Lessons in leadership, part 2: Building a team

Leaders must ensure the success of their organization within volatile markets while simultaneously attempting to meet employees' demands and make their organizations great places to work. Part II of "Lessons in leadership" includes facts, insights and tips that can serve as a guide for leaders as they engage and collaborate with employees. 

On engagement

1. Managers account for at least 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units, according to Gallup. Only 30 percent of U.S. workers are engaged at work. Of the other 70 percent, 52 percent are not engaged and 18 percent are actively disengaged. According to Gallup, the disengaged are more emotionally disconnected from their organizations. They could be less productive and are more likely to steal from their companies, negatively influence their coworkers, be absent and drive away customers, according to the report.

2. Disengagement is often the symptom of subpar leadership, but there are several actions and behaviors leaders can adopt to improve their employees' engagement.

  • Show employees how they can achieve their goals. Someone who doesn't have clear goals will find it difficult to be engaged in their daily tasks, which can amount to poor performance. However, setting goals shouldn't be the employees' responsibility alone. Leaders who take an active role in helping craft their employees' goals have the best chance of improving engagement. 
  • Personify the organization's vision. An organization's vision statement should "inspire, motivate and align employees toward a common goal." It should include goals for both the short- and long-term, as well as how the organization aims to achieve them. Leaders who serve as an example of the vision inspire employees to follow it, which is much more effective than simply directing them to follow it.
  • Be transparent. It is important for employees to see and understand the challenges and opportunities their organizations face to ensure their goals and work are on the right path. Additionally, when employees can see how their individual work contributes to the overall success of the company, they will be more motivated.

3. Even though 86 percent of workers reported being "very happy" or "somewhat happy" at their jobs, 53 percent of workers feel burned out at work, according to a survey by Staples Advantage. Burnout can have a severe impact on employees' engagement. Here are four tips for leaders to help relieve or prevent burnout.

  • Eliminate excessive time demands. Don't give employees more work than they can handle during paid hours — people who take their work home do not have time to recharge and refresh.
  • Offer more flexibility. Leaders who allow their employees to construct their own working arrangements — such as when and where they complete their work — will more effectively avoid conflicts with other responsibilities.
  • Waste less of workers' time. Ensure meetings are as focused and concise as possible, and only include necessary recipients on emails. Over one-third of Staples' survey participants say they experience email overload.
  • Make work less exhausting. Encourage employees to moderate the pace of their work and take occasional breaks.

On culture

4. Job-seekers are leveraging more bargaining power now that the economy has turned around, and company culture is one of the most important factors prospective employees consider during the recruitment process, according to Forbes.

5. "Culture" was the most popular word of 2014, according to Merriam Webster. Many organizations define culture as what people do when no one is watching. Josh Bersin, a principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte and Forbes contributor, defines culture as the set of behaviors, values, artifacts, reward systems and rituals that make up an organization. "You can 'feel' culture when you visit a company, because it is often evident in people's behavior, enthusiasm and the space itself," he said.

6. Companies can identify how to improve their corporate culture by asking the following questions.

  • Do we have the right leaders? Culture is driven by the way leaders behave and display their values. According to Mr. Bersin's analysis of the Glassdoor database, the factor most correlated with an individual's recommendation of their company as a place to work was "quality and trust in leadership."
  • Are we hiring the right candidates? Once culture is established, it is important to hire candidates who will fit in. Even if a candidate possesses the right skills and experience, he or she may not be successful at a company if he or she won't be compatible with the company's culture.
  • Does our performance evaluation system drive empowerment? Many companies are moving away from "forced ranking" and "up or out" systems of performance evaluation, as these can induce anxiety and pressure on employees, which can be a significant detriment to both their attitudes and work performance. 
  • Are our values and culture too complex? "If you can't write down your values and culture down in a few words, it's probably too complex to understand," said Mr. Bersin. Many companies have realized this and have taken steps toward "simplifying" their companies.

7. The majority of global executives — 81 percent — believe external CEO engagement is now a mandate for building company reputation, and 45 percent of survey respondents believe their CEO's reputation contributes to nearly half of their company's reputation, according to Weber Shandwick and KRC Research's recent executive study called The CEO Reputation Premium: Gaining Advantage in the Engagement Era. Forty-four percent believe CEO reputation influences the company's market value.

8. According to the study, the most highly regarded CEOs have a clear vision for the company, inspire and motivate others, are honest and ethical, are good communicators internally and externally, focus on customers, have a global business outlook and are decisive. Notably, humble CEOs are perceived as better communicators. For example, executives rated humble CEOs nearly 20 percent better in internal and external communication than average CEOs, 28 percent more open and accessible and 12 percent more comfortable talking to the news and media.

9. A strong corporate culture depends on trust. Here are 10 things for leaders to consider in building an organization on a foundation of trust.

  • Follow through on what you say you will do.
  • Demonstrate reliability through consistent performance over time.
  • Model your company's behavior after people you admire.
  • Look for good values and good hearts in the people you hire.
  • Stay true to your values, even during arduous times.
  • Trust others to give you honest feedback and ideas when you don't have the answer.
  • Be an effective change manager.
  • Consider developing a code of ethics.
  • Do not overpromise, lie or spin the truth, deliver a difficult message poorly or engage in a personal conflict.
  • Be transparent in your actions and communicate openly.

10. Transparency is an important element of a healthy culture. In addition to its importance to establishing a foundation of trust, leaders are transparent because of its link to accountability, collaboration, knowledge sharing, innovation and productivity among employees. However, too much organizational openness has the potential to undermine these things, according to an article by Ethan Bernstein, PhD, in The Wall Street Journal.

11. To achieve the balance between smart transparency and privacy, consider the following suggestions from Dr. Bernstein.

  • Maintain an "open door" office policy — sometimes. Some organizations have created open offices and taken down walls and doors with the hope of producing more "random collisions" and collaboration among employees. However, too much openness can be distracting and reduce productivity.
  • Monitor information constructively. More transparency means workers — executives and staff — are held more accountable for their individual work. According to Dr. Bernstein, transparency of individuals' contributions can lead to anxiety that the information will be used against them in performance reviews, instead of openly disclosing errors for learning and development. 
  • Performance requires private practice. "With total transparency, everything is a performance. But in the workplace, depriving employees of private practice spaces can substantially undermine performance," according to Dr. Bernstein. While transparency is good sometimes, it isn't effective all of the time because employees are often less productive and innovative if they know they are always being observed.

On competition in the workplace

12. Although we are generally conditioned to regard competition as a source of motivation, it easily distorts the social relations that increase collaboration, productivity and profitability. Margaret Heffernan, an entrepreneur, former CEO of five companies and author, said in a TED Talk that a culture of helpfulness routinely outperforms individual intelligence.

13. According to a research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the groups of people most successful at solving very difficult problems were not those with one or two members with extraordinarily high IQs, or even groups with the highest aggregate IQ. The most successful groups were those that showed the highest degree of social sensitivity to one another. More specifically, these teams had high scores on empathy tests, were mostly women (which could be a doubling down on the empathy factor, as women typically score higher on these tests) and gave each member of the group equal time to talk so not one voice dominated, according to Ms. Heffernan. The key to success in this experiment was social connectedness.

14. In addition  to reducing competition among employees, the reliance and interdependency that builds trust. Social capital is what gives organizations momentum and makes them robust. To grow social capital, one must invest time. Teams that work together longer are more successful. The trust and relationships required for real candor and openness develop over time, not overnight. When one company decided to synchronize office coffee breaks so people could have time to talk to each other, profits increased by $15 million and employee satisfaction went up 10 percent, according to Ms. Heffernan.

15. In some cases, team members may develop an unhealthy sense of competition against one another, even if the leadership does not encourage this. To remedy this, leaders can use the following three tactics to help team members see the value in collaboration and a "team mindset."

Model the "team mindset" behavior you're hoping to inspire. Leaders can demonstrate curiosity and interest in those they work with by asking them questions, responding thoughtfully and showing they value others' input and ideas.

Assign value on successful teaming and reward it more than individual performance. A little competition not always a bad thing, but rewarding individual performance too often can result in a zero-sum game, in which one employee's success depends on another's failure. By doing so, team members may channel their competitive energy into a desire to outperform other organizations in the industry. Instead, show employees there will be a bigger payoff if they work together.

Frame the challenge ahead as something in need of diverse perspectives and skills. Help each employee see the unique talents, knowledge and expertise that he or she brings to the table. Show your team that success can be greater when people work together for the sake of a larger prize.

On communication

16. One of the most important qualities in a leader? The ability to communicate effectively and efficiently. This includes one-on-one settings, as well as delivering information and ideas to employees across the organization. Although many people believe public speaking and communication skills are innate, Darren Hardy, an entrepreneur, public speaker and publisher of SUCCESS magazine, insists these skills are largely cultivated through practice.

17. Mr. Hardy told Forbes, "My belief is that for any leader or influencer of any consequence, the number one trait that is necessary to succeed is their ability to speak, to communicate. If you cannot speak and communicate effectively — for instance, in staff meetings, funding pitches and recruitment — leaders will find it much more difficult to achieve their goals." Mr. Hardy uses strong body language, humor and thought-provoking questions to engage the audience and deliver messages effectively. These skills can be cultivated through practice, as refining public speaking skills is a process of trial and error.

18. In addition to public speaking and general communication skills, asking questions fearlessly is an important trait of effective leaders. As markets across all industries continue to undergo rapid change, issues become increasingly complex — even the most qualified leaders can't possibly possess all of the experience, knowledge and strategies to solve every problem on his or her own. Instead of seeking to always provide an answer, the most effective leaders recognize the power of asking questions.

According to Sanyin Siang, executive director of the Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at Duke University's Business School, strong leaders use questions as a tool in several different ways, including:

  • Conveying their point of view and understanding of a situation.
  • Arriving at the core of an issue.
  • Shifting people's focus from the negative reality to the potential for change.
  • Encouraing teamwork.
  • Creating a more positive dynamic.
  • Helping others realize their leadership potential.

19. Although communication is an important pillar of strong leadership, it is important to be conscientious of when you are communicating with employees and they shape their behaviors around your expectations. For example, even if a leader sends a late-night email to their employee simply because the topic was on his or her mind at the moment, the employee might feel pressured to respond immediately, meaning the time the employee spends working is encroaching into his or her personal life too much.

20. According to Maura Thomas' article in the Harvard Business Review, a productivity trainer specializing in attention management, connecting during after-work hours during busy periods is the sign of a high-performer, while never disconnecting is the sign of a workaholic. There is a big difference. Leaders have a strong influence on producing both.

21. After-hours emails have a profound effect on corporate cultures, resulting in lower creativity, innovation and productivity. A frantic environment where employees adhere to the expectation — actual or perceived — that they must answer emails at all hours increases business and distraction. Additionally, constantly being "on" means employees aren't allowing themselves proper downtime, which is necessary for new ideas. Ms. Thomas suggests the following tips for leaders to help their team preserve their downtime and refine their attention management abilities.

  • Replace the phrase "time management" with "attention management," and make training this important skill part of your staff development plan.
  • Refrain from after-hours communication. If you are worried you will forget something that you want to send in an email, save the message as a draft and then send it in the morning.
  • Demonstrate "attention management" across the work environment — put away devices when speaking with your team, especially during meetings, to promote complete engagement.
  • Create remote work options for employees for high concentration roles, tasks and projects.

22. People pay close attention to the things leaders say, even in what they may think are informal encounters. The following are five phrases successful people would never say, according to Business Insider.

  • "I deserve this more." Successful people don't waste their own or anyone else's time complaining about life's injustices. Instead of dwelling on situations that seem unfair, successful people know success must be earned and demonstrate why they deserve awards, recognition promotions.
  • "That's not how we do it here." Successful people are always interested in innovation and are open to doing away with convention to enable doing something better than it was done before. Even if someone's idea seems impractical, a successful leader gives the person a chance to explain it and discuss the pros and cons, according to Business Insider.
  • "That's not my problem." Successful leaders genuinely want others to succeed as well. They take an interest in the challenges and successes of others and act as a team player because they understand their success and wealth is the result of the dedication of their employees.
  • "This is impossible." Saying and believe you are unable to achieve something creates a self-imposed limitation to success. According to Business Insider, high-achievers don't let hurdles discourage them. Rather, they use creativity to find a way around them.
  • "I've done everything I could do." Successful leaders know how to find new opportunities, even when others give up and it seems every option has been tried.

On meaningful business relationships

23. Meeting and connecting with people comes easily to some, but for those with introverted personalities, establishing meaningful relationships can be challenging. Nevertheless, these relationships can have a direct impact on one's success in business. The following steps have helped both reserved and outgoing folks build stronger connections with others, according to Entrepreneur magazine.

  • Ask an unexpected, exciting first question. Typical meet-and-greet questions like "Where are you from?" and "What do you do for a living?" will likely be answered with short, automatic responses that don't open up any windows for more engaging conversation. To be more memorable and set the foundation for a closer connection, a question like, "What are you doing in your life right now that really excites you?" will distinguish the questioner from others and present an opportunity to discuss some personal passions.
  • Show you are interested in what they have to say. The most effective networkers focus less on themselves and more on showing an interest in learning about others. Asking questions about a person's business, passions and hobbies makes them feel important and confident. Additionally, body language signs like maintaining eye contact shows you are interested and listening to someone.
  • Show you can be valuable to them. Everyone has things they could use help with. The most effective way to get people in your corner is to show them you are willing to help solve their problems. When you show you are genuinely ready to offer support, people are more inclined to let their guard down and discuss where they need help. 

24. The strongest leaders make an effort to establish meaningful connections with individual employees. "Business relationships are inherently personal," according to George Bradt, Forbes contributor. Mr. Bradt says leaders should learn to recognize new opportunities to connect with employees. While forming connections takes time, it is time well spent, because a meaningful relationship will be valuable to both parties. Leaders can use "active constructive" responses, which are positive in nature and structured to find out more information, to help them initiate forming a new relationship.

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