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How to spot and support aspiring leaders

Pamela Odukoya, Toastmasters International

When I started work my first experiences of leadership role models was seeing people who were exclusively focused on the task. They strutted around without showing any concern regarding the impact of their attitude and behaviour on the team reporting to them.

Sometimes I wanted to suggest ideas, but was too scared to contribute. I observed other team members looking nervous about asking for help when they didn’t understand a task. These leaders made swift decisions with little consultation. The leadership style created an atmosphere of distrust, making me anxious and demotivated. This experience delayed my first step into leadership because I did not appreciate this style. Such a style is called autocratic leadership and research shows that it can damage the team’s morale. This was exactly my experience.

Even though I was not exposed to other leadership styles in the early stages of my working life, I came to realise that leadership styles can vary significantly and that a leader could demonstrate different styles depending on the situation in which they are leading. It is often argued that good leaders adapt their style depending on context.

Through a period of reflection, research and self-analysis, I gained a greater appreciation of my own diverse skills, experience and values. More importantly, I gained a new understanding of the different leadership styles and self-analysis helped me to discover my preferences.

My leadership career now spans seventeen years. This includes leading a team of career advisers in both private and public sectors and leading a team of volunteers in a public speaking organisation. I view leadership as an opportunity to collaborate with a group of people and motivate them to achieve a common goal. It is not about a position, rank or title. I adopt the transformational leadership style as my dominant leadership style because it gives me the opportunity to inspire and develop others whilst building productive relationships and using a great deal of creativity.

Regardless of a leader’s style, every leader should be able to set goals, use resources efficiently and effectively, motivate the team to achieve the shared vision and be innovative. I consider Integrity to be a key hallmark of a leader, and this involves owning your mistakes, being transparent, fair and consistent

For aspiring leader in your organisations, here are a few tips to help with their career development. I hope they will find them as beneficial as they have been for me.

Leverage Continuous Development
Continuous professional development is one of the things I enjoy most about leadership as it gives me the opportunity to enhance my knowledge and sharpen my skills. I then draw upon these competencies to motivate my team, review policy and processes and bring about innovation. It also an activity that helped me become a leader.

Learn it
Both formal and informal learning can help aspiring leader to develop.  I would recommend these online resources as starting points.

  • The Chartered Management institute (managers.org.uk)
  • Future Learn (futurelearn.com)
  • Consider reading ‘What Got You here, Won’t get You There’ by Marshall Goldsmith. It provides some insight into the leadership behaviours that you might need to adopt.

Try it
To get some experience of leadership at senior level, I would suggest you consider applying for a trustee role in a charitable organisation. As a trustee, you will be part of a board and you will have legal responsibility for the management and administration of the charitable organisation. Some resources to help you explore the role of a trustee are:

Or you can try to take on a leadership role in a volunteering organisation or professional association.

The skills you have gained in your personal and professional life can add value to a charitable or volunteering organisation and this can contribute towards your growth and development in leadership. I have had two trustee positions as well as lead a team of volunteers, and both helped me to learn new skills including strategic management and budgeting.

Invest time to understand your team
Leaders inspire people to work towards and achieve goals. Developing productive working relations is an absolute must for leaders. Time invested in understanding the personalities, values and aspirations of team members by listening and engaging with them is well spent.

I recognise that my team members have their unique beliefs, values and aspirations. Therefore, I seek to gain understanding of these aspects through formal and informal meetings and listen actively to their story. Though this process can be time consuming, the benefits are immense. It helps me to gain my teams’ trust and create a safe working environment which can subsequently impact on their performance and productivity. In addition, it also helps me to be alert to their situation and identify signs of demotivation early.

I still remember the light bulb moment I had when I invested time to understand a team member who was underperforming. Through a series of informal meetings, I learnt about the team member’s personal barriers. As a result, I worked with them to identify support needs and made the necessary workload adjustments. These adjustments helped the team member to reengage with work and optimise performance. Consequently, they gained the confidence to study for further qualifications and successfully apply for a leadership position. Without this time investment, this person might not have been able to reach full potential.

Personal growth
My passion for personal growth and development gives me the drive to empower others and support them to realise their full potential. Apart from regularly assessing my team’s training needs, it’s important to be find creative ways to motivate and stretch my team. In one of my leadership roles, I created mini projects for team members which gave them the opportunity to work at a different level and influence change. As a result, they developed new capabilities and greater confidence to engage with a wider group of stakeholders.

Appreciation
Many leadership writers agree on the benefits of showing appreciation, as it has a positive impact on individual and team performance and wellbeing. This is echoed by many theorists such as Frederick Herzberg in his ‘Theory of Motivation’ and Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’.

Some of the ways I have showed recognition to my team include simply saying “Thank You”, announcement at team meetings, communication via team correspondence and of course the power of a chocolate cake on a Friday afternoon. You can also consider tangible forms of recognition such as certificates or awards, as well as monetary gifts.

I have learnt that some team members prefer private recognition rather than public recognition. Therefore, I apply the Platinum Rule, which basically says, “Do unto others as they would want to be done to them.” I follow this rule by tailoring how I treat people to respect their preferences.

When showing recognition, it is important that you are fair and consistent otherwise it can be deemed as a form of discrimination, and this can affect the team’s morale.

Another aspect to be mindful about relates to how you recognise your team at external meetings. Do you focus only on the metrics? Do you single out only the top performers? How about that team member who never gets a mention despite working so hard to support the team? Have you spelt every one’s name correctly? These behaviours can be harmful because they impact on the team member’s status within the team. Always aim to build an atmosphere of inclusion and belonging.

Here are some steps I recommend for aspiring leaders

  • Start with a reflection of your current skills and attributes. Some of them might be linked to the leadership competencies. For instance, if you enjoy organising events for your friends and family, think about how you can take your organisational skills to the next level. Sound organisational skills can be linked to leadership competencies such as collaboration and teamwork.
  • Read autobiographies of great leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Brian Tracy. This would help you to identify great leadership behaviours that you could model.
  • Reflect on all the poor leadership styles you have experienced. What do you think these leaders could have done differently?
  • Apply for a leadership position in a volunteering organisation. This is a safe way to explore all aspects of leadership such as planning, organising, influencing and motivating others. Above all, you will receive valuable feedback which can help you to develop your own leadership style. As a volunteer, your mistakes are viewed as learning experiences as opposed to a work environment where mistakes can cost you your job and might impact on your ability to pay your bills

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