In running or managing a business, what are the most important things you can do as a leader? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
The best advice I can give to any leader is to listen. Listen to what your employees say, how they say it, what they say to everyone else, the tone of the office, what your customers say ... everything.
When you're a leader, you're in this rarified place -- you get to think about the big picture a lot of the time. You don't deal with a lot of the day-to-day struggles of actually getting the work done. Sometimes you do, but not every day. You have all this room to think that your team doesn't.
Lots of leaders spend all their time thinking about new ways to make money for the company (and themselves). I couldn't disagree more with this notion. Creativity is important, but creativity doesn't drive most businesses. Execution by rank-and-file employees does.
If you're not listening to everyone doing the work, you're missing this huge opportunity. You should be spending as much time as possible listening to what they think can be done better. You should pay attention to whether they're happy, too, because if they're all unhappy, that's going to spill over into their work product. Most people are really bad at compartmentalizing.
Then you should spend as much time listening to your customers about what they like and what they don't like. If you ask them what you could do better, they'll tell you. You should do this work as the leader -- don't sub it out to someone on your team to do alone and report back to you.
In fact, if you can, ditch most reports. Employees hate reports. Executives like reports, because it's an easy way to know what's going on without listening. Just get the basic to-do lists for your staff that they're already using -- that'll tell you enough about whether they're on target with the overall company goals anyway.
Then you should use all of your time that you have to think in order to match those things up, and figure out how you can better serve your customers. It's so much easier to keep an existing customer happy than to find a new one.
There's probably a disparity between what customers want and what your team thinks is wrong. This is natural. Companies are echo chambers, and lots of your team members will try and tell you what they think you want to hear. That's why you need to listen to everything you can, and not just your direct conversations.
I'm not saying you should do things that are creepy and somewhat illegal. You don't need to monitor their email and restrict internet access to listen. You just need to keep your door open, and you need to sit in on a lot of meetings without giving your opinion on anything minor so that people feel comfortable talking. Obviously, if someone says something that's patently against your mission, you should correct them -- after you ask them why they think that.
When you're done with this exercise, spend lots of time listening to what your team thinks of it. Listen to why they think it's impossible. They (almost) always think it's impossible. Then ask them what they would change to make it possible. Force them to answer this question. It'll make them uncomfortable, but you'll get some great answers.
Finally, you have your chance to lead in a public way. You've gotten a plan together, and ... you have your team members who are going to execute it talk about it. You don't talk about it. You listen to what they say about it, to make sure it matches up with what you thought that they were doing. After all, they've got to do the work. They should know what they're doing.
Notice that none if this is 'leading.' None of this is making speeches, or coming up with brilliant new ideas, or anything else. It's just listening, and then facilitating better service for your employees and customers by listening. Sometimes, this will result in a new product. Other times, it'll result in a refinement to existing ones. And, sometimes, it'll result in the replacement of team members. Some people call this 'servant leadership,' but that name gets such a bad rap because they take 'servant' to mean 'make everyone happy.' That's not what I'm advocating.
I'm just advocating for listening to employees and customers, and making the best decisions for the business based on what they tell you.
I did mention that you should pay attention to whether people are happy up above. My experience is that people are happy at work when: 1) they think they're playing for the winning team; and 2) their voice is heard. I've been pretty clear on #2, and being good at #2 often leads to #1.
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