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Inside Dental Technology
September 2019
Volume 10, Issue 9

5 Keys to Effective Leadership

Inspire and coach all the parts of your team

Chad Storlie

As an infantry officer and then a Special Forces ("Green Beret") officer in Korea, across the United States, Germany, Bosnia, and Iraq, I once lived in a world of military decisions and hard military training. My leadership style rapidly evolved from thinking of myself as a "mini-Patton" to thinking of myself as a combination of military leaders, Silicon Valley CEOs, and other trailblazers so I could get the best from everyone I led in situations where stress, exhaustion, lack of information, and tight timelines were the norm.

I began to pursue a neverending quest to lead teams. The goal was to have each member perform the best that they could under any conditions and to create employees driven by their own resolve, a robust understanding of what the mission was supposed to accomplish, and a passionate drive to apply their own leadership, skills, and training in a way that was supported by their own initiative. Leadership is not about creating rule-following automatons. Regardless of whether it's for a military mission or for a dental laboratory, leadership is about creating trained, inspired, and driven team members who proactively seek, grow, fix, plan, and accomplish missions that their leaders challenge them to complete. In that vein, my military leadership inspiration was not Patton, but those Special Forces Teams dropped deep into enemy countrysides to find, convince, develop, and lead local groups in conducting combat operations against the enemy.

The world of the Special Forces is not too far from the jungles of the business world, including the business of dental technology. The following are five time-tested and effective ways to deliver effective leadership to your team: setting a vision, being flexible on how a mission is accomplished, employing leadership transparency to build trust, coaching employees to success, and ensuring high ethical standards

Set a Vision and Monitor Progress

Are you coming into work to do a collection of rote tasks, or are you coming into work to complete a mission? One of the best things that a leader can do is to lay out compelling needs, challenges, and future outcomes for a team of any size to accomplish. This should not be anything like a 150-plus slide deck from the annual planning process. It is as simple as a three- to five-sentence paragraph that lays out what is to be accomplished and why. For example, a call center may set out on a quest to reduce customer calls by turning their focus to customer education and problem resolution. This vision of "Call Reduction Through Customer Education" can be mentioned often, employ simple tracking metrics, and inspire the entire team. The vision and the progress toward that vision need to be simple, employ weekly updates, and excite the entire team on their progress toward the mission's goal.

Be Flexible on "How," Inflexible on "Why"

Listening and acting on the ideas of others is a critical aspect of effective leadership. The leader sets the vision and excites the team to accomplish it. Great leaders know that the team and other stakeholders have the best ideas and concepts to make the vision a reality. Leaders must be flexible on "how" a mission is accomplished and firm on "why" to make the vision a success. I once led a team tasked with turning around a poorly performing software product that customers hated to use. My first weeks were frustrating as none of my ideas worked. I stepped back and asked the team their ideas. In just a few hours, the team had great ideas and a plan to transform the situation. Ultimately, the customer satisfaction of the software went from below 10% to above 90% because I let the team help determine the solution, the "how," while I maintained the importance of the mission and its progress, the "why."

Leader Transparency

One of the hardest challenges for a leader is admitting when they make or made a mistake. Leaders need to become comfortable saying when they made a mistake, what they learned, and their proposal to fix the problem. However, when a leader apologizes too much (ie, every day), or if it is self-serving ("I told the boss we would exceed plan's target by 5%; I was wrong, it was 15%"), this actually destroys their leadership strength rather than enhancing it. A leader who apologizes when they make a major mistake should state what they learned, identify how the situation will be fixed, and then move on, just like in an employee coaching session.

Open analytics are a great addition to leader transparency, so everyone in the organization can see the progress toward major goals, and there are no "operational secrets." Secrecy and failing to apologize destroy trust in an organization. A leader who is transparent with their own actions and uses open analytics creates trust and confidence in employees.

Coach Others to Success

One of the best things that you can do to develop your team is to throw out your annual performance review process. The Harvard Business Review, Gallup, and hundreds of companies have found that the annual performance review process demotivates and frustrates workers, and does not improve business-specific outcomes for the company. The leader needs to be a coach, not a reviewer.

Acting as a coach, sit down in private with every employee every month and follow this format. First, discuss how the employee's actions directly contribute to the success and responsibility of the team's mission. The importance is to emphasize that what the employee does every day directly affects the team's success. Second, using specific instances with time, date, location, and actions, highlight activity that you want to see the employee continue. These should be high impact, positive, and very specific so the employee knows what exactly to keep doing. Third, identify areas where the employee needs to improve and how their strengths can aid in this improvement. Again, this needs to use specifics of action, time, date, and location so the employee knows what needs to be improved. It is an open conversation on how the employee can leverage their strengths to overcome some of their deficit areas. Pay close attention to the ratio of areas needing improvement to the ways in which the employee is doing well. For every one improvement area, you should have three to five positives. Therefore, if I want to improve two items with an employee, I should list six to 10 strengths that the employee demonstrates. Finally, both leader and employee need to create an action plan to help the employee accomplish their goals.

Be Afraid of Unethical Choices

Too often, leaders sacrifice their ethics to achieve successful business results. Every employee can recall a time when a leader took credit for someone else's work, blamed another for their bad decision, or did not protect the team from a senior leader's wrath. Employees understand the effects of bad markets, changes in customer buying patterns, or the business ramifications of a competitor's actions. Good leaders and good teams can overcome bad markets and make successful adjustments rapidly. Teams cannot easily recover from a leader's poor ethical choices. Bad ethics and self-serving behavior by leaders are 10 times more destructive than poor market conditions. Leaders always need to constantly stretch themselves to fully understand the ethical impact of all their actions on the team.

Employing these five leadership keys is how leaders win and continue to win with the trust and confidence of their employees, suppliers, customers, and other stakeholders. Everyone has a choice when dealing with bad leaders: stay or go. Most choose to leave bad leaders rather than tolerate them. Make the choice today to become a better leader, and give your employees no reason to want to leave.

About the Author

Chad Storlie is an Adjunct Professor of Marketing at the University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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