The Single Leadership Trait All Entrepreneurs Need to Succeed
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
I've read dozens of management books in my time -- and frankly I'm bored with reading the same advice about the importance of honesty, integrity, resilience and empathy. While I agree these are all important for success in business, most books overlook the elephant in the room -- temperament.
When I created my first business, I had a client who was a nice guy, but as a CEO he was feared and disliked by his employees because of his volcanic temper. Plagued with high staff turnover and low morale, it was a blind spot which undoubtedly damaged his business.
I didn't envy the employees on the receiving end of his rage, but I sympathized with him. Running a business is a hard slog. No one knows better than a business owner the gut-wrenching feeling of being copied into an email from one of your employees to a client that is going to go down badly, or finding out a vital piece of work hasn't been done.
Daily challenges -- late payments, passive-aggressive clients, cash-flow hiccups -- can all cause worry, potentially triggering rage and frustration in even the most Zen-like of business leaders.
The timing of your response to difficult situations (or people) is vital. React too soon, when you're angry or upset, and you risk saying something unprofessional that you may regret. But, leave it too late to say or do something, and there's a risk that your employees will think you are indecisive. In that vacuum of leadership, rumors can quickly escalate.
Ann Dunwoody, the first woman to become a four-star general in the U.S. military, once told me to never walk past a mistake. If you do, people will see that you've ignored it and assume that you don't have high standards. I agree, but it has to be addressed in an appropriate way.
How leaders communicate with employees is a vital factor in not just the performance of a business, but also its ability to recruit the best workers. Employee survey sites such as Glassdoor put entrepreneurs under even more scrutiny. My friend of many years, Craig Donaldson, CEO of Metro Bank, was recently named one of the top CEO in a Glassdoor survey of employees -- and much of the respect Metro employees have for him is due to his character and the way he cares for the staff.
Having the kind of outlook that thrives at the top of business relies on one thing: the regulation of emotion. Even-handedness, if you like. But, how do you achieve this if it doesn't come naturally? Luckily for some -- myself included -- it's easy to fake.
The method I'm about to outline comes from the leader of a global business, who told me that when he became annoyed about something or someone, he'd do what he called his "objective analysis" test. The test ranked his annoyance out of 10 based on how annoyed a "reasonable" person would be about the matter. Are you feeling a seven out of 10 when a three would be more reasonable? It's turned out to be one of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever received.
So, while some of what I'm about to tell you may sound folksy and obvious, it's actually surprisingly hard to stick to when things are going wrong and you've had a poor night's sleep. Here are some tips I've learned the hard way.
1. Be mindful.
Yes, I know, "mindfulness" is the go-to buzzword of the day, but what does it actually mean? You've most likely read articles about how business leaders should embrace mindfulness, and you probably have a meditation app on your phone that you've only used twice. With all the hype, it can be easy to forget how useful mindfulness can be for business leaders.
But, by becoming more aware of their how your thoughts are affecting your emotions and behavior, you're more likely to remain calm under pressure. It also ties into other keys of self-care like getting enough sleep, exercise and regular meals, which can also be tedious to constantly hear.
2. Encourage honest feedback.
When giving employees feedback, we're familiar with the basics: Don't do it in a negative way. Give it in person, away from the rest of the team.
However, when it comes to receiving feedback, it's important to encourage employees to challenge you and your ideas -- including in front of clients. It's the best way to get a plurality of views and avoid the blinkered group-think of The Borg in Star Trek.
One of my proudest moments in business was when an employee disagreed with me in front of a client and suggested a different way of doing something. The employee was right, and the client got a better service. It can be easy to see disagreement as a threat when it's actually the opposite. It's a sign of a healthy, open workplace that's more likely to produce good ideas.
Related: 50 Rules for Being a Great Leader
3. Get some mentors.
I once had a conversation with Jack Straw, a former foreign secretary in the U.K. government. When I asked him who he trusted for advice, he said that he only trusted advice from people who were or had been a foreign secretary, because only they could truly know the pressures of the job.
When you're looking for a mentor (inside or outside your business), make sure that the valuable sounding board is of a similar senior level to yourself.
4. Exit interviews are a golden opportunity.
Let's be honest: Many business leaders would rather make an appointment with the dentist than do an exit interview.
I know exit interviews can feel awkward, but if the employee's severance package is sorted and any bad feeling about their departure has been dealt with, an exit interview provides a fantastic opportunity to gather intelligence about your business. There's no better way to get an honest opinion on your management style and what employees really think of you. The employee has nothing to lose, so encourage them to be honest. Their feedback may even highlight weaknesses in your management style or business strategy that you would never have spotted otherwise.