When we look at the major priorities and initiatives for growing your business in 2017, we need to take a cue from the Global Leadership Forecast study, conducted by DDI and the Conference Board.

Their crystal ball is clear: Leaders just aren't ready to lead. In the research, four of the top 10 human capital strategies CEOs selected as crucial for their companies' success should be focused on, what else, leadership!

This is no joke. Looking ahead, organizations will have to rethink their existing leadership development efforts in order to minimize the risks brought on by unprepared leaders.

As a founder, executive, or manager in charge of your most precious commodity--people--it's time to take inventory of your skills and key behaviors compared with what you'll find the smartest leaders doing in the next 90 days.

1. Smart leaders promote the big picture.

In the traditional top-down leadership world, bosses at the top of the food chain will cast a vision, and then use their power and control to move people to carry out the vision. In today's social economy, smart leaders begin the year by casting a vision and enrolling their followers to express their voices as co-creators and co-contributors to the vision.

Your first priority in making that happen? Pump the fear out of the room and liberate your people to collaborate, innovate, and express their ideas.

2. Smart leaders know what's needed to keep their most talented employees happy and engaged.

So you liberated them. They're inspired and feel empowered. Now what?

Smart leaders will be spending considerable time developing culture and equipping their tribe for battle the rest of the year. In your case, you want to measure the core elements needed to attract, focus, and keep your most talented employees. It's as simple as asking yourself questions like:

  • Do my employees know what is expected of them?
  • Do my employees have the materials, tools, and equipment they need to do their work right?
  • Do my employees have the opportunity to do what they do best every day?
  • In the past seven days, have my top performers received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  • Do immediate managers, supervisors, or others at work seem to care about them as people?

If these questions look familiar, that's because Gallup has been using them for more than 30 years as part of its rigorous employee engagement research. The company identified 12 core elements--the Q12--that best predict employee and team performance.

3. Smart leaders develop self-awareness.

Self-awareness is one of the most important capabilities for leaders to develop, to understand not only themselves better but also the people around them. And it is a learned trait.

And a self-aware leader is a resilient leader. For example, instead of approaching a problem with a self-defeated attitude of "why me," self-aware leaders probe and ask themselves questions like:

  • Why do the same issues keep coming up over and over?
  • Why do I respond to situations with [insert your negative or counterproductive emotion]?
  • What makes me think, act, and feel the way I do?
  • What makes me tick? What pushes my buttons?

Having a complete self-understanding gives this smart leader an edge to consider other options heading into the new year. It'll help you manage yourself and your emotions, identify opportunities for development, and make the most of your strengths. This should be a top priority heading into 2017.

4. Smart leaders begin the year by accepting feedback.

Many leaders don't want to listen to the ideas, opinions, and constructive feedback of others. They operate in an ego system, not an ecosystem. Unfortunately, if you've ever worked with this type of leader, it can be exhausting.

A smart leader who listens well does so with active, not reactive, listening. This helps him or her to filter any criticism, cut the drama, and find the facts for an appropriate response.

Smart leaders ask the tough question, "How am I doing as a leader?" And then they listen. They are interested in receiving honest feedback so they can grow further.

In Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership, authors Don Frick and James Sipe describe nine helpful approaches when receiving feedback:

  • Open. Listen without interruption, objections, or defensiveness.
  • Responsive. Be willing to hear the speaker out without turning the table. Ask questions for clarification.
  • Thoughtful. Seek to understand the effects and consequences of your behavior.
  • Calm. Be relaxed, breathe. Assume a comfortable body posture. Be aware of your emotional reactions.
  • Explicit. Make it clear what kind of feedback you are seeking and why it is important to you. Offer a structure for the feedback--questions, rating scales, stories.
  • Quiet. Refrain from making or preparing to make a response. Do not be distracted by the need to explain, defend, or fix.
  • Clear with your commitment. Describe how you have benefited from the feedback and what specific steps you will take toward improvement.
  • Accepting. Be open to assuming the speakers' goodwill.
  • Clarifying. Make sure you are clear about what the speakers are seeing, saying, and recommending.

5. Smart leaders start off the year with a commitment to authenticity.

Brené Brown's now historic and viral TED Talk The Power of Vulnerability has already solidified the importance of authenticity in the workplace, and how critical it is for leaders to connect with and inspire others.

So what do you gain by being authentic? A lot--such as saving your whole company from going under, as was the case of India-based technology startup Hubbl.

Harvard Business Review tells the story: Hubbl ran out of funds, and founder Archana Patchirajan (now founder of Sattva) broke the news to her staff that they had to be let go.

Instead of packing, as HBR tells it, they refused and committed to working for 50 percent of their pay instead of leaving their boss. A few years later, Hubbl was sold for $14 million.

What drove them to stay? Employees cited being treated like family, having a personal relationship with the founder, and having the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them.

When you boil it down, Patchirajan was authentic with them, even during the worst of times.

As hard as it is to get to that level of authenticity, it is totally doable. While some teams will work together for years and still distrust one another, others who have been together just a few weeks or months develop an amazing amount of trust.

The key? In one word: courage.

Smart leaders have the courage to show up with emotional honesty.

Smart leaders have the courage to accept their shortcomings.

Smart leaders have the courage to be human and make mistakes, allowing others to see them in vulnerable moments.

Smart leaders have the courage to open dialogue about failures and take accountability for them.

Smart leaders have the courage to admit uncertainty in troubled times, and that they don't have all the answers.

6. Smart leaders start and finish with integrity.

How's your reputation? When people run a Google search on your name or company, do you get worried? Is there anything you don't want revealed about your culture or brand?

Listen, the leadership journey is not for wimps. There will be scrutiny from all sides. That's why smart leaders have integrity running through their veins. Without it, as history will tell us (Enron, Worldcom, etc.), you can count on massive failure and public shame.

Integrity is something you can guarantee smart leaders will choose throughout the year, not just to start off. It is based on character and values in their daily decisions and observed in how they treat their people (think respect and dignity, for starters).

Quick story: Early in my career, more than two decades ago, while working for a career conferences company, I was asked to lie to a client--a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical giant.

My manager's attitude was, "The client doesn't need to know the truth of what happened, because if they did, it would cost us this account. So we need to give them our version of the story."

I refused, and by doing so, challenged the company's unethical leadership status quo. I was soon released. Two years later, the company went out of business.

Many of us have to make decisions that define who we are and what we believe in. We arrive at a crossroads and must choose between towing the line or taking the higher road and doing the right thing, even when no one is looking, as the saying goes.

Integrity is a choice we make, and must keep making over and over again.

7. Smart leaders will create the environment for retaining top talent.

Instead of spending an arm and a leg to recruit rock stars, farm your own talent. As you develop them, and they become internal rock stars, your challenge will be to create the environment that pushes them forward and upward.

Look for diversity to drive your culture. Smart leaders cannot succeed on their own. They know that they need to surround themselves with great support and advice.

Smart leaders hire diverse talent of different backgrounds and personality types, and with different strengths and gifts to provide them with new perspective, counsel them when appropriate, and debate ideas that challenge their team to grow.

If that sounds counterintuitive because you're the boss, here's some truth: This mix creates more innovation and a more productive team. You should be breathing a sigh of relief. Such talent will take the burden off you and make you better.

Smart leaders will make sure that their staff, especially Millennials, have purpose to their work and opportunities to make a real difference.

For the next 90 days, think how you are going to address the things that Millennials value the most in a work environment:

  • They want to know that they will have opportunities to learn and advance their careers.
  • They want to know that they'll belong to a community with shared values. The question in the back of their minds is, "Will my surroundings be supportive, flexible, fun, and engaging?"
  • They want to know that their prospective employer is inclusive. This means it's safe to challenge the status quo, share ideas, and provide input because management doesn't lead by fear.
  • They want to know that their future bosses will praise, recognize, and reward them for a job well done.

Why bother with all of this?

Any company with a leadership team committed to developing this kind of high-trust culture will eventually realize two things: 1) It starts with them; and 2) There is an absolute ROI for organizations invested in developing such leaders. Great workplaces with such smart leaders in the frontlines have significantly less turnover and attract employees who have a vested interest in their companies. These factors ultimately lead to a competitive edge and enable companies to quickly bounce back from challenging situations.

Your turn

I'd love to get your take in the comments below, or on LinkedIn or Twitter. I'll be sure to follow the conversation and chime in.

Published on: Jan 11, 2017