Secrets of a Relaxed and Comfortable Leader. How do you Match up?

By Catherine Cunningham - Career Specialist - Australia

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I am nowhere near being a natural leader. In my first attempt at the role, I didn’t do well and it soured me for many years. I happily operated alone as a technical specialist in the careers space and vowed, ‘Never again’.

One of my young friends told me at Christmas time that he had deliberately avoided the leadership ranks. He reckons the extra hours that he gains can be used for private wealth creation, which more than makes up for the lost salary.

Yet, for most of us, the reality is that the more interesting jobs come with leadership obligations attached. In spite of my antipathy to it, I eventually succumbed myself to managing a team in order to pick up larger projects.

I did put into place a cunning plan (more on that later) and now feel more comfortable about my skill level.

What about you?

Perhaps like me, you have decided to improve your leadership skills. However, it’s all very well to perform a Gap Analysis, where you score yourself out of 10 and then implement an action plan that focuses on those areas where you get the biggest bang for your buck. But what does ‘10’ actually look like?


Meet the ultimate Ten

‘Steve’ was a former colleague of mine in the Leisure industry and about a year ago I recommended him for an Executive role. Frankly, I raved about him and my comments were so laudatory I thought there was no way the CEO I was talking to would believe me. Luckily for her, she did and promptly hired him.

The other day, the CEO and I met for coffee and this time she was the one who was glowing in her praise of Steve.

Interestingly, many of the attributes of ‘my’ wonderful Executive showed up as being important in numerous US-based employee 2019 surveys. Clearly, it’s not just my CEO-friend or myself who rates these qualities as important so it’s well worth you taking a look.

Just what was so wonderful about this Executive? Here are ten keys to his success for you to assess yourself against.

  1. He never walked past behaviour that needed addressing.
    This takes energy and commitment. Many of us get caught up in the activity we are in the midst of when bad behaviour is occurrs. We think that we can deal with it later. The trouble is that we either forget or else find lots of reasons why we don’t need to act. Steve always acted. Further, he understood that managing poor performance was not always black and white. He was never afraid to consult with the HR team to talk through the best options. And, he always displayed the following famous but simple quote prominently in his office so that his team could see it: ‘The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.’
  1. He wasn’t distracted by unimportant activity and cut through to the core of an issue.
    Steve worked once for an organisation where they spent lots of energy applying for one-off government grants. The staff members would congratulate themselves on how much money they raised but Steve recognised that once-in-a-lifetime income which didn’t result in long term positive changes to operations was just a distraction. He refused to support one-off funding efforts and instead focused on meaningful change.
  1. He was technically competent and innovative.
    Steve looked to data as a basis of his decisions and then employed critical thinking. He developed a hypothesis, tested that hypothesis with analysis, and drew conclusions from what the data told him. (Interestingly, Harvard Business School Online has identified data analytics as one of the three tops skills needed for success in 2021.) Now, when we worked together, Leisure centres ran on crazy-tiny margins. If the data showed that change was needed, Steve would act immediately. He used his knowledge of the industry to introduce either a new income stream or an increase in our margins on current services.
  1. He was unpretentious and ethical.
    Steve is a country lad, so perhaps that’s why he treated everyone the same. There was never any doubt that he was the boss but he didn’t use his position to lord it over people and he didn’t use language to intimidate anyone. When we worked together, our Leisure centre staff across the company were entitled to transfer from casual status to full time after 12 months. Yet, NONE of them did! They believed that Steve and his Managers would treat them ethically and that they were safe. They pocketed the 25% loading and slept soundly at night, knowing that they would get their shifts and would not be subjected to arbitrary behaviour.
  1. He focused on cost control.
    Steve treated the company money as if it were his own. In our low margin private business that made sense, of course. Yet, when Steve left our company and worked for a large corporate, he continued to watch the pennies. He had an inherent disgust of waste and ensured that suppliers offered best service and best prices.
  1. He respected his staff when performance managing them.
    It was truly amazing the number of times a staff member would tell me how much they liked and respected Steve, immediately after a meeting with him where he was addressing their poor behaviour. Steve would explain the issue in clear and unequivocal language, and would not accept any tricks that someone might use to excuse their behaviour. He’d come right back to the point and hold them accountable in a polite but firm manner. This combination of respect and rigour worked a treat.
  1. He knew his own worth and had high levels of confidence.
    When you know that you have a strong moral compass, it gives you strength. When you know that you perform well, it brings confidence. Steve was proud of his work and his efforts. He was not afraid to negotiate all manner of things, from sharing resources with fellow Execs to his own salary.
  1. He used the 80/20 Pareto rule to achieve effectiveness.
    Steve learned early on that poor recruitment almost always resulted in problems down the track. He invested his time and intellect in getting it right. He never moaned about the extra effort that our hiring processes may have caused. He just got on with it and did it. As a result, our bad turnover numbers reduced as did the time we spent managing poor performance.
  1. He looked after his body and didn’t work ridiculous hours.
    I can always remember reading of a partner at the global consulting company McKinsey giving advice to an overworked young recruit there. The partner said that the firm would have no qualms sucking her dry if she let them. He advised her to establish a reputation as an effective worker and then set limits. She should work smart, not long and not apologise for it. Perhaps because Steve started in the leisure and fitness industry, he had already internalised the importance of health. He was hardworking, but refused to be overworked and made time to stay fit and strong.
  1. He got his hands dirty when needed and went above and beyond the call of duty.
    Steve wouldn’t ask anybody to do something he wouldn’t do himself. If we were short-handed and there was a deadline, he would pitch in. I can always remember both of us cleaning the dirty office that we inherited when we took over the Christmas Island Recreation Centre (NOT to be confused with the Detention Centre there). This is especially important in a culture like Australia, where staff are quick to spot and then, of course, dislike elitism.


How do you rate?

Leadership is so hard. And it’s much more difficult to be a great leader if your early values were wrong. Steve was one of the lucky ones, brought up with love and care. He and his father still give back to the community, via a little back yard operation where they repair bikes to give to kids in need. Typically of Steve, it’s quiet and practical help.

What about me?

When I was a child, we weren’t even allowed to say, ‘Shut up!’ - that’s how much my parents cared about how we treated others. And my school continued this theme of putting others first. Yet, still I struggled to control my own behaviour in that first leadership role.

What was my cunning plan to try to emulate Steve?

  1. I spent ten years religiously reading Harvard Business Review each month which was the then go-to resource for the business world. This exposed me to the latest thinking about leadership and it was always based around case studies highlighting not just the behaviour but the changes that arose from the behaviour. This regular exposure to leadership Best Practice meant that I did lots of thinking about my own behaviour.
  1. At the time, I was also running training sessions about Teamwork, Conflict Resolution and the like, so I was constantly reminded about how to communicate well with others. One of the best changes that came from this constant practice was that I minimised my tendency to blurt out the first thing that came into my head i.e. I self-regulated better and more often.
  1. I’ve worked for many years now in an area where my clients are often very stressed and unhappy about their careers, lacking confidence that change is possible. In client sessions, I’m very careful about what I say and I think it has carried over to other areas of my work.

What can CEOs, Executives and Managers do?

If you’re a CEO, rate your Executive Team against Steve. If you’re an Executive, rate your Managers against him. Are they making their teams happy or miserable? Are they innovative, cost-conscious, respectful etc, etc.

If they’re doing well, let them know and be specific. If they’re falling down, do something about it.

What about you?

When it comes to our own self-analysis, if we manage people, it’s worth rating ourselves against Steve. If we’re doing well, we should be proud but always watchful. If we need to change, it’s our job to do so. Our staff are judging us and the consequences of doing nothing will eventually catch up with us. We are paid to lead, after all.

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