Thursday, June 28, 2007


Recently I met my mentor who helped grow my career. He is one of the best I worked for. So after meeting him, I started thinking about what makes a good leader. What appeals to you in a leader may be different than what appeals to me. Some qualities seem to be universal.

I think following are some of the qualities that can make a person a good leader. Conversely, lack of them can have serious side effects to the leader and his team and his company.

1) Approachability - If your people do not feel comfortable and safe to say anything and everything with you, you are not a good leader. Remember your success as a leader depends on what you can get done from your troops. If your troops hesitate to let you know what is on their mind, they will waste a lot of time worrying about those issues which they can not share with someone like. So, first stop shooting the messengers. Do everything you can do to maximize the information flow into you. Look and act approachable. Go extra lengths to make people feel comfortable. Initially you may find this approach does not work. That is simply because people are not used to approachable leaders yet. As you try to become such a leader, they are zapped at what is going on. Be patient. Let people measure you up and they will open up.

2) Reduce freeze response in people - In addition to flight or fight responses which are hardwired into us, people also experience freeze response when they encounter you the leader because of your position. So watch your words and body language and remove any trace of intimidation (real or perceived). Last thing you want is people to freeze. Once again, becoming approachable is the way to reduce freeze behavior. Give people time. Show them you are vulnerable too. When people see that you are like them who also faces similar issues such as being overwhelmed at times, they relate to you better. Do not interrupt when people speak. Let them take their time. Remember many people who report to you do not have as much communication skills as you do. So if they are not direct or take time for words, let them. Here again, if people know that you are vulnerable too, they do not try to act perfect which none of us are. In the process of acting perfect and pleasing you, they might more often freeze than provide you with anything good information.

3) People are more than warm bodies at work place - We spend more time at work than we spend anywhere else. We spend more time with our coworkers than we spend with our families. So, start to get to know people more and use that to develop relationships. What do you say to a friend when you meet him? Don't you have a small talk about his life, family, interests etc.? Why not do the same thing?

4) Mentoring - Mentoring is a lost art. Who does it anyway these days? Everyone is too busy in meeting their short time objectives. Some who are very interested to mentor are scared because of law suits etc. if they have let go of a mentoree. So why take any such risk of mentoring? What if the person you mentor back stabs later and comes to your position? All pointless arguments. The rule is if you are not replaceable, you are not promotable. So, you have to develop a replacement for you before you can make case for your promotion to your boss. If your promotion request plan does not address how do you transition your responsibilities, it should be shot down. So, when grooming your successor is so important for your own good, why not mentor one or more people?

5) Oversight - Let people know that they should not hesitate to pursue what they think is right and you will provide the necessary oversight to correct them if needed. Without such assurance, half the people do not get out of their comfort zones and rest half may attempt to do new things but watching their steps so closely that they manage to accomplish little or nothing. What stops you from letting people know you are there to help them avoid making serious mistakes? You are their leader because somebody has seen you go thru similar issues and get experience out of that. You may not recognize but you are providing the oversight all the time. What stops you from letting people know that so they take some risks and accomplish something worthwhile?

6) Replacements - replacing people for performance is a bad idea most of the times. Of course there are time, when you may have inherited some people who just do not have what it takes to be successful with you. But, most of the times, performance issues point to leadership problems. People most of the time accomplish more than what they are clearly told to. If you can not articulate what you want from people and then complain that their performance is not good, it is the leader who needs to be replaced and not the people. People may not become another leader like you. But, most of them can do what they are hired to do or more only if you do your leadership job well.

7) Delegate - If you do not delegate, you are not a leader. Period. My mentor was one of the most laid back people I have ever seen. Before I got to know him well, I used think what on the earth he did all day. He always seemed be thinking with his feet up on the table. Exactly. That's what leader are paid for. Think and not do. But, what do we see? Most of the leaders are doing and their team is thinking whatever it can. Who is in a better position to think? Leader and not the people.

8) Feedback - "Feedback is the breakfast of champions." Leaders many times refrain from giving constructive feedback because they are concerned that their feedback seems more subjective than objective. Real feedback comes from the gut and like many other gut feelings, good feedback is also subjective. Subjective feedback may be hard to give and hard to receive when the relationship does not exist but once you build a good rapport with the person, he tunes in to your wavelength and he can understand and appreciate the feedback even if it subjective. Do we come up with SMART goals to set objectives for our family members or use similar methodology for providing feedback? Certainly not. Good parents can provide feedback without even saying anything. How? By their example. People observe and learn. First you become what you want others to become. If they do not become what you expect them to become even after you exhibit those qualities, most probably what you are exhibiting are not worth emulating any way. Because people are not dumb in general and they always want to improve themselves by selectively absorbing good qualities in everyone including you.

9) Pay for the attitude and character and then performance - Performance is a team thing. If you reward purely for individual performance, you are going to fail soon. But, if you pay for the right attitude and character, you will build a great team and that will deliver dazzling performance in due course. Good teams are self correcting and good at making up for the weaknesses of team members. Skills you can learn. Experience you get with time. But, character and attitude, you have them or you do not.

10) Focus on the positives - It is easy to call a person and reprimand him when something goes wrong. Before doing that, imagine all the other things that could have gone wrong. Chances are one or two errors are out of many thousands that a person has avoided. Compliment him for those good things. Gently correct him on the short comings. It is hard to see this and focus only one screw up. It's like blaming security agencies for their incompetence of 9/11 when we do not even know how may similar or even more devastating incidents they have prevented. Accept and move on.

11) Prepare for change - People do not want to change. That's universal. So start preparing the ground for people to accept and respond to change well. Worst message leader can send to his team is to say that he does not like change too. It has appalled me when managers have cried their hearts out in front of their team regarding the changes that managers have asked to make. Even if you did not agree with change, you can not look change averse to your team? The change is being forced down on you because you did not have a better idea. Next time, better be the catalyst of the change you want to see than to grumble at the prospect of having to change after failing to effect the change in the first place.

12) Small things matter - Take people out for lunch or outings etc. even if your company does not have budgets for such 'luxuries'. It baffles me when companies prevent middle level managers from taking their teams for a lunch or an outing from time to time when their top executives waste money on corporate retreats or orgy sessions with career coaches. Penny wise, pound foolish. You as the leader should be prepared to shell out a few dollars even if you can not expense them.

Am I saying these purely from theoretical stand points? No. These are some of the good things I have seen in a few of the leaders I have come to respect based on my personal dealings with them. They are running some top business. So, it's not from some biz book jargon.


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