What makes an effective leader in tough times?
In uncertain times leaders can’t rely on past performance as a predictor of the future. They need to be flexible so they can respond to changes in the market place or within their organisation quickly and appropriately. Survival can depend upon being able to keep close to the skin of the business, managing costs tightly and preparing for the upturn when it comes. They need strong communication skills so they can deal with anything that comes their way with sensitivity. This can be a difficult balancing act for even the most confident of leaders.
So, what do they need to consider? First and foremost people want to be kept informed about what’s going on. This means leaders need to be more effective than ever when they communicate with their teams. Employees want leaders to be honest about what’s happening in the business. As Stephen Walker of Motivation Matters wrote in a recent Training Zone article People weigh up the inconsistencies between the formal and informal communication. They ask ‘Do I still believe what they are saying?’. As he points out being truthful is vital for success because people pick up on any incongruence very quickly. This requires not only good judgment but excellent communication skills to ensure the tone is right for the situation. If cost cutting is a must and this means some people will leave the organisation it’s important to let people know the facts in a simple and straightforward way and give them a chance to ask questions. Where you haven’t got an answer say so and keep them informed. Let them have the missing information or solution to the problem they raised as soon as you can.
How leaders communicate is important. They need to be able to adapt their style for varying situations and to meet the needs of different people. Those leaders who are most successful also have lots of personal impact. So what is personal impact? The dictionary defines impact as: “the force of impression of one thing on anothe” or”an effect or change caused by some factor”. That’s what leaders with personal impact do: they make a positive impression on others. One way they achieve this is by using all three of the channels of communication & visual, vocal and verbal.
Many leaders spend hours crafting the words when they want to communicate -especially when they have an important or sensitive message they have to deliver. While this is important they sometimes underestimate the vital visual and vocal channels of communication. Visual impact covers everything from the clothes people wear, personal grooming, right through to the car that they drive. Body language is important too. People pay a lot of attention to those non-verbal signals -especially where they don’t match the words that are spoken. When someone says,” We’re on track to achieve our target” using minimal body language, the team may doubt their manager means it. If they use a gesture to emphasise the point they might be more convinced. Vocal impact is important too. Some people look great and the moment they open their mouth you change your view of them. Perhaps their voice is high-pitched and squeaky, they mumble, or speak way too fast for you to work out what they’re saying. A leader can have fantastic visual impact that is severely let down by his or her voice. Imagine what it would be like if in the example given earlier if the manager’s voice was monotone with a bored tone. It’s highly unlikely the people listening would believe it let alone be inspired to work towards this goal. The bottom line here though is that people are far more inclined to trust the non-verbal message a leader sends than the words they use. When all three Vs are in place, a leader is likely to be trusted, seen as authoritative and able to motivate their team through a difficult period.
As well as being honest people expect their leaders to find a speck of light at the end of the tunnel. By showing the way forward leaders demonstrate to their teams that they are in safe hands. As every good leader knows, motivation is affected by the environment people are working in. Atmosphere and emotions are contagious. If the leader is fearful the team will be fearful. When the leader is positive that their organisation can get through a tough period the staff start to feel positive about things too.
Just because a leader’s role is to provide clear direction doesn’t mean that they have all the right answers. The most effective leaders have a strong team of people around them with expertise in different areas such as finance, sales, marketing and operations. They also work as a cohesive team who trust one another enough to challenge each other while working towards a collective goal. In tough times it is all too easy for individuals to start looking out for themselves. Leaders need to look out for this behaviour and be prepared to ‘nip it in the bud’. Time invested in getting the team together to review how they are working with each other will save precious energy and effort being wasted in this way.
Some newspaper articles are starting to suggest that we are on the road to recovery. In the London Evening Standard on 11 May the City Correspondent, Hugo Duncan, quoted various gurus and economic pundits who were all predicting, to varying degrees, tentative signs to suggest the recession is bottoming out or even coming to an end. Whether they are right or not, when the upturn comes leaders need good motivated people in place to capitalise on the opportunities available. It’s important that leaders demonstrate how much they value their people and the contribution they make. They need to spot signs of stress and make sure this most valuable resource -their staff- has adequate support by providing essential training and resources.
Leaders can achieve success through a combination of having a clear vision of the way forward, honest communication, effective teamwork, and demonstrating that they value the people who work for them.