Being a soft and effective leader

January 28, 2008

Being an effective leaderDear Coach,

Question: I own and run a company, but am not always an effective leader. My Senior Team refers to me as “Mr. Softy,” because I fail to discipline those who breach company policies. I am having particular difficulty with my VP of Sales. While he does bring in new accounts, he consistently enters them incorrectly and causes all sorts of problems for production staff. My team keeps telling me to “let him have it,” but I am not sure what to say. How do I make him accountable without simply firing or threatening to fire him?

Answer: Congratulations! You are already demonstrating great leadership wisdom by seeking solutions aside from threatening job loss. The accountability you want would never develop from firing or threatening to fire, anyway. Effective leaders build accountability and empower their employees by asking them questions. My philosophy of leadership is “ask, don’t tell.” Although you have identified the VP of Sales as causing the current problems, make sure you have all the facts. This could be a great opportunity for you to build accountability – not just in this employee, but in all your employees.

I suggest holding a company-wide meeting, focused on the big picture of how sales orders are processed. Use the situation with the VP of Sales as an example, and ask, “Is this order representative of how this company functions?” Either everyone will agree, or an interesting discussion will ensue between the disagreeing parties. Sometimes, your role as a leader is to stay out of the middle and simply facilitate. The managers of your various departments likely understand the facts better than you do, and it is perfectly ok to admit this. Enter the meeting with an open mind. Even if your employees begin by arguing and finger-pointing, they will eventually work through to the facts. You may need to pepper the conversation with questions, but try not to give answers.

Once the group has pinpointed the actual problem and the individual(s) involved, begin discussing solutions. Ask simply, “How would you like to solve this?” Even if you have solutions in mind, effective leadership requires you to trust others to develop their own answers. Given this is the first time you have undergone this process, I suggest you stay in the meeting. Continue to only ask questions, and if asked your opinion, refrain from giving it. Remind your managers that you trust them to run their departments and make money for your company, so surely you trust them to solve issues, such as this one. Initially, this entire process may be extremely time-consuming and frustrating for everyone involved. Be confident that you are moving in the right direction! Your employees will soon become more energized as they feel empowered, and the time will prove well worthwhile. By the end of this process, you too will find your power and realize you built accountability by merely asking questions. Remember: Ask, don’t tell.

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