Leading, Not Managing August 8, 2019

Leaders: what do they really do?

Leaders - what do they really do

What do leaders really do? It’s a big question; one which is asked and answered by Vistage speaker and author Jeff Grout. As Jeff puts it, we all understand the importance of leadership, the significance of being the person at the top, the person who holds ultimate responsibility - but what about the practical realities of what leaders actually do? 

From the league position of your favourite football club to the economic performance of a country - in all walks of life we believe leaders are the ultimate determiners of success or failure.

While there are thousands of books acknowledging this fact and offering theories and models for leadership styles, few of those books discuss real, empirical tools leaders can use to improve their business. 

Jeff Grout and Liz Fisher’s book What do leaders really do? outlines a number of clear, practical things a leader can do which will have a dramatic impact on their company culture, employee engagement, and the overall performance of their business. Here are some of the key points from the book.

Providing direction

“The principal role of the leader is to set the compass, to chart the course, in order that people can follow… but by definition, a leader has to have followers - so are your people following you?”

As Jeff goes on to say, there’s no point setting the direction if people aren’t following you. So how can you measure said ‘following’? He recommends using a tool he’s devised called the T-test. The test comprises thirteen questions, directed at both the ‘horizontal line’ of the business (C-suite) and everyone else down the ‘vertical line’ - from management to team leaders to the office receptionist.

By asking questions like ‘what is the overall business objective?’; ‘what are the company’s priorities?’, and ‘how are you contributing to these priorities?’ you can find out whether or not everyone is pulling in the same direction. You may have set the objectives, but have you made sure everyone in the company knows what they are? Or have you only communicated ‘horizontally’ across the C-suite and with senior management?

When everyone in the company is following the same purpose, it creates a sense of meaning and cohesion. Instead of people feeling like they’re on the fringes, they become active, willing participants - and this is crucial if you want your business to thrive. 

Jeff sums up the importance of people following a shared vision: “You have people coming to work every day with discretionary effort they can only volunteer. You can’t squeeze it out of them, you can’t force it out of them. If they’re happy, they’re likely to give a better service to the customer and the business is likely to perform better.”

Creating one team

We hear a lot about teamwork and creating a sense of unity in the workplace, but what does that actually look like? What can leaders do to include and engage everyone in the business?

Jeff gives the example of Ron Dennis, former chief exec of McLaren Technology Group:

“I asked Ron Dennis, the team chief of McLaren, how many people it took to make Lewis Hamilton world champion for the first time back in 2008. He said it took a total of 260 people. When he was team chief he would invite all 260, after every Grand Prix, to McLaren’s staff canteen in Wokingham, which holds a maximum of 125 people. So, for an hour, this room is completely mobbed while Ron gives a blow-by-blow insider’s account of what happened with one sole purpose in mind, which is this: whether you are a designer, mechanic or secretary you feel you’ve contributed to the victory. He calls this the insider feeling, we call it employee engagement.”

MacLaren Technology Group include and engage everyone in the business

So, why is this so important? Jeff explains: “In most companies, the insiders are the horizontal of the team (the C-suite) What Ron Dennis wanted was for everyone to experience the insider feeling. If you’ve got the insider feeling you feel involved, you feel included, you might even feel inspired. If you’ve got the insider feeling, you feel like you personally make a difference.”

Invest time in getting to know your people

How well do you know your employees? Do you know what motivates different individuals in your company? Do you know their backgrounds, their influences? Jeff believes this knowledge is vital if you want to be the best leader you can be

When you really get to know people, you learn what makes them tick. You know what type of approach will engage them or what type of reward will motivate them. The knock-on effect of tailoring your leadership style or tools in this way is simple: you make people feel valued and respected. 

Spending an hour getting to know someone over a coffee is likely to make them feel listened to and appreciated, as Jeff explains. “What we really need to do to find out about our people is to take some time out. Go to a restaurant or a coffee shop and invest time in finding out about some of the influences in their life because it will tell you a lot about them.”

Communication really matters

What does communication really mean? Jeff talks about a phenomenon he’s seen time and time again. If he asks the horizontal line of the company what they think of their communication, they say it's excellent , but when he asks the vertical line of the same company, they say the exact opposite - that it’s rubbish. Why?

The communication which the C-suite believe is so effective only goes one way. As Jeff explains, “we use terms like briefings, town halls, information cascades. It’s one-way.”

Talking is good but not all talk is the same. Jeff categorises communication into two groups: big talk and little talk. He defines big talk as the objectives, the priorities, the vision of the business. Little talk, he says, includes things like saying ‘thank you’, ‘please’, ‘well done’. He explains how these two types of communication should be balanced: “The absence of little talk is a huge sapper of motivational energy. If you want people to follow, you need to communicate the big talk routinely, maybe around four times a year, but you should be communicating the little talk every hour of every day.”

Challenging and questioning

As a leader it’s vital to always challenge and question the way we do things. None of us is ever a perfect leader or a finished product. When we question ourselves and analyse how and why we do things, we learn from mistakes and find more effective ways to lead. It also gives us the opportunity to recognise what’s working or whether successful techniques could be applied elsewhere in the business.

Jeff suggests breaking this down into four simple questions:

  • What are the good things we do that we must keep doing?
  • What are the bad things we do that we must stop doing?
  • What things do we do only occasionally that we should do consistently?
  • What things don’t we do that we should start doing?

So, who should answer these questions? These aren’t questions for the C-suite or senior management. Jeff believes these questions should be given to every new starter in your business on day one: “Say to them, over the next hundred days, ‘record what you see, then sit down with me and tell me what you saw.’ It’s like having the resources of the best management consultancy in the world and it’s costing nothing. They will shine light on areas of your business you just don’t see.”

Effective leadership doesn’t come down to one magic ingredient or quality. It’s like anything else: being a good leader comes down to hard work and the ability to consistently challenge yourself, recognise problems, and make changes. What leaders should do is engage, motivate and set the direction. But, as Jeff Grout highlights, these aren’t mystical, theoretical notions; becoming the best leader you can be is all about applying practical tools which will lead to better communication, happier and more engaged staff, and improved productivity.

To hear more from Jeff’s session, What do Leaders Really do, watch the highlight video available now.


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