During a webinar with IABC, we prompted an informal poll asking the group of around 500 internal communications professionals what their primary challenges are. Any guesses on what surfaced the most? If you guessed leadership engagement and buy-in, you’re right. In fact, more than half of the respondents agreed. Effectively, many leaders aren’t doing their part leading!
The good thing is, most leaders understand that they need to get better. Especially at the top! If you ever find yourself in a CEO mixer, CEOs will generally discuss topics around themes of employee motivation, workforce alignment, and employee retention. Here’s the downside: many people in leadership positions aren’t born natural leaders and may need help figuring out how to improve. Here is how internal communications can help. Internal communicators can coach executives on how to be better leaders and flip the perspective from “our leaders neglect us and their communications” to “our leaders need our help.” In this post, let’s examine the characteristics of a good leader and how internal communicators can help improve executive leadership.
Here are 10 characteristics of a good leader:
1. Good leaders understand their priorities
If you were in business school, you probably learned that the primary purpose of a CEO is to please investors. Many leaders have polished PR answers around how they want to change the world or deliver excellent customer experiences. However, we’re fooling ourselves if fulfilling investor expectations isn’t the top priority. While that priority is standard, many will deviate when asked their second priority. The best leaders understand that the second priority is about getting the most out of their people – so they worry about company alignment, employee engagement, and culture. The premise is simple: A CEO has no stronger lever for competitive advantage than their employees. Getting more from your employees sparks stronger loyalty, better productivity, more creative innovation, and less drama. It’s simple math, especially if the company spends 70% of its P&L on salaries and benefits.
2. Good leaders understand their role
There are tons of books that speak to this understanding. Here are some, just to name a few: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Multipliers, Leaders Eat Last, and Tribal Leadership. The angles differ minimally, but many of the premises are common. The characteristics of a good leader understand they no longer need to be the smartest person in the room. They win by helping their team breakthrough challenges and provide a supportive role for both individual and team wins. It’s not only about them!
Strong leaders characteristically look for leverage out of their employees and try to hire smart people. For those that rose through the ranks as a hard-working bulldog, good leaders make the switch from elbow-swinging to encouragement.
3. Good leaders are self-aware of their influence
Another important characteristic of a good leader is that they understand that they have an inordinate amount of influence over others. From the leader’s perspective, an individual contributor may never get a fleeting thought beyond one-pointed interaction. However, for that individual, the leader may be the source of sleepless nights or the topic of dinner conversations. Great leaders understand this impact.
The impact isn’t as influential as a celebrity’s or a politician’s, but it’s enough to impact an individual’s (or multiple individuals’) day-to-day. When leaders begin to understand this perspective, other good leadership characteristics such as empathy and encouragement come more naturally.
4. Good leaders show they are human and care about their people
This is a leadership trait that is better expressed by examples. Here are some things that great leaders do.
- send hand-written thank you cards
- remember birthdays
- know your children’s names
- provide genuine kudos in public forums
- understand when personal priorities are more important
- listen when they ask, “How are you?”
- want to help employees grow in their career
Great leaders show empathy, help people save face, and don’t stomp on the dead. Great leaders are willing to be vulnerable and admit that they don’t have all of the answers. Great leaders aren’t too proud to put themselves in those funny, awkward situations to show company spirit. From a psychology perspective, it’s interesting to see how much self-security ties into leadership attributes. Many negative characteristics often stem from insecurities, and these can be amplified in an individual’s leadership.
5. Good leaders understand they set the company culture
When Simpplr Research analyzed Glassdoor data across most of the U.S. public companies, we found something fascinating. Glassdoor allows employees to rate their company on a variety of attributes anonymously, and two of those are “Senior Management” and “Culture (both on a 5-star scale).” Our data scientist noticed an R-squared (correlation) above 0.9. Statistically, this means employees have a difficult time discerning between the two.
A year and a half ago, we asked a CEO how important Glassdoor ratings are to him. He answered, “I don’t believe in that [expletive].” Yes, we can agree that it’s only one data point, but that company is in the process of shutting its doors. A characteristic of a great leader involves them taking accountability for the company’s culture and recognizing the buck stops with them.
6. Good leaders over-communicate
Many leaders have expressed, “I don’t know what I have to do for these employees to get it!” Alignment is among an executive’s biggest struggles. In a world where barely half of the top-level executives and only 13% of frontline employees can comfortably recite corporate priorities, this is one of the modern workplace’s pressing epidemics.
As adults, the way our brains learn is different from what it was when we were children. Most of us do not have photographic memories and depend upon repetition for things to sync in. Recognizing this is important to understand both for tactical purposes and to up-level the vision.
Great leaders patiently understand that they can’t share their goals once a quarter, and believe that the entire workforce will run with it. They know that employees are mired in their thoughts and to-do lists and sometimes need help focusing on more critical challenges. Also, they know that employees aren’t mind-readers and can’t execute on their thoughts if they haven’t effectively communicated them.
7. Great leaders beat the drum and don’t hide
The next characteristic of a good leader is that they have a playbook for communicating with their employees. Notably, this is where communications professionals can help create better leaders. The playbook includes a continuous drumbeat of communications that go out to all employees under their domain. It’s not just droning on about strategy and numbers. Part of the art includes making the content consumable and relatable for the employees. This steady flow of includes a mix of strategic, robust, humane, congratulatory, funny, inspirational, and tactical communications. It’s human.
Simpplr has spent a tremendous amount of time on employee communications. Our definitive intranet content guide has a section dedicated to sharing types of communications and content that will help your executives become better communicators.
The outcome of all of these communications is that the leader appears accessible, transparent, inspiring, connected, and in control. The workforce stays in the know, is focused, and hopefully get inspired along the way.
8. Good leaders can call it as it is
If you considered all the characteristics of a good leader utopian prose, it’s not. Leaders are in their positions because they’re also required to make tough decisions. They have to say no, enforce consequences for failing to achieve goals, and fire employees. It comes with the title and territory.
Jack Welch once made the point that “As a leader, you are a coward for not letting someone know where they stand.” This quote is probably among the hardest of key leadership characteristics. Most people avoid confrontation and don’t like telling others they’re underperforming. Great leaders aren’t afraid to have those “Crucial Conversations” (that is another book on the shelf). The best leaders do it decisively and in a manner that isn’t needlessly insulting or arrogant.
9. Good leaders build trust
As we tally all of these complicated, conflicting leadership characteristics, we can genuinely appreciate how hard it is to be a great leader and why great leaders aren’t common. Amidst all of these contradictory characteristics and priorities, trustworthiness is a foundational characteristic of leadership. Untrustworthy leaders can’t lead.
Trust just doesn’t happen. It is the collective outcome of a person’s actions. Employees build trust in leaders over time, based on their character and actions. Employees build trust in a leader’s vision over time based on the individual’s command and charisma.
Like Aristotle outlined for persuasion: Ethos, Pathos, Logos – in that order! Simply put, employees can’t rally behind a person with a shoddy character or who can’t provide a credible vision.
10. Great leaders know purpose, alignment, and community drive employee engagement
For this last one, let’s come full circle: leaders appreciate their need to communicate. They understand they are the cornerstone of company culture. They need to be present. They need to be human. They need to be pragmatic but trustworthy.
Great leaders have a strong mental model of what drives employee engagement and the culture they build fosters company growth in these critical areas. Those familiar with the Simpplr Connect Blog, have seen that we’ve researched this area extensively. The key drivers of employee engagement are:
- Purpose: Showing employees how their work (and the work of the company has a positive impact)
- Alignment: Making sure that employees and executives are on the same page and that everyone understands how their work is impactful
- Community: Creating an environment where employees feel safe, connected, and supported
These three variables matter most to an employee in the workplace. Contrary to popular belief, it’s typically not compensation, or a ping pong table, or a coffee machine. It’s purpose, alignment, and community.
Becoming a great leader
Great leaders invest time to improve the company on these fronts. They:
- market internally how their company is doing great things for the world
- maniacally beat the drum on company priorities
- put programs in place to foster community and connect the distributed workforce
Simpplr’s primary audience is for internal communications teams and employee intranet administrators. Although we hope some leaders (or aspiring leaders) stumble upon this post as well. Internal communicators should take time to reflect on these leadership characteristics. It should help you better enable your leaders and communicate with them on how you can help them become better ones. Some leaders will continue to be too busy to invest in this as much as they should, but lend some empathy to them – it’s lonely at the top.