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Lessons In Quiet Leadership

“Lessons In Quiet Leadership”

Let your actions do the talking.

When entrepreneurs graduate from startup to second stage, hiring employees becomes a priority. That’s when founders of fast-growing companies realize they need to lead.

To polish their leadership skills, entrepreneurs may read the latest bestsellers on commanding the troops or coaching championship teams. Many of these books equate leadership with rousing speeches, bold predictions and mysterious but powerful charisma.

Some business owners take that advice and turn into loud, rambunctious cheerleaders.

Although that’s not necessarily bad, many second-stage business owners exert a quieter, more authentic leadership style. Their actions send a loud, clear message.

Leading with the 3 A’s

Quiet leaders demonstrate the three A’s of accessibility, ability and attentiveness: They’re available for employees. They model the skills and know-how that they want workers to acquire. And they listen well.

  1. Accessibility. Effective leaders are approachable. Not only do they initiate regular contact with their staffs, but they also work in and around their teams rather than behind closed doors. Their visibility makes it easy for employees to ask questions, suggest ideas and convey information.
  2. Ability. The best leaders earn credibility not just by virtue of their job title, but also by sharing their vision, talent and experience with employees. Yet rather than acting like know-it-alls, they challenge their teams to learn and grow on the job. They say, "Here’s what worked for me," not "Here’s what I want you to do."
  3. Attentiveness. Empathy comes naturally to quiet leaders. They understand employees’ hopes, fears and concerns. They are active listeners, looking people in the eyes and shutting out external distractions. They show interest by saying, "Tell me more," or simply nodding and allowing shy or reluctant speakers to open up.

Working alongside your team

To lead your company without resorting to fist-pumping pep talks, reinforce the message that you and your employees are "all in the same boat." By collaborating, you place yourself on the same level as your work force. Management experts call this "affiliative leadership."

Hold yourself to the same high standards that you set for employees. If you want your staff to treat customers with respect, have them watch you respond to a client’s complaints and then critique your performance. If you want them to share ideas, host brainstorming sessions where group members feed off one another to spur innovation.

Above all, admit your mistakes. Apologize for lapses in judgment. Acknowledge that you "blew it," and your employees will do the same. Create a supportive work environment where everyone can speak comfortably without feeling threatened.

Lead from a position of equality. When employees see that you walk your talk, they’ll follow your lead and look for ways to support one another’s success.

Withholding the answers

Quiet leaders know that the best way to gain compliance is to guide employees to discover for themselves that it’s in their interest to do what you want. Barking directives at them can undermine their self-worth and fan flames of resentment.

Launch Socratic dialogues with workers. Lead with questions, not statements. Ask, "What makes you say that?" or "What other variables do you think we should consider?"

When employees evade your questions, prod them for answers. Wait them out if they fail to give prompt, snappy responses. If they say, “I don’t know,” urge them to offer well-reasoned analysis. Don’t let them off the hook by spoonfeeding them what you want them to know.

Ideally, you want to adopt a leadership style that narrows the gap between "who you are" and "what you do." If your employees perceive you as an ally who demonstrates consistent values that they admire and respect, you can mobilize them to follow you wherever you want to go.

Writer: Morey Stettner, a management writer and trainer in Portsmouth, N.H., is author of "Skills for New Managers" (McGraw-Hill, 2000). stettner7@bigzoo.net

Great Ideas: Quiet Leadership

Involving Everyone

Celeste FordAt Stellar Solutions Inc., a $10 million aerospace-engineering services firm, Celeste Ford is a "servant leader."

"My job is to enable everybody here to align their dream job with customer-critical needs," says Ford, who founded the Palo Alto, Calif.-based firm in 1995. "I like to ask employees ‘What do you need?’ and ‘What can we do to make your dream job come true?’"

Ford lets her employees shape their jobs so they’re fully vested in the company’s success. She also invites all her employees to attend an annual planning meeting, where they help craft the company’s strategic three-year plan. Participants spend the day brainstorming ways to produce high-impact projects.

"It’s like having all our employees on our board of directors," Ford says. "They’re all helping set our direction."

Finding the best method

Anthony BoldinBefore launching his Milwaukee-based e-commerce firm in 1998, Anthony Boldin spent five years as a quality engineer for General Motors. That’s where he learned a key leadership lesson: method matters.

At GM, Boldin focused on methods and processes to achieve goals. He applies this same focus to lead his 33 employees at AtomicPark.com LLC, which has nearly $20 million in sales and ranks among Milwaukee’s fastest-growing firms.

"Instead of the conventional approach to leadership — focusing on the end result — it’s more productive to think about the methods you use," Boldin explains. "How you get there is more important to me than just getting the result."

Instead of declaring the result he wants and waiting for the outcome, Boldin prefers to check in with workers periodically. He’ll ask questions such as, "What kind of methods are you trying?" and "What about other approaches?"

Joining workers in the trenches

Stew MaloneyIf you call Planet Dog‘s headquarters, the CEO might answer the phone.

Stew Maloney, who co-founded the Portland, Maine-based company with Alex Fisher in 1997, believes in nurturing a highly motivated, passionate team of employees.

Rather than marching around the office and telling everyone to work together, Maloney demonstrates teamwork. He and Fisher join their 10 employees in the trenches whenever they can lend a hand, such as picking up the phone when service reps are busy.

Maloney also believes that a company should give back to the community. But instead of lecturing about philanthropy, he lives it. For the past two years, Planet Dog has hosted a fall fundraiser for charity, where hundreds enjoy a big party.

"Alex and I are cleaning floors and setting up tables with the rest of our team to get ready," he says. "It’s leading by example."

His quiet leadership works: Planet Dog, which makes products for dogs and their owners, grew 266% in 2001 and 350% in 2002. Current revenues top $2 million.