The Behaviors and Traits of Engaged Leaders

By Dummies Press

Employees’ engagement levels rise when they believe in their senior leadership. Indeed, they feel most engaged when the company’s leadership clearly communicates strategy and plans, connects with employees, and helps everyone feel part of where the organization is going. Leadership, then, is a key engagement driver.

Does this sound familiar? Mary is an exceptional engineer, so you promote her to be the department manager, and she fails miserably. Or, John is an outstanding nurse, so you promote him to be the nursing supervisor, and all the other nurses hate him. Or, Stephanie is your top salesperson, so you promote her to be the sales manager, and the sales team’s quotas drop, big time.

Fact: It is actually quite rare for an outstanding employee in his job to also be an excellent succession candidate (that is, someone who could take over his boss’s or his boss’s boss’s job). Why? Because the traits and behaviors needed to succeed as an engineer, a nurse, or a salesperson are often quite different from those required to be a successful leader. For example, an engineer probably doesn’t need to be empathetic. But the person who manages the engineering department? That person probably does.

Strong people skills transcend technical capability. It’s possible to successfully lead engineers, for example, without being one. One leader was asked to serve as chief operating officer of a global environmental consulting company, overseeing 2,000 engineers and scientists. The leader resisted, saying, “But I’m not an engineer!” The leader’s boss responded, “We have 2,000 engineers and scientists who all think alike. You, on the other hand, possess the behaviors and traits necessary to lead.

The challenge facing many companies is that salaries and rank increase based on individuals’ ability to leverage others to get things done. That’s why upper managers make more money. In part because of this, a lot of people aspire to become leaders of people. But that doesn’t mean everyone’s good at it.

A few common leadership traits and behaviors

If you’re considering hiring or promoting someone as a “people leader” in your organization, evaluate whether that person possesses the following traits:

  • Caring
  • Empathy
  • Energy
  • Equitableness
  • Expressiveness
  • Fairness
  • Honesty
  • Humility
  • Neutrality
  • Optimism
  • Passion

In addition, great people leaders

  • Communicate a clear vision for their part of the organization.
  • Translate their vision into motivating strategies and implementation plans.
  • Help people set short-term priorities in line with long-term goals.
  • Help direct reports understand how they contribute to the vision.
  • Recruit and hire talented, high-performing employees.
  • Clearly communicate performance expectations.
  • Manage and evaluate performance (including making the tough decisions).
  • Focus on how results are achieved as much as on what results are achieved.
  • Recognize and reward achievement when performance surpasses expectations.
  • Base pay fairly on both quantitative and qualitative results.
  • Provide clear, specific direction and give open, honest feedback — including positive feedback, when deserved.
  • Place a high priority on coaching people.
  • Create a continuous learning environment.
  • Help others prepare for increased responsibility.
  • Proactively look to promote from within.
  • Work with employees to identify career-growth plans that link with business-growth plans (known as cross-training or professional development).
  • Help less-experienced employees gain experience interacting with clients.
  • Look to eliminate unnecessary work or obstacles to productivity.
  • Proactively identify and develop a successor.
  • Maintain open communication.
  • Create an environment and culture that motivates and inspires, and then enables others to succeed.
  • Inspire people to follow.
  • Willingly share their best individual talent with others.
  • Create and facilitate productive teams.
  • Delegate and empower.
  • Remain distant enough to be objective.
  • Keep their promises and honor their commitments.
  • Seek input before making key decisions.
  • Encourage feedback.
  • Listen.
  • Treat people with dignity and respect.
  • Respect the importance of other people’s time.
  • Work cooperatively with others to achieve common goals.
  • Successfully manage conflict.
  • Assess issues and come up with shared solutions to improve performance.
  • Work effectively with peers and colleagues.
  • Strengthen employee/manager relationships and build a stronger team (see Book 4).
  • Work effectively in a cross-cultural environment.
  • Appreciate the value of diversity (race, nationality, culture, age, gender, sexual orientation).
  • Adapt to cultural differences.

If you need to assess someone’s leadership capabilities — or your own — try using a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning “not at all” and 10 meaning “excels at this,” to rate that person on each of these items.

Tips for defining success in your organization

Take a hard look at your organization. Who are your best managers? What are the traits and behaviors that make them so good? These are the traits and behaviors that define success in your firm, and the traits and behaviors you must cultivate in each and every line manager. Be prepared to make an investment in the development of people skills in the same way you would in the development of technical skills.

To determine what behaviors and traits are most important for your organization, gather a cross-sectional group of leaders and list the employees who consistently embody excellence at your company. (The actual number of names will depend on the company’s size; target the top 10 percent.) It doesn’t matter how junior or senior the employees are, or whether they’re from research and development (R&D), retail, finance, or HR. Then start listing the behaviors and traits that make these individuals shine, making sure to limit your list to personal qualities rather than achievements.

For example, suppose an employee on your list, John, an architect, always comes up with the best numbers. Why? Is it because he’s a great architect, which you could attribute to education and skills? No. It’s because he’s tenacious, creative, and resourceful. These are traits. In addition, John surrounds himself with the best people, chases clients the company never would have pursued otherwise, modifies his business development plan to incorporate new findings based on proposal wins and losses and subsequent contact with clients, and is dogged in following up and following through. These are behaviors.

If the people on your list all possess the same 15 behaviors or traits, you can assume these are the distinguishing characteristics you should be looking for in new hires and candidates for promotion. Of course, education and skills are important. But those are what’s needed merely to get a candidate’s foot in the door or to suggest adequate performance. You don’t want adequate — you want excellent.