Want to Be a Better Leader? Try Being Nicer — Here’s How
Good managers deliver the results a company needs at the end of the day. A great leader knows how to deliver results year after year.
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I frequently get calls from investors in early-stage companies asking me to meet their portfolio CEOs when things get rocky. Sometimes, the strategy isn't working and they need help with a pivot. Other times, they are having difficulty executing and their processes need refinement. More often than not, these challenges arise because the company has grown, the teams are getting bigger, and the founder is struggling to adapt.
As a company grows, leaders must shift from the directing style of an entrepreneur to a supportive and inspirational role as CEO. It's not an easy transformation, and it's normal to struggle.
In these situations, I've found that it's best to focus on developing long-term relationships with the team members. A big part of this is being nicer to your people. Here are six things I focus on.
1. Take the time to listen.
They say you have two ears and one mouth for a reason; you should use them proportionately. As a leader, try to listen more than you speak. Before you launch into your agenda, check in with your people. Find out where they are and what they are thinking; then adjust your message accordingly.
While it's important to take the time to understand someone, you also need to take the time to make sure the other person feels heard. Sometimes waiting until they're finished speaking takes a while, but trust that it's time well spent. If someone doesn't feel heard, they are usually not willing to listen.
2. Commitment not compliance.
It's easy to get someone to do something by yelling at them. Your threats don't need to be explicit. Issuing commands, raising your voice, rolling your eyes, and crossing your arms all imply that you're done discussing and you expect people to do exactly what you say.
This method gets you compliance, not true commitment. The moment your direct reports no longer feel the immediate threat, they will return to their previous behavior. If you continue the threats, they will promptly look for a new job. Unfortunately, the people who stay will be the ones who can't find a better job, and you'll be stuck with the bottom of the talent barrel.
Nice leaders include their people in the decision-making process. The more your people contribute, the more they will be committed to decisions. Even if it's not the way you would do it, let them do it their way. It will be much easier to have tough conversations about performance if the approach was theirs.
3. Set clear expectations.
Before you can hold someone accountable for results, you need to know what the measure of success is. Get clear about what you expect before you meet with anyone. Frequently, I see executives upset about results, but when asked, they can't even articulate what they want.
Nice leaders provide clarity. For projects, I suggest creating a success checklist. This should be an objective set of criteria which a third party could use to determine whether the project is done. The devil is in the details here: be specific and always test assumptions.
4. Give feedback.
Many managers see things that don't meet their expectations, but they don't say anything. They hold onto it until the annual review when they unload all of the criticisms at once.
Nice leaders provide regular feedback using neutral language. They nudge people politely if they want something different. They encourage people to make changes and to experiment with different approaches. They create a safety net by rewarding people who try to make positive changes, even if they come up short.
5. Coach don't manage.
Many managers swoop in and take things over when they see problems. These same managers often complain that people keep coming to them with their problems, expecting things to be fixed for them.
Nice leaders let people do the work. When a problem comes up, they start asking questions. What have you tried? What haven't you tried? What other approaches could we try? Who else could help? Where else could we find information to help us?
6. Be empathetic.
Generally, I suggest keeping personal stuff out of the office, but I see many managers expect that their employees keep the office strictly business. They have no tolerance for people's personal lives showing up at work.
The fact is we are humans with complicated lives; sometimes it's impossible to show up to work with a perfectly clean slate. Nice leaders know stuff happens. They give people the time and space to take care of personal needs, still insisting the job gets done and customers are happy.
Being a nice leader doesn't mean you're a pushover. It means that you treat people as people and work with compassion and respect and with the intent of creating trust over the long term.