Becoming a true, transformational leader is a process, an evolution — it’s not something you do overnight. It takes a progression of steps to be the kind of leader and decision maker who can inspire your team and maximize your team’s potential. To get there, you need to move through a series of steps. In my view, there are five steps to reach the pinnacle. These steps are not easy and take time to get right. It requires practice, focus, and discipline. I hope you find these 5 progressive steps to transformational leadership useful on your journey.
Step 1 – Know Your Subject Matter
Before you can make a good decision, you need to know what you’re talking about. A leader needs to have a broad, but not necessarily deep, knowledge of what his or her team does. It’s important for a leader to take the time to understand a decent amount about all areas of the business. This is not an overnight process, and it takes experience and an ability to learn quickly. You can get in trouble if you know too much about a particular subject, especially if that knowledge is out-of-date. I’ve fallen into this trap a few times myself. As a leader, you’re not supposed to be the expert on the subject matter of your entire team. You may be the expert on a few things but you’re best served by having a broad understanding of the business.
Step 2 – Know Your Team
This is the toughest thing for new leaders to do. Before you become a great leader, you really need to know your team. This doesn’t just mean you know their names; you need to understand their strengths and weaknesses, their motivation level, their intelligence level and their hot buttons. It takes time to develop this knowledge and you can’t just show up into a new organization and start dictating to people. That’s a fast way to turn someone off. I’ve seen this happen often with leaders who are new to an organization. They come in, want to make an impact and start making changes right away. That’s antithetical to true leadership. It’s a leader’s job to listen. When you come into a new organization, you need to take the time to learn the business and learn the people. Only then are you in a position to start to make changes within this foreign organization. To know your team, you need to spend time with them to see how they handle different situations. You want to balance the idea of putting your team members in a position to be successful while creating a challenging environment for them. If you only give them assignments right in their wheelhouse, your best team members are going to get bored and leave. If you constantly stretch people, they won’t be able to keep up with the stress and they’ll leave. You need to find a balance between giving them comfortable work without letting them get too comfortable. I can’t tell how exactly that will work for your team specifically. You need to know what makes them tick well enough to make that assessment.
Once you’ve learned about your business and your team, you’re in a position of trust with your team members. You have to be in a position of trust to become a great leader. How you handle the next three steps could erode trust or it could build a remarkable bond between you and your team. You have no chance of building that deep bond until you establish trust.
Step 3 – Make Good Decisions Quickly
One of my mentors gave a memorable speech where he said: “I want leaders who make good decisions quickly, not great decisions slowly.” The business doesn’t have time for you to evaluate 20 different options before you make every decision. Let’s take an example of hiring a new employee because this can be one of the most impactful decisions you make. You had 50 applicants, you screened 12 candidates, interviewed four and have two candidates you really like. You may think, “I bet there’s someone else better out there.” You’re probably right. In the universe of potential candidates, there probably is someone better. The question is how are you going to find that person and get them to apply for your role. You could delay the candidate selection process by three to six months to find the perfect person, but at that point, you’ve lost six months of time where your previous candidate could’ve learned and mastered the business by that time. Also, there’s no guarantee a better candidate will come along in the next three to six months, so you could end up waiting longer. To make good decisions quickly, you need to be confident. When I see people who haven’t made decisions quickly, it either stems from a fear of retribution if they make a mistake or a fear of the unknown world that will exist if the decision goes poorly. Excellent decision makers know their business and their team and realize that if they make a mistake, they can recover from it. If you have a leader who can’t make a decision quickly, you need to boost their confidence. Tell them there won’t be retribution for making a bad decision and talk through a few of the ways you could recover from making a bad decision. In short, be decisive.
Step 4 – Be Consistent and Explain Your Rationale
A team is going to function better if they can anticipate the decision their leader will make and they understand why the decision was made. I’ve personally dealt with leaders who change their mind on big decisions, and it’s really difficult to know what they are going to do next. If you don’t know what your leader is going to do, you don’t know if you’re going in the right direction. The better a team understand its leader’s decision making process and criteria, the better they can lay the groundwork for those decisions. When you manage a larger team, you will undoubtedly run into mid-level managers who won’t carry out a directive unless they are on board with that decision. I’ll admit, in the past, I was a bit that way myself. I would support leadership decisions but I wouldn’t do a good job of supporting the decision if I didn’t understand it. I would try to understand the decision, but as more decisions came down on me more quickly, I lost interest in pushing an agenda I didn’t understand. I should’ve done better in that position, but as a leader, you need to understand those managers and help them help you. To do that, you need to take the time to explain major decisions in greater detail and give the managers a chance to question/challenge the decision. Oftentimes I find myself saying that, while I have some information on the subject, I don’t know everything I need to make the decision. In a growing, fast-paced organization, we still need to make decisions quickly, so I need to make the best decision I can with the information available. There are definitely times where I’m asked to get more information, and as long as it’s not onerous, it’s worth the time to make the decision-making process better. To be consistent, you need to tie your decision making back to a core set of principles. The best way to do this is to consider your values when making a decision. Our values at Stoneridge Software are Integrity, Technical Excellence, Tenacity, Client Centric and Enjoy Our Work. If I make a decision balancing those factors, it will probably be a good, and consistent decision in the end. If I make a decision outside of that framework, I’m going to lose trust with the team and they aren’t going to be able to predict future decisions.
Leaders Make Mistakes Not Excuses
If you’re making good decisions quickly without all the possible information, you’re going to make bad decisions. You’re also going to experience bad luck. In our business, we sell software and implementation services, and these projects take a major investment of time and money to implement correctly. When a prospect chooses a different path, sometimes they choose a competitor, sometimes they choose to do nothing. When they don’t choose us, those are great learning opportunities that test leadership. If you blame people on your team for the failure, you’re going to lose their trust (and probably their willingness to remain an employee). That doesn’t mean you can’t point out opportunities for improvement (you absolutely should), you just have to be careful how you do it. I tend not to share any suggestions right after news of the loss breaks. Everyone needs time to process the loss and it can be piling on to tell someone what they did wrong as soon as the news hits. The best option is to have an open and honest retrospective where everyone has time to digest the news, process it and examine what they can do better. The best outcome as a leader is to have your team member say, “I could’ve done X better” instead of you having to say it. It’s easy to make excuses when you lose and blame things that were out of your control. Circumstances outside of your control are often part of a loss/failure, but you’re taking yourself off the hook if you don’t dig deeper to find what you could do better. The approach should be to say although the customer made a decision based on less than perfect information, “what were the things we could’ve done to highlight our strengths more easily? What were our weaknesses and how did they overcome our strengths?” Losing is never easy but if you can learn from your mistakes you can reduce future losses. The only failure is not learning.
Step 5 – Inspire Your Team
This is the final step to become a great leader. You can do this in many ways and, frankly, no one can do this in all the possible ways. To inspire your team, they need to see you doing things they want to be able to do. A truly inspirational leader needs to have built up steps 1-4 before they can achieve the final step. If you are making decisions without knowing your team, they may admire something about you but not consider you a great leader. There are three key ways you can inspire your team:
1. Modeling Behavior – it’s amazing how often team members are willing to leave work early if they see their leader leaving early. This doesn’t mean you should never take a vacation, but if you want a hard-working team, you had better put in the time. It’s not just working lots of hours, it’s how you clean up after yourself, talk to your team, treat your family. The team watches all of this and follows that behavior.
2. Innovating – another key way to inspire your team is to come up with new and innovative ways of doing things or ways of making decisions that the team wouldn’t have thought of. In order to do that, you have to know the subject matter really well and be willing to take risks.
3. Achieving Recognition – everyone wants to be part of a winning team and if you’re winning as a team and gaining recognition, it leads the team to want to be part of the journey.
When I think back on the leaders that have inspired me over the years, it’s those leaders who built a foundation of trust and led the team through challenging times. Everyone wants to work for a winner and leaders are the key to building a winning culture within your organization. It’s really fun to be a part of someone’s leadership journey. If you can inspire someone and help them become a leader, there’s nothing better.