Think of the most effective leader you’ve known or read about? What characteristics made that person come to mind? Pick up any magazine, journal, or periodical and you’ll probably find one or more articles that talk about desirable leadership best practices and/or about becoming a better and more effective leader. Most of those articles make leadership sound like a mystical process that blends heart and head into someone who magically morphs into a super powerful, charismatic, influential, and bottom line human being. And the authors sometimes seem more concerned with whether a leader is good or bad than with whether or not the leader actually makes something happen.
Let’s take “good” and “bad” out of the picture for a moment. Instead, let’s focus on effectiveness and ineffectiveness. Can the same leader be effective and ineffective? Does it matter who’s being led? Do skill levels of the followers make a difference? Does individual willingness to follow make a difference?
Well, the answer to all four questions is yes. What comes first, however, is understanding what leaders actually do. In simplest terms, leaders use power and influence to produce results. Period. And everyone leads one or more someones, even if it’s only themselves. When led effectively, people and organizations grow. When led ineffectively, people labor and organizations can feel like a prison.
Part of what makes this tricky is that each of us has a natural preference to one of four leadership styles: Direct: command and control; Persuasive: Inspirational; Persistent: patient and determined; and/or Traditional: by the book. These styles can be used independently, interdependently, or exclusively. Whichever choice you make, as a leader you still use power and influence to produce results.
Sounds simple enough; so why isn’t it easy to increase your leadership effectiveness? Here’s the answer: because people and organizations find themselves having different skill sets, different levels of commitment, and different levels of challenges or opportunities. In short, it isn’t easy because the human beings and business organizations are dynamic – they change! And, as Old Lodge Skins says in Little Big Man, some days the magic works and some days it doesn’t. If you want the magic to work more frequently, here are a few principles and techniques that have proven to be successful in helping leaders become more effective.
- Know where Power and Influence come from. Power comes from the organizational chart – can you make people comply with your directives (sometimes called accountability). Influence comes from inside the person – do you have what it takes to get people to commit to your dreams (sometimes called dependability). How well and how often you choose between those two factors – power (accountability – I do something to you if you do not deliver) and influence (dependability – you do something for me that goes above and beyond because you get and want what I want) usually determines your effectiveness as a leader.
- Knowing how to balance and when to use Power and Influence, which is mostly driven by the type of talent you have recruited. If you’ve populated your employee base with people who currently lack the behavior, attitudes, skills, knowledge, experience, and talent to meet your expectations then you will more than likely find yourself believing the local unemployment index is too low. You also may be convinced that someone else must have all the good people who live and work in your business communities. As a result, you may find yourself relying almost exclusively on power and accountability as a way of forcing your staff to comply with your directives to get even a close approximation of the results you want in terms of productivity and profitability.
- Make sure you recruit capable people. As a child, you more than likely had a game of some kind that required you to match pegs with holes. As an adult, we sometimes forget the very simple lesson learned decades ago: square pegs, square holes; round pegs, round holes. The next principle/technique gives you a clue as to how successfully you have retained this basic childhood lesson.
- Pay attention to the questions you ask yourself. If your self-talk about your staff is basically “Can’t you people do anything right? Do I have to tell you what to do every minute of every day?” then the odds are pretty good that you are also spending more time criticizing than inspiring. In short, you literally or figuratively nag your way into becoming a difficult person to work with and an almost impossible person to work for. Either way, everybody loses. You lose productivity and leave some of your profitability on the table; the employee gives in to MCS – malicious compliance syndrome; and the customer generally receives not much more than a moderate level of quality service. And in today’s world, moderate levels of customer service mean lost market share. So, if your recruiting, selection, and retention practices require an over reliance on power, at least learn how to become a benevolent dictator.
Remember that beating people up does not make them better employees and does not produce a higher level of accountability throughout the organization. It just makes for battered employees who will take great delight in malicious compliance – following a direct order to the letter, even if doing so produces a negative effect. On the other hand, treating people with dignity and respect does not create an “entitlement” culture. Instead, it produces a “dependability” attitude among employees who commit to meeting your expectations and going above and beyond to avoid disappointing you.
- Plan and coach for success. At any given point in time, you probably have one or more of these conditions going on simultaneously within your dealership(s):
- Rapid pace – after all, you are a dealership;
- Sudden growth – your manufacturers are the buzz;
- Sudden crisis – the “oops” may or may not be on you, but it’s still yours;
- Blended family – the due diligence on the acquisition included everything but culture;
- Civil war – turf wars run amok; and,
- Smooth sailing – enjoy it while it lasts.
Do something most dealers don’t do: have a performance management and talent development budget and use it to help build the skills of the people whom you lead, including yourself. Invest in the hard skills so that your customers know you have a technically competent staff and your manufacturer knows you want to work with them. Invest in soft skills so that people want to buy from you and come back time and again.
- Keep everything as simple as it can be. Edwards Deming, no stranger to people who know the history of Japan’s emergence as an economic powerhouse, preached and practiced fourteen principles of continuous. One of those, roughly paraphrased, says that whatever problem you have is almost certainly related to process rather than people. Don’t get caught up in chasing someone else’s definition of a best practice. The only true best practice is the one that works for you.
- The best policies and procedures have a “yes” answer to these two questions: Is it easy for people to do business with us? Is it easy for the people who work here to be successful? If you can’t answer yes to these two questions, find out why and fix it. Experience suggests that many policies and procedures get put in place by someone who’s more interested in doing what they like to do rather than what they need to do. That’s usually problematic and leads to a “Why bother?” attitude.
- Focus on outcomes and “why.” What you do and how you do it are business weeds that generally don’t capture the imagination or provide a high level of inspiration and commitment. What really gets people excited is knowing the “why” you do it. Your behavior, motivation, and perspective as an owner/dealer/leader make you an employer of choice and a dealership of choice. Make sure your staff and your customers know why you’re in business. Spread this message in your marketing and your on-boarding and in your re-boarding. Make it a part of every customer and employee interaction every day. If you have to, use words.
If you implement these practices, the odds of being known as an effective leader who runs a really good store are going to increase dramatically. As that reputation spreads, you’re likely to have opportunities chasing you rather than your chasing them. Those opportunities could be additional dealerships; they could be high performing individuals who want to be part of your organization.
In addition to those opportunities, there might be one additional benefit for your personally. It could be that someday, when someone attends a leadership workshop and the facilitator asks “Think about the most effective leader you’ve known or read about. What were some of that person’s characteristics?” one or more of the participants will say aloud or silently “That’s easy. That would be (insert your name here). Wouldn’t that be a great legacy to leave your next generation of owners and leaders?