What makes a great leader? While there is no one single answer to that question, there are some things successful leaders have in common.
Great leaders are secure in their role and in their ability to do their jobs. They communicate well with their teams and mentor their employees. They make sure they know what their teams need to do their jobs, and meet their own goals. They challenge their staff and hold them accountable, but they also take responsibility if the team fails at something.
Good leaders are advocates, mentors, and coaches. They’re also something else: rare. According to Gallup’s latest State of the Workplace report, just 21 percent of employees strongly feel they’re being managed “in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.”
Why are great leaders so scarce? It’s not because most managers are incapable of leadership. It’s simply that most managers aren’t getting the guidance they need before they’re placed in leadership roles.
When a manager isn’t trained
Back when I was a reporter for a small, local newspaper, the newsrooms I worked in were filled with reporters and editors. The reporters were young; hired right out of college to work for the paper, and they were paid the lowest salary. As they got older, and better at their jobs, they wanted bigger salaries and leadership positions, so when an editor left, the reporters would often apply for an editorial job.
The problem? Being an editor requires a different set of skills than being a reporter. You have to know how to assign stories, deal with the public, and more importantly manage a staff of often-unruly reporters. For one of those unruly reporters to make the jump to team leader was often difficult and came with a learning curve. Because there wasn’t any leadership training at that particular job (money was tight for newspapers back in the ‘00s) editors learned management on the job, and that could be rough on the new editor and the rest of the team.
That’s not a problem unique to journalism. Plenty of organizations expect new managers to jump into their roles and either sink or swim. Harvard Business Review’s State of Leadership Development report found that 43 percent of businesses — mostly small businesses without big development budgets — have inconsistent or underperforming leadership training programs.
Can you really train leadership?
There is an old debate about whether leadership can really be taught, a subject similar to another recent Litmos blog post about whether Emotional Intelligence (EI) can be taught. These are important questions about whether great leaders are people who have a certain set of qualities (such as high EI / EQ) that inherently make them good leaders.
Even if true leaders are born, there are certain skills that all leaders need to know in order to be effective leaders right away, and those skills can be taught. Take coaching, for example.
Gallup’s State of the Workplace Report offered up the example of the manager who only talks to staff about performance once a year, during each employee’s annual review. That sort of check-in can be stressful for everyone, and it doesn’t always address an employee’s day-to-day work, focusing instead on big jobs completed during the year.
In order to better engage employees, Gallup reports that many organizations are trying to move toward more frequent, ongoing conversations about performance between staff and managers. A coaching model enables managers to check in with team members more frequently, learn more about the team members, provide meaningful feedback, and set goals with them rather than for them.
But there’s a problem with this model: not many managers know how to have these sorts of coaching conversations when they become managers. For those who might not naturally possess the ability to coach others, trying to have such a conversation without being trained, could prove even worse than a task-focused annual review.
“Without managers receiving guidance on how to communicate effectively, ongoing performance conversations have the potential to create cultures of micromanagement, further discouraging and frustrating employees,” wrote Gallup.
Fortunately, coaching is a skill that can be learned. So can communication and other leadership skills. The willingness to lead might be innate, but all leaders can benefit from some training.
Leadership training is a benefit
Leadership training may not seem be offered by every organization, but employees prize it. Millennials in particular consider leadership training a job perk.
Pricewaterhouse Cooper’s (PwC) report on Millennials At Work found millennials were more interested in learning and development than in other kinds of benefits, including cash bonuses. They are also interested in moving into leadership positions, and fast; 52 percent of respondents said they’d choose a job that would let them advance through the ranks quickly over one with a higher salary.
Companies of all sizes that want to attract and retain promising employees will have to put thought into their leadership development programs.
How might that look? That might look like a coaching model (according to PwC, millennials respond well to mentoring). That could be as simple as identifying talented employees and recommending them for in-house corporate development, like a formal or even informal mentoring program. It could also take the form of content, like a leadership course or series.
Whatever form leadership development takes, the organization should make sure it’s meeting the needs of its employees and its managers. After all, leadership development isn’t just a perk for the employee, it’s a perk for company as a whole.