let them do the job.

"That will build much greater commitment and motivation," says Hall, adding, "you hired them because they know what they're doing!" Check in along the way, measure the outcomes and offer feedback but ultimately, let your team deliver.

Use feedback to help you understand how your leadership style is actually being received and be completely open to changing if it will deliver better results.

Use feedback to help you understand how your leadership style is actually being received and be completely open to changing if it will deliver better results.

Valuing feedback for growth and results

Hall says you should be completely open and encouraging of feedback in order to grow as a leader. "If the evidence, data and feedback show that something isn't working, then you as leader need to demonstrate that you're open to that and be willing to change," he says.

Consider how open you are when people come to you with issues, concerns or general thoughts. You don't always have to act on or agree with the feedback, but you should be open to it, so you create a constructive, collaborative atmosphere. "You want an environment where feedback doesn't only come when problems arise," he explains. "Ask yourself, am I having honest conversations with my people?'"

Hall suggests using a 360 appraisal process for yourself, to get a true and accurate insight into how your actions are landing. "If you're aware of that, you'll be able to understand your team and how they work a lot better." Even if your team is small and you don't want to do a formal feedback structure, you should openly discuss how you can be a better leader for them.

"At the very least, you should meet with your employees individually four times a year, simply on the basis of how you can be a better leader for them - what they need more or less of," says Hall. He also says that one of the most powerful tools you have a leader to build performance in your team is to provide recognition.

"You will get more motivated and sustainable performance from people if you give them permission and support to deliver on the goals you set, [then] provide valuable, meaningful feedback and recognition," concludes Hall. Great leadership, in a nutshell.

Professor Richard Hall's recommended reading:

1. Changing on the Job by Jennifer Garvey-Berger "This focuses on yourself as a leader and how you are developing and helping others grow."

2. What Got You Here, Won't Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith "There's really useful information about ways you can develop an executive mindset."

3. Yes to the Mess by Frank Barrett "A fabulous and rather surprising book about leadership."

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