Five tips for toughing out the challenges of team leadership
Effective leadership doesn’t just happen – you need to keep working at it. Buzzacott’s learning and development director Eliot Glover – also an ex-Army officer, executive coach and mediator – shares five exercises every social enterprise leader should make time for
Leading a social enterprise is tough. Not just because you’re constantly balancing the need to deliver revenue and growth while making a dent on your social or environmental targets, but also because success means handling complex relationships, conflicting needs, and working with people from different backgrounds.
From my own experience of developing leaders within growing businesses, as well as managing conflict resolution in highly demanding environments, I’ve seen that some basic – but easily overlooked – mindset shifts or regular actions can make a big difference. While every leader faces his or her own particular challenges, the following tips and tools for more effective leadership should help anyone heading up a social business.
1. Communicate constantly.
The most successful leaders are, or make time to become, effective communicators. They build close working relationships with their stakeholders, know their views and seek out their advice when it matters. Checking in regularly, say once a month (or whatever feels right for you) helps to ensure that the organisation’s mission and vision are still current and its goals and strategy are fit for purpose – and that these are continuously communicated and reinforced.
One of my clients has a strategy of asking for feedback and support from three people on an ongoing basis: a more senior mentor from his sector, a junior member of his team (reverse mentoring), and me as the coach. This gives him good visibility of his team and what’s happening, and means he can be proactive and make good decisions in good time.
2. Approach conflict as a positive force.
What do you associate with the term ‘conflict’? Disharmony, argument and negativity – or opportunity and collaboration? Building a team of like-minded colleagues is great, but it may mean that your organisation loses its competitive edge, missing opportunities in the market. In contrast, having a diverse team enables you to capitalise on different backgrounds, experience and perspectives.
As an organisation, NATO is extremely good at this, embracing the cultural and political differences of its 28 member nations. It inspires collaboration and works towards consensus often when under significant pressure in high stakes environments. This is achieved not through process or procedure so much as mindset – approaching a common mutually beneficial cause, while acknowledging and celebrating differences. Conflict at work is to be welcomed, provided it is constructive and handled properly.
Leaders cannot shoulder full responsibility for the success of the social enterprise; they need the help of (and be able to trust) their board and their team
3. Work on your self-awareness.
As the organisation expands and recruits expertise at different levels, how does the entrepreneurial leader begin to let go of control? In which areas and when? What becomes their remit if they do? Becoming aware of your own ‘blind spots’ can help you identify areas where control can be shared or relinquished entirely. Being honest with yourself and making best use of those around you with skills that complement your own is very important for success. However, opening up in this way and obtaining other perspectives can be a challenge. Getting honest feedback from colleagues may be awkward, or inappropriate; asking your significant other at home can equally be fraught.
Many of our clients – whether from charity, social enterprise or commercial business – find our executive coaches extremely helpful. They are professionally trained to create space for the client to think, while providing an independent sounding board. And they can and will, if appropriate, deliver home truths leaders may need to hear. One thing to consider however is that the market is saturated with people calling themselves ‘coaches’. Rely on word of mouth recommendations and reputation, along with how you ‘gel’ together when you meet, rather than going by a slick website.
4. Develop your people.
As a social enterprise you’re probably already attracting some highly committed and self-starting people. To keep them motivated, though, you need to keep stretching them: provide opportunities that will test their existing skills, enable them to acquire new ones and provide exposure to new experiences. That can come in several forms, from giving them more complex, demanding projects, to providing learning and development opportunities.
Millennials will make up 75% of the population by 2025. This generation tends to be driven less by financial reward and more by the desire to achieve a work-life balance and to develop professionally. Examine what soft skills you require of your staff, and check the last time they received any training in this field to find out what’s missing. Areas for development may include time management, negotiation, or presentation skills.
5. Plan for your succession.
While juggling all the above, leaders and boards must also think about succession planning. It’s never too early to start factoring this into your business plan – yet leaders across the private sector have repeatedly been caught out, assuming that junior managers will want to take the baton once senior colleagues move on. We have seen senior managers, particularly within professional services, caught unawares by the amount of time and energy they have had to devote to finding successors, whether within their own organisation or by recruiting new staff.
These are all challenges, but they represent opportunities too. Leaders cannot and should not shoulder full responsibility for the success of the social enterprise; they need the help of (and be able to trust) their board and their team.
Investing in individual and team development can be difficult – but it is very much an investment rather than an expense. It can keep your organisation focused and your staff motivated. It will help reduce unconstructive conflict and develop people’s self-awareness and other core skills.
Developing your leadership skills has far-reaching effects. The role you play within your organisation will change as it grows – so make sure your leadership muscles are growing with it.