Your company has important goals, and as a leader it's your job to make sure your team reaches them. Yet, so many things can get in the way, including employees who don't feel engaged, misguided strategies, and miscommunication--to name just a few. But anyone in leadership can avoid common pitfalls by adopting a direct style that nixes ambiguity. That's according to Paula Long, cofounder and CEO of data security company DataGravity. Here's her advice on how leaders can inspire dramatic results.

1. Hire people different from yourself.

This is easier said than done, because people are naturally attracted to those with whom they have a lot in common. Yet, truly motivating all the stars on your team will necessitate a diverse roundup of personalities and talents. "If you're an introvert, hire somebody who's an extrovert. If you're an extrovert, have somebody who'll give you some balance," she says. "That may be uncomfortable because you're dealing with someone who's not like you. But it will give you a stronger team."

2. Don't avoid conflict.

Many people--high-achieving executives included--are conflict averse. But as a leader, if you hear someone's recommendation but feel strongly it's a bad idea, you need to call it right away, without ambiguity. If you don't, the person raising the issue may travel down the wrong path and you'll have to redirect them eventually anyway. Mothers and fathers do this instinctively: If a kid broaches an idea that will never fly, a wise parent nips it in the bud immediately with something akin to "That will never happen." Soft-peddling around an issue leaves people feeling like your input is a recommendation, not an edict. But if the answer is "no," it's in everyone's interest to understand this from the start.

3. Be crystal clear about what success looks like.

This means identifying your goals and being clear when they're not being met, regardless of whether it may hurt someone's ego. "It's not everybody gets a trophy, but 'Did we meet the objective, or not?' without personalizing that."

4. Stop letting people monopolize meetings.

Do it with caramel candy. Long tosses one to a long-winded teammate to give others a chance to contribute, with the thinking that chewing and talking should be incompatible. "You're always have a few people who want to try to dominate the conversation," she says. "Getting their input is good, but making sure they don't drown out everybody else is also important."

5. Wear your shirt inside-out, and see if anyone says anything.

Long actually did this in her last company, with the thinking that her team members would say something if she was looking like a fool, or doing something wrong. They did not, which prompted a conversation about the importance of backing up team members by calling them on their flaws and mistakes. "People don't want to come and tell you stuff, because they either feel like they're back in high school and they're ratting somebody out, or they're worried that there'll be repercussions or they just don't' know how you're going to react," she says.

6. Use candy to lure people into talking.

Long has a candy jar in her office, which anyone can dig into. So, instead of having a reason to enter the boss's office, team members can always stop by for a treat. In trade, she gets to ask them any questions she likes. "I could find out what was going on because people were more comfortable," she says.

7. Use your product and give team members feedback.

It seems simple to suggest using your company's own product, but when you're hands-on as a customer or consuming marketing communications it sends the message that you're really paying attention to what people are doing.

8. Make decisions in spite of imperfect data.

This ability is what differentiates successful leaders from mediocre ones. If the direction you take ends up being the wrong one, simply acknowledge the need to pivot and move on. "You have to be willing to get smarter, change directions and say, 'Yes I know we decided this, here's why we're changing and this is what we're going to do,'" she says. "You're not leading a democracy."

Published on: Feb 27, 2017
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