Business owners looking to grow their companies typically beef up their sales efforts and explore new product introductions before thinking about leadership strategies and how they can impact the bottom line.
But that's a mistake, said Scott Jeffrey Miller, executive vice president of thought leadership with Franklin Covey.
The most successful leaders, in his experience, recognize that there is a direct link between leadership that encourages employee engagement and a company's bottom-line.
When more than 25,000 leaders were asked how they would drive better business performance, respondents said they would focus on enhancing organizational talent (72 percent), building a high-performance culture (72 percent), and engaging employees (69 percent), according to a report Miller produced called the Global Leadership Forecast.
“Most leaders think their most valuable asset is their brand or their product," said Miller, who also puts out a newsletter and podcast. “But the most valuable asset of any company is the culture and the ability of employees to work together."
In an age of full employment, said Miller, being able to identify, attract and retain the smartest, most mature people is even more important.
“Good leaders are intrinsically invested in other people's success," he said.
Successful entrepreneurs and leaders leverage a few key leadership strategies that foster an environment where employees become a revenue-driving asset.
A common problem in many companies, said Miller, is establishing appropriate communication between leaders and entrepreneurs and their managers and employees.
“A digital publishing company I worked with in Florida had about 30 employees, but 15 of them were direct reports to the CEO," said Miller. “Right away, I advised that 6 to 8 direct reports would be better, because otherwise it's difficult to develop individual connections with these employees."
While the entire staff had weekly meetings and accountability meetings, Miller recommended that the leader commit to monthly one-on-one meetings with the direct reports.
“It's important to establish that these meetings are for the leader to listen and that the employee drives that agenda," said Miller. “I told the leader to be deliberate and intentional about these meetings, to not over schedule them and to avoid canceling them."
The publishing company was facing a difficult transition when a lynchpin employee became terminally ill. The one-on-one meetings provided an opportunity for the leader to strengthen interpersonal connections with other staff, to support the woman and her family, and to gradually reallocate tasks so the company could move forward and begin to grow again even while they were grieving.
“The way to grow a business is through people," said Miller. “If you can build a level of loyalty and establish trust between employees, it becomes easier to solve problems that are uncovered during one-on-one meetings."
While leaders need to be ready to change strategies if something isn't working, Miller said, they also should not shift direction with every conversation.
“The key contribution of leaders, beyond setting the culture, is to establish focus," he said. “Leaders need to be able to decide how many things they'll say 'yes' to and what to say 'no' to."
Miller warns against “urgency addiction," which occurs when everything is a priority and no hierarchy of goals is set.
“Leaders need to be explicit in communicating goals, such as, 'Our No. 1 goal by December 31 is to add five more pharma clients to our list'," said Miller. “Leaders need to focus relentlessly to get out of stagnation."
He recommends prioritizing one, two or at most three “Wildly Important Goals" or “WIGs" and to make sure that everyone in the company understands those priorities and how they can contribute.
“Leaders need to translate their priorities to actionable behavior for every employee," Miller said.
While Miller's book, "Management Mess to Leadership Success," includes 30 challenges to improve leadership qualities, he says two of the most important challenges are to listen first and to talk straight.
To grow your business, said Miller, you need to listen to your managers and employees, be ready to hear the truth and to speak the truth.
“Every leader should take a hard look at their team and ask themselves if there's creative talent in the organization that's not being released because of their leadership style," said Miller.
Miller acknowledges that he tends to interrupt, often to ask questions to show his interest in other people.
“I've learned how important it can be to listen on someone else's timeline and agenda, not on your own," he said.
Five tips that Miller shares in his book to improve listening skills include:
Whether listening to a personal discussion or discussing something directly tied to work, employees need to feel safe to talk to their leaders about issues with customers or profits - or any topic - without fear of retribution.
“Bad news is the lifeblood of a leader," said Miller. “The sooner you tell me bad news, the sooner I can take action on it. The longer you hold it from me, the more you limit my ability to take actions to solve it."
When it's your turn to talk as a leader, Miller said, it can be easy to fall into the trap of spinning details to spare people's feelings or save them from psychological harm. The problem is that the truth will likely be known sooner or later, and that earlier spinning undermines a leader's credibility.
“As leaders, our ability to talk straight comes down to using clear, accurate and simple language to ensure that what is said is what is heard and, perhaps most important, what is being heard is being understood," Miller wrote in his book.
Leaders who talk straight:
While there will always be twists and turns along the road to success, Miller's lessons in leadership provide a foundation on which to build relationships with employees and managers.
Creating a culture of open communication can lead to growth based on the creativity of the group rather than the imagination of one person.
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