The internet is filled with articles on leadership, and companies spend nearly $20 billion a year on leadership development — but fifty percent to eighty percent of managers are still ineffective. How can that be?
One problem is that most leadership materials describe “a” right way to lead. One-size-fits-all leadership might be ok — if all employees were alike and all work situations were the same. But they’re not. Great leaders get teams of diverse people to perform their best regardless of the situation. Leaders must be effective at a variety of leadership styles and must be able to tell what style a team needs in a particular situation. This is “strategic leadership”, the art of tailoring your leadership style to the goal you’re trying to achieve.
Consider Bob*, who took over an underperforming team that was undisciplined and disengaged. Bob eliminated team members who resisted his approach and installed a demanding production schedule. He closely monitored performance on every phase of the project and aggressively called out members who missed schedules or delivered substandard work. Performance increased significantly. Bob then took over a larger, established team and brought his same leadership techniques. This team chaffed under the control, which they saw as micromanagement, and felt disrespected by Bob’s aggressive style, which they felt was abusive and inappropriate for a team that had earned management’s trust with their high performance. Performance suffered and engagement dropped as team members rebelled against Bob’s style. [* Not his real name.]
If Bob followed the usual leadership advice of establishing trust, inspiring and motivating and so on, his first team might never have improved, or at least would have taken longer to turn around. His aggressive style worked wonders. But the style wasn’t effective with his second team.
Unfortunately, Bob’s story isn’t unusual — mainly because his approach makes a lot of sense. His style was successful with his first team, why change? Our research shows that less than half of managers are effective at changing their approach based on their team. Bob’s story highlights the need for leaders to stretch and bend to fit the team. How do great leaders do that?
Know your goals
The heart of strategic leadership is understanding what you’re trying to accomplish, being explicit about goals and building a strategic leadership plan to achieve those goals. Common goals include:
- Short-term productivity increase
- Turn around a failing team
- Maintain a successful team
- Build team cohesion and collaboration
- Build team engagement
- Inspire risk-taking, innovation and creativity
A simple tool to clarify your team goals is to ask yourself, other leaders and the team “when this team is very successful in a year, what will it look like? How will it be the same, and how will it be different?”
Understand the blockers
The next step is to understand what’s preventing the team from getting to these goals. The answer might not be the same for all team members, which means you’ll manage different individuals differently. For example, Bob had some team members who were disengaged and checked out, and some who were inexperienced and lacked guidance. The leadership style for them is very different.
Create your leadership plan
Be explicit about the leadership tools you’ll use to overcome your blockers. Change up the amount and nature of feedback, how you delegate, how much you challenge, how often you ask for updates, etc. Leadership isn’t about you, it’s about your team and how to give them what they need to succeed.
Some leaders worry that this approach isn’t “genuine,” and even feels manipulative. But we act differently with different people all the time — how we act with our boss likely isn’t the same as we act with our friends or parents. Adjusting to give your team what they need is no different.
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Strategic leadership is goal-oriented, and it’s important to monitor performance to make sure you’re moving toward the goal. Set milestones to make sure you’re on track. The more objective these are, the better. For example, are missed deadlines reducing? Is participation in meetings or suggestions from the team increasing? Be explicit about tracking the metrics that matter and focus your leadership on them.
Test and adapt
You’ll do your best to understand your blockers and the approach to overcome them, but sometimes you’ll be off. And sometimes situations or people change in unexpected ways. Leaders are flexible and assess whether their leadership approach is working. If not, try something different. Don’t get wed to your approach. Set up regular review sessions to make sure you’re progressing.
Leadership is a skill that you can build. And like any skill, you have to practice, practice, practice. Some leadership styles will come easier than others, and it’s especially important to practice the ones that aren’t natural. For example, some people thrive on conflict and others hate it. In some situations, an aggressive, confrontational leader will be effective, and in others that person will struggle. Great leaders practice, and seek feedback on, skills that aren’t easy. Don’t expect to be effective right away with every leadership tool — set goals for skills you need to develop and work on improving.
Bring it in for a smooth landing
As your team grows, your goals will change. With a demoralized team that is afraid to take risks or express opinions, you might build confidence, trust and morale. That means lots of positive feedback, rewarding courage and supportive but pushy delegation. As the team grows, its needs will change. The same leadership style for a team that has confidence could lead to complacency, a sense of privilege and resentment at being patronized. Constantly reassess your goals to see if a change is in order.
The core of strategic leadership is recognizing that your leadership style isn’t “who you are.” You can have many styles (or tools) that you use when needed. By being strategic and goal-oriented, leaders can learn to be flexible and adaptable to succeed with any team.
Todd Murtha is CEO of Careerwave. Todd is a former workplace psychologist and CEO of a 350 person internet company and is a frequent speaker on leadership, coaching and technology.
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