Building the 21st Century Leader

People Skills

Everybody says their employees are their top priority, but management consultants say few companies' actions show it. Changing work force dynamics make managing people an increasingly crucial skill for leaders, says Trudy Bourgeois, president and CEO of the Center for Workforce Excellence in Lewisville, Texas.

Generation X and Y workers know they're in demand as the American work force shrinks, Bourgeois says. Leaders need to learn how to keep this new wave of younger workers happy, or risk losing them. Many women leaders have an edge here, as they tend to focus on relationships more than male CEOs.

Among the traits younger workers want from leadership are authenticity, accessibility and respect for their individuality. "They want personal credit for the results they get for the organization," Bourgeois says. "If a leader says, 'Under my leadership, we . . . ,' [employees will] stand right up and say, 'You didn't do crap.' Leaders need to develop their ability to connect with the most diverse work force in history."

Aside from adjusting to a new generation's sassy attitude, one of modern leaders' prime responsibilities is helping their people adjust to the changes sweeping their workplaces. Whether it's a change in direction, a merger or a job reassignment, employees are nervous when change comes, says Doug Staneart, president and CEO of The Leaders Institute in Fort Worth, Texas. "The number-one thing I've seen that makes a great leader now is they have a need for change, and they allow people in their organization to feel safe about that change," he says.

Staneart takes clients through a four-step program to learn how to help workers embrace change. He says first, leaders must establish trust and reduce conflicts by airing them honestly. Only then can a leader start to gain buy-in and cooperation with a planned change. Once the team is onboard, leaders should step up efforts to recognize and reward the potential of their staff.

At clinical-test monitoring company Coast Independent Review Board in Lake Forest, California, CEO Darren McDaniel, 36, says he has helped his employees cope with the company's explosive growth--from annual sales of zero to $7 million in four years--by constantly evaluating and rewarding their performance. He says annual performance reviews, or even quarterly ones, are not enough input these days, adding, "I have people who've been promoted five times and tripled their income in the past 18 months."

Purposefulness: Experts are split on whether having a strong vision is a good thing. "Leadership is about going somewhere," Blanchard says. "You need a clear vision that's about who you are, your picture of the future, where you're going."

But Linsky counters, "Vision is as much a constraint as a resource. In my observation, CEOs get invested in their vision, and then they don't see contrary data."

What's better these days, Linsky says, is for leaders to have a strong sense of purpose they can express to their workers--a compelling reason for everyone at the company to come to work. "It's about building the world's best automobiles or enabling people to be safe in their homes," he says. "It's a purpose outside yourself, which is very different than vision."

Decisiveness: The days of holding endless meetings to discuss possibilities are over, says Stevens. At the current pace of change, fast action is what matters. The desire to reach consensus or get buy-in from all parties has to be curtailed at some point, and the leader has to make a decision.

Stevens recalls one founder and CEO who had stepped back into a chairman role. Unfortunately, the new CEO let the company stagnate. Stevens investigated. "I told him, 'Your company has become a debating society,'" he recalls. "Nothing ever happens." The chairman stepped back into the CEO role, but Stevens says it was too late to turn the do-nothing culture around. The company ended up being sold.

Women leaders, in particular, often need to work to boost their skills in this area. With her women clients, founder and partner JaneƩ Harrell of Amplyfi Consulting in Dallas encourages an attitude she calls "Stand and Not Quiver."

"I recommend women get very data-driven and approach men very directly and decisively," Harrell says. "Base it on facts, and gain the respect you deserve."

On the plus side, women tend to be confident in relying on their intuition, which can serve them well in cutting to the chase, says Bourgeois. "It's good to be intuitive, because the world is changing so dramatically that the data isn't there to support good business decisions all the time," she explains.

The ideal management style for the 21st century, Bourgeois says, blends typical female and male traits--you'll need both intuition and a focus on the bottom line, both people skills and analytical strength.

Collaborative Skills: The problems today's companies face can't be solved if department leaders stay in their own silos, says Cynthia McCauley, senior fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina. CEOs need to create cultures that foster idea exchanges among all corners of their organizations and beyond. "We need more managers who can work across boundaries--with vendors, external partners, across business units," she says.

At Cristek Interconnects, a military-contracting manufacturing business in Anaheim, California, founder and president Cristi Cristich, 45, says she developed a soft-skills matrix to encourage collaboration and approachability among her staff. The matrix sets goals defining exactly what a successful, collaborative employee should be doing: recognizing and rewarding teams, promptly resolving staff issues, modeling collaborative behavior and actively assisting others in collaborative work. According to Cristich, "These are soft skills that have bottom-line results." The 21-year-old company projected $15 million in annual sales for 2006, up 10 percent from the previous year.

The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.

Carol Tice, a freelance writer, is chief executive of TiceWrites Inc. in Bainbridge Island, Wash. She blogs about freelance writing at Make a Living Writing. Email her at carol@caroltice.com.

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This article was originally published in the February 2007 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Building the 21st Century Leader.

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