x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Getting better at the top

The Life: What does it mean when people say their leaders are getting better?

Illustration by istockphoto.com
Illustration by istockphoto.com

"He's changed and is getting better."

It is exciting to hear comments like this about leaders. In the past couple of weeks, I have been hearing remarks from employees about improvements they have observed in the leaders with whom they work directly.

But what do they mean when they say their leaders are getting better?

In each conversation, the leader was described as already very smart and technically strong. All were delivering good financial results for their companies.

Yet the employees said that in the past they did not want to follow their leaders into battle.

In each instance, what signified that the leader was getting better was the recognition that that leader was becoming more people-orientated. This seemingly "soft" difference is what the employees noticed and what energised them to work harder and to follow with greater intensity. It is the informal side of leadership that makes the biggest difference when it comes to sticking around and putting heart into the hours.

Of course, this assumes the nuts and bolts of business are already in place. If the mechanics are not there, questions about leadership capability will rightly be asked.

The question remains, what can a leader do to improve?

In the examples above, it was shared that each leader engaged with an executive coach who specialises in workplace performance. This is one of the best forms of executive development. As leaders worked with their coaches, the following areas were addressed: handling pressure; being aware of others; and empathy.

Leaders are like the battery for their workplaces, and a workforce needs a constant and consistent flow of energy. When the energy spikes because of pressure, this creates undue stress on the employees and impairs their performance.

Great leaders have an internal buffer zone that limits the shocks that are transferred to the employees. People work harder for a leader who they feel knows and cares for them. When leaders move out of the boardroom and into the passageways, the employees feel that those leaders know them better. Proximity is a great motivator and energiser for productivity.

"He knows us" was one of the resounding quotes. This important point often gets lost in the pursuit of corporate goals. In today's speedy world, leaders complain of not having enough time for the "people" stuff, but when it is present, the employees notice and respond to it with extra intensity in their work. Given the complexity of the workforce dynamics in the GCC, with numerous nationalities represented, people-orientated leadership is more than emotional intelligence. It requires workforce intelligence.

Originating from the psychology term "mentalisation", workforce intelligence is the ability of leaders to understand the mental state of employees that underlies their behaviour. It is an imaginative activity that allows leaders to interpret employee actions in terms of needs, desires, feelings, beliefs, goals, purposes and reasons.

When leaders get better, teams get better. So it is in leaders' own interest to give their employees what they are looking for - people-orientated leadership. People-orientated leaders seem always to be held in high esteem. Perhaps this is because they are rare. But that is no excuse, as every leader has the chance to be great.

Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth and emerging-market leadership, the author of The CEO Shift and the managing director of the Emerging Market Leadership Center