How To Adapt Your Leadership Style
Leading a team during various situations – good times, challenging periods, times of great change – takes a variety of approaches. Here’s how to adapt your style during the many shifts that businesses typically face.
Good leaders know they have a singular task – at all times. They need to galvanize, motivate and, well, lead employees. They need to remove any other distractions around the team, minimize their impact and determine ways for everybody to overcome them. At. All. Times.
That means it’s job one during boom times, when the proverbial cash register is ringing and your company needs to devise creative ways to fulfill all of the orders streaming in. But it also means that good leaders see the same task at hand when times are tough or when a company is going through great change or when there’s a customer service crisis at hand.
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The lifecycle of a company ultimately goes through many ups, downs and in-betweens. But good managers know that they have to adapt their styles to fit any of these shifts. “The best managers are able to adapt their thinking and approach to fit every possible situation,” says William Young, principal with Young Associates, a management consulting firm based in New York. “If you try to be a one-size-fits-all manager, you’ll really be appealing to nobody. Different situations call for different approaches – even different individual employees can call for a variety of approaches. Managers need to be able to assess the situation at hand and adapt their style to fit it.”
This is precisely how executives in the ad specialty market need to oversee their employees and companies. With so many market fluctuations, industry consolidations, poaching from competitors and more, today’s distributor principals need to be fearsome leaders when it comes to recruiting, retaining, motivating and pushing staff to higher and higher growth.
Impossible to do? Not at all. Becoming an effective leader is as much about sensitivity to internal and external needs as much as it is about being a lightning rod for change. Read on to find out which leadership styles are best for which market needs.
The Point Guard
Too many small-business owners today are confused about the dynamics of effective leadership, experts say, and that gets them into trouble quickly. More often than not, they focus on the so-called “proper” traits of leadership (thinking they need to be the next TED Talks superstar) rather than the architecture of effective leadership, says Linda Henman, president of Henman Performance Group, a business performance consultancy based in Chesterfield, MO.
That starts with being the person who staff and managers turn to most when they need help with decisions or administrative needs. The very best leaders are in charge, meaning all accountability comes back to them, Henman says. While it stands to reason that good leaders are good delegators, execs who loosen the reigns too much, or drop them entirely, risk losing their leadership role.
Accountability, in particular, should always come back to a single point person, Henman says. “If you leave it up to a committee or team, first of all, they take too long,” Henman says. “But second of all, their accountability isn’t there.”
That isn’t to say that leaders should never ask other managers and staff for their opinions when making a company decision, Henman and others say. Employee input is always valuable. But gathering information is far different from asking a large group to make a decision together. Nimble companies often trust a point person or two to analyze, predict and make important growth decisions.
This type of leadership style is particularly useful for small businesses that need to be nimble and make decisions on the fly, experts say. For a smaller distributor trying to be competitive with larger players, dragging out vendor or buying decisions can mean the difference between landing a lucrative order and seeing it fall through your fingers. Quickly owning up to order mistakes and fixing them is also key to being seen as a powerful figure, both inside and outside the company.
“Ideally, you need to adjust your general overall style, depending on the business conditions,” says Carl Robinson, Ph.D., principal of Advanced Leadership Consulting, an executive coaching firm based in Seattle. That’s particularly true when hiring an executive in a volatile marketplace that fluctuates seasonally and yearly.
But too often those doing the hiring make assumptions about an executive based upon his interview and assumed personality type, failing to think about how that personality type might play out in a constantly changing market. In addition, many corporate decision-makers make the mistake of assuming there are hard-and-fast rules for which executives are best for specific business challenges. Either assumption can be devastating to a company in the long run, Henman says.
It’s far too easy to assume that a bold personality type will be the best, most assertive leader in times of need. But a person’s everyday temperament seen around the office isn’t always what emerges in a time of need, experts say.
“I have seen introverted, quiet, shy leaders become four-star generals and lead major moments,” Henman says. “I have seen charismatic leaders that you think people would follow to the end of the earth. But because they don’t make the right decisions, they take people in the wrong direction.”
In fact, Henman cautions companies from making leadership hires on personality alone. Instead, she advises that businesses hire leaders based upon how well their vision, work ethic, expertise or other skillset fits the company.
That’s key, says Peter Economy, a business author and consultant living in La Jolla, CA, because the best leaders are often “constant and shouldn’t change their style based on outside influences.”
That’s not to say that leaders can’t alter how they interact with various team members based upon their needs and responsibilities: Effective leaders “shape shift” in times of corporate stress in order to reduce worries and keep staff motivated.
But that’s often done by changing a leader’s message or the content of the message. More to the point, that shouldn’t include a sudden shift in personality, authority, interactional style or other aspects of a person’s demeanor. Doing so might not only come across as disingenuous to clients and workers, but be confusing to staff from a leadership standpoint, causing them to lose confidence in the company.
The Market Reader
“I think what makes a great leader is you cannot expect the situation to remain the same,” Henman says. However, what might be counterintuitive for some executives that believe a consistent message is key, says Henman, is the notion that great leaders don’t change on a dime every time the wind blows. Instead, they read the market, analyze how current shifts are affecting staff, productivity and earnings, and respond accordingly.
Though many experts dismiss the notion that one leader can morph his leadership style based upon market circumstances, others contend that, for some companies, it is important for leaders to adjust their styles. That doesn’t mean they have to completely revamp their personalities or reinvent who they are, but it does mean they may need to slightly change how they and their message are coming across to employees – taking on a more authoritative role or being more directive, for example, when times are tough.
“Under crisis, the research is pretty clear that a more authoritative style of leadership,” as opposed to a more democratic one, is more efficient, faster and operates more effectively, says Robinson.
But knowing when and how to deliver a particular leadership style is the key to management success today, experts contend. And that can be tough, because being objective and analytical requires “looking at something dispassionately,” Henman says.
When small-business executives, such as distributors, are involved in the day-to-day activities of a company and know each staff member well, impartially standing back can be difficult. Not being able to do that can be detrimental and cause many to misjudge the most appropriate, effective leadership approach to a given situation.
Too many managers, for instance, assume they should be barking out commands when a situation really calls for a consensus of opinion. Alternatively, some think committees and subcommittees are crucial in a crisis when clients are drying up and revenue is sinking fast. “The platoon sergeant does not call a meeting when the enemy is coming over the hill,” says Henman. “That is not the time for democratic leadership.”
In fact, any leadership misstep has the potential to damage employee morale, cost productivity or cause significant loss. So it’s vital that managers think before they speak. Understanding the market – in good times and bad – as well as a company’s role in it is the first step to knowing which leadership style and message to put forth. In times of growth, for example, a more thoughtful leader who solicits employee opinions is more effective.
The key, Henman says, is to realize that good leaders don’t so much change the essence of who they are or what they believe based upon what the market is doing. Instead, she says, they would be wiser to change their “behavior in response to what’s going on.”
A Leader for the People
Of course, democratic leadership has its place as well, says Robinson. For example, in a competitive marketplace where skilled workers are at a premium, attracting top talent and keeping them in order to remain competitive can be tough. In that case, he says, a more democratic management approach is a good idea.
“If you really want to attract and retain people, you need to give them more say in how decisions are made, and that requires a more democratic style of leadership,” Robinson says. “Very, very smart people just aren’t interested in working for dictators.”
Similarly, executives working with new hires should alter their leadership styles as they become more entrenched and skilled in their jobs, says Diane Amundson, founder and owner of The Thriving Workplace, a management consultancy based in Winona, MN. For example, a distributor who hires a new receptionist unfamiliar with the company’s phone needs to give explicit directions in the beginning: “hit this button, say these five words, Hit this button and hang up,” Amundson says.
Two months later, after the employee has mastered new job skills, the same leader should take a different approach if, say, the worker suddenly has problems with phone interactions that were previously grasped. Now the employee may not need step-by-step instructions, but rather a more motivational approach to working through challenges or a less hands-on approach to embolden the worker or increase her independence and sense of accomplishment within the company.
Too often, leadership is looked at from the vantage point of reacting to the outside world as opposed to what’s happening within the company. That can be a mistake, says Economy. When executives fail to think about how their leadership impacts employees, one of two things happens: they fail to change their leadership style based upon different employees’ needs, Economy says (something that can spread demoralization and a lack of productivity through a company) or they ignore the most pressing leadership needs of the company’s employees, hoping they will go away. That can cause resentment. It’s a shame, Economy adds, since “leadership styles can be learned. A lot of leaders think there’s no time, and they’re too busy to make time. That’s a sure sign you need to make the time.”
The real danger with today’s corporate leaders, says Robinson, is that most of them aren’t investing in becoming more effective managers. Despite the fact that there are myriad resources and training programs available to improve a person’s leadership style and ability to implement various leadership modes, many aren’t choosing to boost their education. Instead, they’re acting on instinct and defining leadership as they go.
That approach certainly has some merit, especially in today’s quick-change market. But, as Robinson says, over time, “they keep bumping along and have problems like attrition. They ask, ‘why is this happening?’ Once they get past the idea that they don’t have terrible employees, they’re faced with, ‘oh, it might be me.’ Then they realize they need to make more changes.”
As they become more “conscious of their leadership style,” Robinson says, executives suddenly invest in leadership training “because they figure they have to in order to compete.”
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