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Business Insights from Andrea Hill

First in a series of 8 articles on becoming a better leader. How do you balance patience with people against impatience with progress?

Being a Better Leader Part 1: The Balancing Act

11 June 2013

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This blog post is one in a series of eight articles that explore the most important characteristics of a strong leader. These articles are linked to a Prezi visual presentation, which you can view here.

Anyone who has ever held a leadership position knows that it can be difficult to get others to share your passion for progress. In fact, one of the things that makes a leader effective is her drive.

Getting others to share that drive, however - particularly people who may not see as much upside to the effort as an owner or a better-compensated manager - can be frustrating at best, or demotivating at worst.

It's easy to end up too far to either end of the pendulum; either too lax with people and their personal timetables (and feelings) or too aggressive about driving the agenda. Neither pole is productive. Here are some tips for maintaining your drive and your impatience with getting there against the need to properly motivate others to run along beside you.

Use Clear External Motivators

To create a sense of urgency, the better leader uses motivational drivers like goals, objectives, and metrics. Setting clear goals about what will be done, when it will be done, and the expected results - reported as a metric like total sales, calls made, packages shipped, orders taken, or customers in attendance - makes expectations visual and measurable. When the expectations are posted on a whiteboard, on a daily computer popup window, or other public visual forum, they become top-of-mind.  They also become somewhat separated from you as the leader, and as a result become a driving force unto themselves.

Share the Reasons for your Urgency

"Because I said so" probably didn't work for you when your mom said it, and it doesn't work so well coming from the boss either.  But don't believe just because you've never said the words that they weren't inferred. In fact, any time we ask anyone to do anything without clear reasons and benefits for doing so, there's a good chance that "because I said so" will be the underlying message.

So share the reasons for your urgency to get things done. Explain the business need in terms of profitability, cash-flow, the ability to invest in tools/equipment/technology, or to invest in marketing. Outside deadlines (bank requirements, trade show, holiday selling seasons) are also powerful. When people clearly understand why they are being asked to do something, they are better able to embrace the urgency attached to it.

Set Rational Expectations

If you don't have a clear understanding of what people can accomplish - including at what speed and with what proficiency - then you can't have proper expectations. One of the things that really gets in the way of proper expectations - particularly in small businesses - is a failure to establish clear roles and responsibilities.  The smaller the business, the broader each individual's range of responsibility will be. Don't let that stop you. Create a mind map, a spreadsheet, an organization chart, or some other visual form to represent who does what in your organization. Then step back. Are there any whats not attached to a who?  Fix that!

Next, determine how proficient each of your people are at the things they are expected to do. Chances are, most of your people have some responsibilities that they are completely competent at, and others for which they are still developing skills and understanding. This is where your Patience with People begins. By acknowledging that not all employees are equally prepared to succeed in all tasks, we can create training opportunities, assign them responsibilities with a more seasoned co-worker, or adjust our timetables to accommodate the necessary learning curves. If you provide this space for developing competence alongside clear expectations that people excel at the things for which they already have demonstrated proficiency, you will be sending a loud and fair message to all that this is a place where people can both learn and succeed, and that one leads to the other.

Make it Safe

Everyone makes mistakes. Making the same mistake over and over isn't something you should accept, but first mistakes, learning mistakes, honest mistakes  - you must create an environment in which it is safe to make them. Most people beat themselves up for a mistake far more than you would ever think to do. In those cases, don't ignore it or brush it off, but don't rub salt in the wound either. I find the simple question, "Well, what do you think you will do differently next time?" is more than adequate to address most mistakes.

Be Your Own Example

If it's urgency, diligence, and performance to specific goals and objectives that you want, then you must demonstrate the same discipline and dedication, and be openly accountable when you fail to meet your objectives.  When you demonstrate grace as a leader - a certain sense of propriety, a clear quality of accountability and thoughtfulness - this is a profound way to demonstrate your patience with people in the midst of impatience with progress.

Watch for the next article in this series, coming in two days!