Ken Jacobs

11 Ways to Become a More Effective Leader

By: Ken Jacobs | July 31, 2019 | 
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effective leaderEach year for the past decade or so, I’ve presented at the PRSA Counselors Academy spring conference, on client service, business growth, profitability, and most often, leadership. 

In 2016, I talked about how to “Discover the Leader In You! Nine Critical Leadership Success Actions.” 

This past May, I revisited the topic.  

We know it’s critical for a leader to have a compelling organizational and personal vision that their followers—managers, teams, and influencers—believe in and want to help achieve. 

But according to respected leadership expert John C. Maxwell, the reality is, “people buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.” 

And what’s an effective leader, anyway?

I’m a fan of this definition:

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are an effective leader .

That seems like a relatively modern idea, no? 

It’s actually from John Quincy Adams, who was our president from 1825 to 1829.

Leadership is a Two-part Choice

As senior PR or agency pro, it’s your conscious decision not to be just a communications practitioner or even just a manager, but a n effective leader of people. 

And it’s your followers’ choice to follow you—or not. 

They must have confidence you have their back to make that choice.

Michelle Egan, chief communications officer of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, gets it right when she talks about the importance of leaders standing by their people to build that trust.

When I ask someone to take on challenges or make decisions, …they will make mistakes, and I’m going to stand by them. Their mistakes are my mistakes, too.

This approach encourages your team members, and especially your next-in-command, to take educated risks. 

It’s worthwhile to ask yourself if your followers believe you will stand by them. 

If the honest answer to that isn’t a resounding YES, what are you going to do about that? 

Trust Them Back

I coach clients on leadership effectiveness and often tell them: “We get what we give, so give what we want.”

This is particularly true of trust. 

If you wanted to be a more trusted leader, be a more trusting one. 

A Harvard Business Review study illustrates the impact trust between followers and leaders can have on an organization. 

It found employers who feel less trusted exert less effort, are less productive, and are more likely to leave.

In an environment where it’s incredibly challenging to retain good talent, that’s a critical issue. 

Conversely, employees who feel trusted are higher performers, go above and beyond expectations, make the extra effort, and have greater confidence in their workplace. 

Aren’t those all qualities you want in your teams?

Give Respect!

The Queen of Soul was right.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T is everything.

Especially if you want your organization to succeed.

According to a 2018 Georgetown University study of nearly 20,000 employees worldwide, feeling respected by superiors topped the list of what matters most to employees. 

They ranked this as the most important leadership behavior. 

But alarmingly, employees report more disrespectful and uncivil behavior each year.

The study found a possibly more significant issue.

An effective leader may have an incomplete understanding of what constitutes workplace respect to their employees.

Even well-meaning efforts to provide a respectful workplace may fall short.

Are you aware of what your team members feel is a respectful workplace, and whether you provide it? 

Showing respect doesn’t mean not being direct with employees. 

Barri Rafferty, partner, president, and CEO of global agency Ketchum puts it well:

I’ve been told I can throw a punch with a velvet glove. That means yes, I can be tough, but I do it in a way that leaves people feeling respected and valued.

When you need to give constructive feedback, don’t just think about the error made or behavior change you want. 

And don’t call it a “constructive criticism” because that will encourage you to emphasize the latter at the expense of the former.

Instead, start by determining that you’re going to communicate respect during the discussion consistently. 

Do so, and you’ll build relationships, loyalty, and trust. 

Take Risks and Be Willing to Fail

Genuinely successful leaders understand that “failure” (intentional quotation marks) is just one step on the road to success.

Even some of the most successful people have at one point or another accepted their failures.

Jennifer Thompson, president, and CEO of Thompson & Co. in Anchorage states it succinctly:

Leaders must take strategic risks. There is no shame in failure. Leaders fail, and that can lead to success if we take responsibility and recover quickly.

So how are you when it comes to your people’s failures?

Be Sure to Listen

The purpose of communication is not to message, but to engage, which requires effective listening.

An effective leader knows there’s more to be gained by surrendering the floor than by dominating it.

Seek to understand more than to be understood, seek to hear more than to be heard. 

According to the Association for Talent Development, active listening offers at least five valuable advantages:

  • Expands your understanding and makes a positive impact on culture
  • Provides access to a diversity of ideas and potential solutions 
  • Expands perspectives and enables to address potential issues proactively
  • Strengthens relationships, trust, teamwork, and credibility
  • Increases loyalty, shows employees that you care

Put more simply, if you want your teams to perceive you as an effective leader, “Shaddup and listen!”

Effective listening isn’t just something to force yourself to do.

It’s something you should prefer to do.

Valerie M. Simon, chief marketing officer of Atlantic Health Systems, and co-founder of #PRStudChat, both listens and asks lots of questions:

It’s important for me to acknowledge there will always be others in the room who have the expertise I lack.

The good news is that followers follow leaders who acknowledge what they don’t know, ask questions, and are willing to learn from others. 

That takes courage.

And the better news is, your followers will follow courageous leaders.

Surround Yourself With a Diversity of Thinking

Diversity is a vital issue today, as well it should be.

In addition to considering the demographic perspective (such as gender, racial, ethnic, age, or sexual preference), it’s important to encourage diversity of thinking.  

You need people to tell you not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. 

Join a professional group such as Counselors Academy, a peer community, or Vistage.

Consider getting a mentor (which can be useful at any point of your career) or (shameless plug) an executive coach.

Don’t ignore people with differing viewpoints—seek them out!

This is true both externally and from within your organization. 

Truth be told, this takes some courage. 

And as I’ve often said, “leadership is not for sissies!”

Joel Curran, APR, vice-chancellor of communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and formerly a longtime agency executive, encourages bold thinking here:

Embrace different points of view and invite diverse thinking into every strategic discussion.

Boy, I sure wish I had Joel’s wise counsel back when I was an agency leader!

Know Thyself

Are you aware of your own biases?

Do you have the courage to hire people who will challenge you? 

Self-awareness is one of the best things you can have as an effective leader.

Your communications and behaviors are under intense scrutiny due to your position and visibility. 

As such, your words have more weight and may be misinterpreted. 

Also, your messages can affect your followers’ choices and behaviors.

Unaware leaders risk losing credibility and the ability to influence. 

So you have to get this right. 

And the first step is increasing your self-awareness. 

So who’s the best judge of your leadership effectiveness? 

Here’s a hint: it’s not you! It’s those you lead.

Feedback Equals Wisdom

I’ve been coaching agency leaders and conducting 360s for 12 years. 

I’ve observed a gap between what leaders believe their followers think about their leadership effectiveness and what those followers really think. 

This gap can make you or break you. 

A Zenger Folkman study found that the top 10% of leaders who ask for feedback get rated at the 86th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness.

The feedback can be tough to hear/read. 

But if you genuinely want to be a more effective leader, you must be brave enough to seek feedback on your leadership performance. 

Valerie Simon clearly dares to seek out this feedback:

Every day, I reflect on what I could have done better. I listen closely to feedback and look for clues into what’s not being said outright.

I imagine Valerie’s team members aren’t afraid to criticize or challenge. 

Because she wants their feedback and makes them feel trusted and respected.

Customize Your Leadership Style for Those You Lead

While it’s tempting to create your own leadership style, it’s not enough. 

Not if you want to be a truly effective leader. 

Instead, develop a bespoke leadership style customized to all your direct reports. 

First, understand their motivations, passions, worldview, and dreams.

Next, learn what style of communication from you works best for each of them, and the kinds of communications each of them should use when communicating with you. 

The MBTI is a great tool for this.    

Determine what each of your direct reports needs for maximum communications.

Invest in this way, and you’ll assuredly get a return-on-investment.

Let Go and Empower!

While we discussed this in a previous Spin Sucks article, it’s worth a mention here. 

The reason many leaders and leaders-in-training find empowerment and delegation challenging is because they focus on things they might be giving away. 

Quite often, those are the tasks we enjoy doing. 

So is it really any wonder we resist delegation?

If you want to empower and delegate, instead of thinking about what you’re giving away, focus on what you’re getting. 

This is an opportunity to grow the organization and develop your leadership bench.

Most of all, concentrate on the fact that you’re getting the chance to grow yourself and do the tasks that only you, as a leader, can do. 

This includes vision, strategy, long-term planning, culture, talent retention and attraction, and business development.  

So do you need to get the hell out of the way?  

Rebecca Mosley, a managing partner at Kitetocket, admits:

Allowing decision-making to happen without my involvement, and allowing team members to stumble and recover without my stepping in is still hard for me. But it empowers people to do well on their own, and to learn from their own experiences.

Talk About Servant Leadership!

Rafferty captures the essence of empowerment:

My approach is to create a vision, and then give others the freedom to bring their own approach and style to delivering on that vision…I see my job as bringing out the best in people who work for me, not having them conform to my way of doing things.

This attitude towards empowering your direct reports allows you to let go and embrace your real leadership responsibilities. 

An Effective Leader is Passionate and Inspires

Passion inspires your team to identify with and commit to your vision, turning it into reality.

There is some discussion in the world of leadership as to the value of motivation versus inspiration. 

While the jury may be out on that, I believe that if you inspire your team, they’ll motivate themselves.

That’s extremely powerful! 

When you identify your employees’ passions, you can put them in positions that align with their values and tap into intrinsic self-motivators.

Kim Bardakian, director of media relations, Kapor Center for Social Impact, reminds us to consider our own passions:

Leaders need honesty, confidence, communication, and passion. Without passion, it’s just work.

And I know that anyone who is part of the Spin Sucks community wants it to be about far more than just work!

How do you lead? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

About Ken Jacobs


Ken Jacobs is the principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching, which empowers PR and communications leaders to breakthrough results via executive coaching, and helps communications organizations achieve their goals via consulting and training. You can find him at www.jacobscomm.com, ken@jacobscomm.com, @KensViews, or on LinkedIn.