Engaging leaders are needed to steer organisations through the Coronavirus pandemic and into the ‘new normal’, but what are the traits that define them?
Never has there been a greater need for the ‘Engaging Leader’ than in the current crisis and the ‘brave new world’ that will follow. With only six out of ten employees in the UK reporting that they were engaged effectively before Coronavirus though, it is particularly important for employers to recognise the characteristics, attitudes and actions of these positive influencers – and cultivate more of them.
Our research consistently shows that workers and their behaviours are at the heart of productivity and business success – and engaged employees post the best performances, are most loyal to their employers and most dedicated to their work. It is also widely acknowledged that your line manager and leaders are some of the greatest influences on your experience of work. So, it is time for leaders to show what they are made of. Employees need to feel a positive connection with their employer more than ever as well as organisations needing engaged employees to thrive and bounce back from this crisis.
So, with strong, engaging leaders being essential for connecting workforces and driving better business performance, it is vital for organisations to understand how these people came to be the leaders they are. If you can understand what makes an engaging leader, you will be better placed to assess, select reward and deploy them. You will also be more equipped to develop a cadre of engaging leaders. The attributes don’t come naturally to all leaders, but they can be nurtured. Understanding where leaders’ individual challenges are in engaging others in the current, high-pressure circumstances and providing guidance and encouragement to them on how best to lead through the situation is an invaluable use of development time.
Our research has identified three core, consistent similarities among engaging leaders: they were shaped by early experiences; they have unique belief systems and personality traits; and they behave in exceptional ways that positively and continuously impact the engagement of those around them.
Critical early experiences
Engaging leaders do not just start out that way. They have had experiences that transformed them as individuals by shaping their core beliefs about people, work and what it means to lead. As my colleague Laura Heathcock, Principal Consultant is keen to emphasise “An individual might have had an inspirational, attentive mentor who pushed them to achieve and take on hard challenges; a stretch assignment that “chose the leader” instead of the leader choosing it; a brief that required them to step up, out of their peer group. While no two experiences are identical, the common thread is deep learning from taking on stretch assignments that require navigating through ambiguity or difficult transformations. It is the reflection on these early experiences from which the leader personally grows, gains self-confidence, humility, empathy and new skills.”
Underneath an engaging leader’s behaviours are a powerful set of beliefs that are often informed by their experience of being led by others, either looking to replicate or do the opposite in response to how they felt. These include ideas of ‘servant leadership’: that leadership is not about status or reward, but a responsibility to serve their followers, especially in times of crisis and change. Many expressed core beliefs about the importance of personal connection. For example, a CEO, asked to name the most important responsibility of a leader, said it was, “To create the emotional bond between our people and the organisation.” Another business chief reported that, “Leadership is a contact sport.” Meanwhile, when asked why he thought he was regarded as an engaging leader, an engineering department head said, “People won’t remember what I did, but they will remember how I made them feel.”
Displayed engaging behaviours
Common behaviours cluster around five themes. Engaging leaders step up, opting to proactively own solutions where others cannot or do not. They energise others, keeping people focused on purpose and vision with contagious positivity. They connect and stabilise groups by listening, staying calm, and unifying people. They serve and grow, by empowering, enabling, and developing others. And they stay grounded, remaining humble, open, candid, and authentic in their communication and actions. These traits are continually validated in our leadership workshops, where we see people in action and hear about recent challenges they have worked to overcome.
These are the hallmarks, then, of engaging leaders – and almost every company has at least some of them. However, for a workforce to enjoy an environment of engaging leadership, a systemic belief in the power of engagement that transcends the personal strengths and discretionary actions of individual managers is needed. The organisations that make engaging leadership part of their culture do four things on an ongoing basis:
- Develop engaging leaders. Workshops and coaching are required to help leaders reflect on their early experiences, find their own beliefs and purpose and make engaging behaviours more habitual. When the number of engaging leaders amounts to a critical mass, their energy and mutual support can change the engagement culture of the entire company.
- Assess and select engaging leaders. Filling a lot of high-impact roles with engaging leaders should be the objective. Now that we have a good understanding of the experiences, beliefs, and behaviours that typify engaging leaders, it should be possible to use personality instruments, structured interviews and 360 instruments to predict whether someone is likely to be engaging or not in a leadership role.
- Proactively manage the talent pipeline. Identifying emerging leaders, especially those on succession plans and providing stretch experiences (ideally early in their career) to empower them to develop strong and effective core beliefs around leadership.
- Measure and reward engagement achieved. Tying incentives to engagement survey scores is tricky and can lead to unintended consequences. However, more organizations are getting serious about recognising leaders who are engaging and holding those who are not accountable.
The fact that the majority of engaging leaders are the products of early experiences and deeply held beliefs means that new ones cannot simply be created overnight. However, this certainly does not mean that every effort should not be taken to identify, encourage, enable and recognise them now – as well as giving those who were already doing a sterling job everything they need to continue. Thinking ahead, engaging leaders will emerge from this crisis. HR has a role to play to listen to the organisation, identify this emerging talent and nurture it to build a strong pipeline of talent.
It will never be a matter of perfunctorily running through some behavioural checklist. Nevertheless, there are steps that employers can take to give more teams the benefit of engaging leadership and, over time, to reach the levels of innovation, quality, and productivity that can only come from highly engaged people.
Attending to these immediately could well mean the difference between success and failure in the ‘new normal’.
Jenny Merry, Market Leader for UK, Ireland and France at Kincentric
1. Kincentric), 2020 Global Employee Research