Most leaders have been taught the same old precepts: have an “open door” policy, rally around a common vision, make your employees happy and on and on.
What if there was a better, faster, easier way to succeed as a leader? Based on my experience as a serial entrepreneur—having built and sold several multimillion dollar companies—and on a decade of research, this article offers simple but highly effective strategies to overcome the most common leadership traps. I consider it my leadership “stop doing” list.
One: Successful leaders don’t have an open door policy
An open door policy is a traditional means to foster communication and problem-solving. Among the many problems with this policy are that most employees don’t have the professional courage to approach a senior executive, it negatively impacts the productivity of leaders, and it can stunt the initiative and problem-solving skills of the individuals.
Successful leaders know that are better ways to facilitate communication including having weekly “open office hours”, recurring one-on-one meetings, and requiring individuals bringing problems to also bring at least one solution.
Two: Successful leaders don’t have rules
As companies grow in size, so too grows the size of the employee handbook and the number of procedures and rules that must be followed. While these rules are designed to mitigate risk, every rule takes away the ability for an individual to make a choice; with less choice, employees feel less ownership.
Successful leaders know that you don’t need rules if you focus on hiring the right people, hold them accountable for performance, and give them “guardrails” to make decisions with. Errors in judgement are viewed as coaching opportunities rather than infractions.
Three: Successful leaders don’t care about being liked
We all have a need to be liked, and many of us are also conflict-adverse; some leaders think if they are liked, they will be respected. But this need often leads to the losing game of accommodating individual needs over team needs, and
Successful leaders know that it’s OK to have a likeable personality and to get to know team members personally, but they don’t have a need to be liked. Instead, they strive to be trusted and respected. Great leaders know their first loyalty is to the organization, not to their direct reports. Decisions must be made and explained from the perspective of what’s good for the future of the organization, not based on keeping everyone happy or making the leader popular.
Four: Successful leaders don’t treat team members the same
Traditionally leaders are taught to treat their team members the same, due to HR and other reasons (i.e., don’t play favorites). This can foster low engagement as high performers are not recognized or rewarded, and inefficiently allocates the leaders time across everyone equally.
Successful leaders know that know that organizational performance is maximized when they invest more time with high potential employees and less with poor performers, match people’s strengths to opportunities, and activate different engagement drivers based on individual preference.
Five: Successful leaders don’t keep secrets
Many leaders only share the good news because they think their team members “can’t handle the truth”. These leaders are concerned that “being negative” may hurt morale. Problems associated with only sharing good news in the spirit of protecting morale include deteriorating trust from a lack of authenticity, and the inability to tap the “wisdom of the crowd” for problem solving.
Successful leaders know that they build trust, instill a greater sense of ownership and engagement, and generate more problem-solving ideas when they are fully transparent and share the bad with the good.
Six: Successful leaders don’t do meetings
Meetings are a necessary part of corporate life and can be vital to information sharing and decision making. Yet, “too many meetings” is the top complaint of working professionals today. Must meetings are goal-less, include the wrong participants, and are time-inefficient.
Successful leaders hold very few traditional meetings and instead work quickly and efficiently with daily huddles (i.e., standup meetings), walk-and-talks, or meetings that are less than 10 minutes in duration. Additionally, successful leaders rarely attend meetings that their direct reports are holding because they know their presence will disempower the meeting-leader and may change the dynamics of the conversation.
Seven: Successful leaders don’t bring their smartphones to meetings
Smartphones are ubiquitous and are commonly seen and used during workplace meetings. However, research indicates that most people think bringing a smartphone to a meeting is rude, distracting and unprofessional.
Successful leaders leave the smartphone behind, or turn it off and leave it in their pocket during meetings, in order to remain focused, to practice active listening, and to convene meetings in as short a time as possible.
Eight: Successful leaders don’t care about executive presence
Many leaders wear their “leadership mask” each day as an attempt to exude executive presence, to hide their weaknesses, to appear strong and worthy of respect, or to mimic a leader they admire. Yet, followers are aware of masks sense a lack of genuineness, and in turn may put on their own masks, to try to hide problems and developmental areas.
Successful leaders know that being authentic is the key to earning trust and confidence. Rather than hiding failures and weaknesses, great leaders share their own mistakes and admit when they don’t know the answer to something.
Nine: Successful leaders don’t want perfection
The pursuit of quality, perfection and excellence are goals that are laudable, whether to produce competitive products or to take pride in our work. However, it’s easy for managers to cross the line from “coaching for performance” to fixing for perfection. Sometimes quality is just a cover for micromanagement. A leader’s feedback may improve a project by 10%, but if it also decreases ownership and motivation of the team members, it’s not worth it in the long run.
Successful leaders know that poor quality is unacceptable, but also that long-term success is based on shipping a good product today rather than a perfect product later. They have a bias for action, let people struggle and even fail in order to learn, and they focus on continuous improvement.
Ten: Successful leaders don’t put up walls
Traditional wisdom is that managers need to maintain a distance from their team members in order to preserve the manager-worker relationship. This helps the manager to maintain objectivity, and you never know when you might need to reprimand or fire someone; the job will be easier if feelings aren’t involved.
Successful leaders know the real secret is that a “caring” approach to leadership drives massive employee engagement, which in turn leads to loyalty and dramatic increases in discretionary effort. Whether in the military, public sector or in corporations, leaders who care attract the best talent, keep them longer and get the most out of them.