The new rules of effective leadership

The rules of leadership have changed.

Telling people what to do and how to do it is no longer enough — because today’s workforce demands more from its leaders.

In a Harvard Business Review survey of more than 19,000 respondents, researchers found that people feel and perform better (and more sustainably) at work when four basic needs are met: renewal (physical), value (emotional), focus (mental), and purpose (spiritual).

They also found that management often fails to address these needs. For example, only 20 percent of respondents said their supervisors encouraged renewal breaks throughout the day.

And, despite the fact that we collectively spend billions each year on leadership development, the Edelman Trust Barometer estimated that one in three U.S. employees doesn’t trust their employer.

More generally, public confidence in the traditional structures of American leadership has been undermined, and replaced with fear, uncertainty, and disillusionment.

Clearly, there’s an alarming disconnect between current management training and employees’ actual needs.

As someone who has led a company for 13 years and counting, I can say that developing your leadership style is always a work in progress. 

I’m constantly learning from our employees at JotForm, gathering inspiration from effective leaders I admire, and adjusting as I go along.

Based on my day-to-day experience and some interesting research, I tried compiling today’s rules for building employee trust, creating a culture that ensures their best performance, and being an effective leader.

Be authentic

The year 2018 was a successful one for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Among other victories, they introduced the first new drug to treat relapsing malaria in over 60 years, and helped more children in India to be immunized against pneumonia than ever before.

The foundation’s success has been credited in large part to its leadership from CEO Susan Desmond-Hellman.

When asked by the New York Times to share lessons she’s learned since taking the helm, Desmond-Hellman said:

“One is to be yourself. Think about the attributes you have and use them as an asset to drive your mission. And if the company needs something different, you still show up as you and then find somebody who’s better than you at those things to help you.”

We all have strengths and weaknesses. Maybe you’re a great listener but not the best public speaker. Like Desmond-Hellman says, still show up as you. Use those listening skills to build confidence and trust among your employees, and enlist the help of a natural speaker to shore up your presentations.

A recent study asked millennials to name the qualities they most wanted in a leader.

Authenticity was at the top of that list. Millennials don’t want polished, perfect speeches. They prefer someone who speaks genuinely and lets them know what’s really going on; that includes acknowledging your own shortcomings at times, and never glossing over the truth.

Just be yourself, right? Sounds easy enough. But even the best leaders sometimes struggle to be authentic. So don’t fret if you stumble.

“Being authentic as a leader is hard work and takes years of experience in leadership roles,” writes Bill George, author of True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. “No one can be authentic without fail; everyone behaves inauthentically at times, saying and doing things they will come to regret.”

He continues, “The key is to have the self-awareness to recognize these times and listen to close colleagues who point them out.”

Build genuine rapport with your team

Italian Renaissance painter and sculptor Michelangelo saw sculpting as a process of revealing the (beautiful) figures hidden in stone.

Likewise, the Michelangelo phenomenon is the term psychologists give to relationships in which each partner reveals the other’s best self.

Leaders should also strive to emulate this phenomenon — even if an employee has yet to recognize his or her best qualities.

Only by taking the time to really know a team member can we understand their unique qualities, strengths, and ultimate aspirations.

I was an employee long before I became a CEO, so I know: face time with the boss can be intimidating. As employees, we can feel guarded around managers. It’s not always easy to share our true selves.

But as leaders, there are several things we can do to break down barriers.

For example, spend time with your team outside of the office environment. Elicit their feedback and show that you value their opinions. And don’t restrict your conversations to company tasks and projects.

Every week, I invite different employees to go for a walk during lunchtime. We talk about their past experiences, their hobbies, any upcoming trips, and I encourage them to ask me questions. These walks build stronger connections that support our day-to-day work.

By building rapport with employees, managers are also better equipped to match them with roles that utilize their natural strengths, and increase their engagement

Says Susan Desmond-Hellman:

“I think that’s what great management is all about — making sure people are right in that sweet spot, and not feeling incapable because they’re scared.”

Connect your teams to the bigger picture

It’s no surprise that employees feel and perform better when their work serves a purpose. Too often, managers take for granted that the organization’s purpose is ever-present in employees’ minds. But for many staff members — like the accountant working on monthly financial reports or the service rep dealing with angry customers — the bigger picture can quickly fall out of focus.

Reconnecting employees with the company’s larger purpose can be a powerful tool for increasing engagement and boosting overall performance. And leaders are in the best position to find innovative ways to do so.

Take, for example, DTE Energy president Gerry Anderson. Faced with disengaged employees and middling performance, Anderson didn’t know how to turn things around. His colleague Joe Robles, then-president of United Services Automobile Association, invited him to visit a USAA call center, where Anderson was pleasantly surprised by the employees’ deep commitment to helping customers.

The secret? Through training, town hall meetings, and other forums, managers continually reinforced USAA’s purpose: helping military members and their families.

Robles explained that a leader’s most important job is “to connect the people to their purpose.”

Inspired, Anderson attempted to do the same, beginning with a video featuring employees talking about the company’s impact on the communities it served. Fast forward, DTE received a Gallup Great Workplace Award for five years in a row, and their stock price more than tripled from the end of 2008 to the end of 2017.

Whether it’s through creative videos, newsletters, or meetings, leaders should consistently reinforce an organization’s shared purpose.

Lift people up

As the saying goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Good leaders elevate those around them, both personally and professionally.

Alan Deutschman, author of “Walk the Walk: The #1 Rule for Real Leaders,” agrees.

Quoting Urban Meyer, head football coach at the University of Florida, Deutschman writes that a great leader has “the ability to make the level of play of everyone else around him better.”

To become great leaders, managers can start by reinforcing their confidence in other people’s abilities. If we take the time to tell an employee: I know this is challenging, but I also know you can do this, we see a powerful effect. Employees immediately feel more confident and more motivated to do their very best work.

After interviewing nearly 100 esteemed business leaders, Harvard Business Review contributor Anthony K. Tjan shares that top leaders imprint their best qualities on others, making them feel like fuller versions of themselves.

These leaders go beyond on-the-job competency and aim to shape people’s character and values for the better, too.

“They know in the long run that there is a hard truth about soft matters and that these values-based qualities matter a lot more than skill enhancement,” says Tjan.

A true leader’s impact goes well beyond the office and can leave a lasting mark.

Be the leader your company needs

The next generation of employees expects more from leadership. They want authenticity, connection, and a sense of purpose — qualities which traditional leadership training often fails to provide.

If you feel like your employees aren’t performing at their peak, you may want to consider whether you’re meeting these “soft,” yet essential needs. If not, you can still turn things around, like we saw with Gerry Anderson and DTE Energy.

As I’ve learned in 13 years at JotForm, becoming an effective leader is a career-long project. And you can start by simply being yourself.

Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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