Mama said leadership is like a box of chocolates…

….you never know what you’re going to get. Although Forest Gump didn’t technically say that, there is some truth in it: no two leaders are ever the same. Think about the people you’ve been led by in the past -  maybe they were a crunchy-coated, brittle leader, they might have been soft and gooey, or chances are you’ve probably had a few nutty ones as well. You never know what you’re going to get.

But when it comes to your own leadership there are a few fundamental ingredients you should always add to ensure you remain a strong, supportive and engaging leader, regardless if you’re a Perfect Praline, Salted Caramel or Orange Truffle.

Acting with Integrity

The first key ingredient for any leader is trust. All great leaders have an ability to develop trust with their people and act with integrity. Trust isn’t an instant thing. We don’t just trust our politicians because they are in these roles (in 2020, trust in politicians has been severely tested!) and we don’t just trust leaders in the workplace because they happen to be in a position of seniority. People will only begin to trust you when they see and hear consistent behaviours and actions that demonstrate empathy and honesty.

Staggeringly, according to Gallup’s global database only a third of employees actually trust their leaders. More needs to be done to develop that trust so here are a few simple tips to start building up your trust with your team:

  • Spend time talking to people about things that matter to them - get to know what other people care about.
  • Share more about yourself - let people see more of who you are. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and be open about your failures or mistakes.
  • Make your actions match your words - walk your talk. Do what you say you’ll do and do it consistently.

Doing these things regularly will help to build trust in your team and organisation, and the more trust you build the more engagement, motivation and innovation improves.

Communicate Openly

The second crucial ingredient is communication. This might seem like an obvious and simple one but it’s possibly the hardest to get right. We’re not talking about how many times you tweet or share on social media: this is about engaging directly with those in your business or team in an open and honest way.

And it’s a two-way effort: you need to share more about your vision, your plans, your priorities and you also need to find out how people are doing. We’ve experienced leaders who thought that ‘people didn’t need to know everything’ so they went months on end without communicating beyond their immediate team. Hardly going to help with the trust factor is it?

We’ve also worked with leaders who didn’t make time to talk on-to-one with their team as they thought they didn’t need it. When was the last time you had a real honest check-in with your team? According to the book Nine Lies About Work,  managers who check in once a week see on average a 13% increase in team engagement, whereas those who check in only once a month see a 5% decrease in engagement. Don’t assume your people don’t need time with you! A simple 15-30 minute one-to-one can be as impactful as large-scale townhalls/all company meetings, and can give you quality insights. Use open questions – they start with ‘what’, ‘how’ etc. – to help you understand people and teams more effectively: what motivates them, what their real thoughts are on a project, what strengths they want to exploit, where they’re struggling and so on.

Good open communication will help to provide clarity and purpose and also helps significantly with developing trust with your teams so take some time to put together a communication plan. It only needs to be light touch, but it needs to be regular and across all levels of your business. Try using the Who, What, Why, How, When approach to help structure your plan.

Listen Intently

The third core ingredient to great leadership is listening - possibly the most under-rated leadership skill of all! Right now, given our virtual working environment you need to work hard to show that you’re listening and not dominating every Zoom call. As a business owner or senior leader, you may be tempted to be the one who has all the answers, but you’ve employed smart people, right? So listen to them. When you’re with your team or an individual, really be with them:

  • Listen to truly understand, not just so you can respond – take a breath whenever you feel like jumping in
  • Reduce your distractions - we can see when you’re doing something else or checking that notification that just popped up on your phone
  • Ask questions to help your understanding – stay curious, it’s a brilliant listening device
  • Maintain eye contact – this isn’t a staring competition, but it helps to look at who is speaking.

When you can, take some time before a one-to-one or an important team meeting to focus your mind, look at ways to reduce distractions and noise, and be purposeful about getting into the listening mode.

By listening intently, you make people feel appreciated and understood, which increases their sense of loyalty and commitment and, you’ve guessed it, their trust in you as a leader.

Trust, open communication and active listening are clearly not the only ingredients you need for great leadership - in fact next week’s article goes into the importance of decision-making as a leader -  but focusing on these is a perfect start to developing your leadership skills. If you want to think about adding your own ingredients to give your leadership a flavour that’s unique to you, check out our previous article on personal brand (You had me at Leadership) here.