A Bird’s Eye View of Leadership

The following is a brief look back over the last 20 years based on what I have seen senior executives do to enhance their leadership of organizations throughout the years.

1. Clarify expectations. Focusing on results equals creating a zone of focus. I’ve seen several leaders throughout the years, do a great job at clarifying what they need for people to do to accomplish the important results. Often times, it is better for the leader to tell people all the steps he/she needs to be taken and why, rather than engage in an extended conversation.

2. Provide venues for listening to employee input. The corollary? Provide opportunities for employees to hear the same message the same time. I have facilitated a number of sessions for senior executives that provided them with a unique opportunity to share some of their personal perspectives and respond to questions from their employees at the same time, in the same forum. This lack of editing provides us an opportunity for everyone to hear the same message without the need for middle managers to translate the vision to frontline employees.

3. Create enthusiasm for the future. Data that we now have available about engaged employees demonstrates that one of the key differentiators in organizations that have a high employee satisfaction rate is directly related to the employee’s belief in the vision they’re hearing from senior executives. How compelling is the picture? I’ve worked with senior executives who are so skilled at painting the picture of what’s possible; it’s a real art in getting employees excited about the future.

4. Be the “noticer-in-chief”. Having the opportunity to work with many senior executives, I have urged them to accept the role of “noticer-in-chief” in helping drive organizational change. What exactly does that mean? They need to observe critical behaviors that are essential to helping the organization move forward and to comment on these behaviors. Observing, commenting and focusing on key behaviors will help highlight what is expected of employees going forward.

One senior executive in particular, understood how important it was for him to notice new skills being applied. Communicating through his organizational newsletter, in personal notes to individuals, and in large group meetings, he observed and commented. His actions helped to reinforce the importance of these skills and helped the rest of the employees to focus on developing those skills as well

5. Provide opportunities for employees to provide input into tactical aspects of organizational strategy. People tend to support what they help create. Senior leaders can get buy-in into the strategy by listening to feedback from employees regarding tactics; thereby enlisting their support to make it happen.

6. Create high-performing multifunctional teams. One of the great ways senior leaders can get things done is to charter cross functional teams to come up with solutions to pressing organizational development challenges. The key to these efforts include successful the sponsorship by the senior executive, training for the facilitator and team members, and setting the expectation of results.

7. Be willing to say no. One of the most powerful things a senior executive can do to guide the organization is to articulate very clearly what is off strategy and to be able to say no to internal proposals that might create diversions at a critical time for the organization.

8. Confront the tough issues. I have heard many employees tell me how much they respect a senior leader who is willing to take on the tough issues. One of the toughest issues is often team members who are not pulling their weight. Being willing to confront these employees, either in reassigning them or letting them go, sends the message that performance is truly valued and that everyone will be rewarded and recognized fairly.

9. Walking the walk. Senior leaders gain a lot of credibility in their organization by “eating their own dog food”. Too often, senior leaders lay out requirements for the staff that they’re not willing to do themselves. Having worked with many executives over the years, I have seen how powerful a statement it is when the senior executives do the same things they expect from team members. Whether that be taking on new behaviors, taking training to introduce new skills, or participate in certain team activities. It sends the message “we are in all of this together”.

10. Gratitude. Tell people on a daily basis that you love them. Express your gratitude for them and let them know what you appreciate about them. This personal connection reinforces an abundance mentality and helps people understand how what they do contributes to the overall success of the organization.

Boxer Advisors, LLC, is a full-service consulting, training and coaching firm with more than 50 professional consultants, facilitators, and coaches and carefully selected partners providing services to Federal agencies and Fortune 1000 companies since 1996.

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Gary Lyon

Wow! Great distillation of the key elements of great leadership. Wish it were SOP in defining job performance expectations for anyone with responsibility for leading others. Thanks for a great article.

Peter Cholakis

While I applaud those few government agencies who run contrary to my statement below….

With respect to managing the built environment…facilities and infrastructure, there is little leadership across the federal sector. Washington D.C. HQ does little to lead disparate regions and provide global oversight will promoting local action from a best practice perspective. Waste is rampant, and I see no change in the near future unless it is forced by environmental and/or economic issues and/or mandate.

Dale M. Posthumus

These are great articles of good, effective leadership. As you note, there is nothing new here – they have been around for 20 years and more. The Federal Govt is not good at developing managers (the private sector is better, but also suffers). It needs to identify potential managers early, start training and assessment, and promote because they will be good managers in the agency role the will assume.

Ken Boxer

Thanks to all of you who commented on my blog post regarding what I have seen senior executives do throughout the years to serve as great leaders in their organizations

What are your thoughts regarding what we can do to help promote the use activities?

Gary Lyon

I don’t think it unreasonable to say much of what senior leaders do is done to achieve organizational performance. If you agree, I think it is reasonable to say performance starts with the culture of an organization and what it shows it truly values through the behavior of its leaders. If the leadership exhibits the behaviors you describe, and holds subordinates accountable for the same, then by and large the organization will reflect these behaviors, trust will be high, commitment to mission will be high and in turn performance will be high. Cross-pollinating these behaviors across organizational boundaries requires quantifying the positive impact these behaviors have on organizational performance, and having high-performing leaders mentor their lower-performing peers.

If you look at the behaviors of the leaders of Forbe’s 100 Best Companies To Work For list, they by and large reflect what you describe and overall their companies financially outperform the S&P and Russell indices by 2x. In government the challenge then becomes showing how these behaviors can rally public service employees to better serve the public, and acknowledging the value of these behaviors for their contribution to better government and a better workplace. I would be fascinated to see a study of the leadership behaviors of the agencies that are considered great places to work – my bet would be they are very much in line with the 10 you list in your article.