While I'm not necessarily a traditional New Year's resolution kind of guy, I do take advantage of the idea a new year brings about the opportunity to do things better, or perhaps shake up a routine that's feeling a bit tired. Typically, those resolutions or new ideas come from a perspective of reflection on the previous year, or something that's inspired us in some way.
Many of us will never forget the harsh business climate of 2009. Most would like to forget it. And yet, in spite of the most brutal business environment since the Great Depression, 2009 was a fantastic year to see true leadership in action. When you throw some adversity into the mix, you get to see demonstrations of leadership you wouldn't have been able to see as clearly in a typical year.
I typically devote the 800-or-so words of this column to tangible, practical insights on the importance of process, rigor, and the "how-to's" of customer-centricity. Nevertheless, some of those great examples of leadership I alluded to above deserve further mention.
These shouldn't just be held up as lessons for how to manage in difficult times. Rather, they should be put on the list of any leader who is looking to improve the way he leads at any time.
1. Say it like it is. One of the things that impressed me most were the leaders who went into 2009 preparing their teams for the challenges ahead. They didn't sugarcoat. They didn't stick their heads in the sand and attempt to spin that the economy somehow wouldn't impact their organization.
Instead, in pragmatic ways, they prepared their teams with facts. They prepared their teams with clear objectives and a clear plan. Most of all, they were candid about the realities and sensible in their expectations for the year ahead.
This is good advice in any year. Be candid. Don't sugarcoat the challenges. Leadership isn't about putting your best spin on a tough scenario; it's actually acknowledging it head-on and being clear about how the team will get through it to win.
2. Be visible and accessible. This past year, it seemed like the calls I had with some of our most successful clients' executives mostly took place while they were somewhere other than the office. Not that a sales leader isn't on the road a lot during a typical year, but it seemed the best-performing companies really stepped up their executive visibility to both employees and customers.
Even with companies cutting back on corporate travel dramatically, some recognized how important it was to lead by going first—or at least, by going shoulder-to-shoulder—through the tough year.
Get out of the spreadsheets and into some customer contact. Schedule some "town hall" sessions with employees. You might learn something just by being in more frequent touch with what's happening in the field. Your ability to lead people, whether in good times or bad, can only benefit.
3. Connect and communicate. It's not enough just to translate the company strategy verbatim as a field leader or manager. Connect it to why it's important and why it should matter to those you're asking to carry out the plan.
The most successful companies we're working with right now have leaders who are thinking through how to engage their teams in the fight versus antagonizing their teams to execute. They are painting a clear vision…and being clear about what the mission looks like right now to get there. They're thinking through how that mission and vision should be important to everyone on their team.
It's easy to read the memo. It's leadership to translate the memo in a way that's meaningful to those that will execute the plan. It's been said in every leadership book that's worth reading, but this is an area that requires over-communicating and in several mediums.
4. Report to your reports. A key trait I've noticed amongst the better leaders is their ability to keep their team well informed on how they're doing against the objectives. Sounds simple, but it's not often done that well. So much time is spent creating charts and graphs to communicate to superiors, while the ones who are fighting the fight often aren't kept abreast of progress.
Make a point to report frequently to those in the fight on how it's going. Openly celebrate milestones achieved. Be prepared to share course corrections where things are not going well. It's amazing how many people in organizations don't know if they're winning or losing—simply because they aren't getting regular updates on how the plan is working.
5. Own it. I can always spot a great leader when there's no separation of accountability on achieving organizational objectives. In times of crises it can become an easy out to throw your team under the bus—especially when you've inherited them.
"They just don't get it." "They're not equipped to make the transformation to the new realities." Comments like that may buy you a few extra months until you have a new band of unfortunate salespeople to blame. But sooner or later, the buck stops with you.
The best leaders own it on day one. They don't lump the team into generalities. They make tough calls quickly on poor performers and get the stars into positions of greater impact. They do it fast and they own it.
I'm not sure what your New Year's resolutions are looking like, or if you even believe in them. For some of you the storm is over, and for others 2010 looks to be just as challenging.
Either way, much of your success will be determined by how effectively you can lead your team through whatever lies ahead. Skip the long list of resolutions this year. Just resolve to lead.
SMM columnist Bill Golder is executive vice president of sales at Miller Heiman. Available for keynote speaking opportunities, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 877-678-0397.