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11 traits of unforgettable leaders

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Are you the best manager you could be?

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In the last 10 years I have had many managers, some very bad, some quite good, and some truly exceptional. Even though we instinctively know which ones were exceptional, we rarely know *exactly* makes them stand out and what is their secret recipe. Over these years I have identified ways in which great leaders differentiate themselves — the behaviors they adopt on a daily basis.

I am now sharing this list with you and added a few real life examples to make the list a bit more relatable.

What matters the most?

To me, trust is the backbone of high performing teams. Without trust, nothing ever gets done. Trust is built and maintained a series of many actions over time.

Real life example: In Google Play, our manager opened our first team meeting by giving us a speech about the importance of trust, and he asked us all to read the book “The Speed of Trust” which explains how Trust is a critical, highly relevant, and a performance multiplier. It was spot on and it changed how we all approached our work as well as our interactions with stakeholders. [Book summary here: https://goo.gl/WpvVfJ]

When your people can trust you, they will be loyal and inspired to go the extra-mile. When you gain people’s trust, you get to lead by permission, not authority. Every manager has a title. This title puts them in a position to instruct others, give them assignments, evaluate their performance and make decisions that will impact them. Unforgettable managers lead because their employees want them to lead. They are motivated and inspired by the person, not the title.

Key behaviors that I believe will inspire Trust.

1. Practice radical honesty. Great managers are not afraid of telling things as they are even if it’s uncomfortable. If they foresee an issue in someone’s trajectory they tell them immediately so they can course correct.

2. Set a clear vision. The simpler and clearer the vision, the easier it is for your team to get behind it. Memorable managers involve their team in that process and make sure to get their buy-in. The vision should be compelling, meaningful and memorable and it should be fairly constant. You cannot change the vision whenever you feel like it however ways to get there could change as you go.

Be stubborn about your goals but flexible about your methods — Unknown

3. Be accountable. Memorable managers build trust by first holding themselves accountable then holding others accountable. Although it’s true that leadership is collaborative, great managers hold themselves accountable for what happens on their watch.

4. Expect more. Memorable managers expect more — from themselves and from others. They give stretch goals, complex assignments, they have a talent to spot untapped potential and help reveal it. There is no such thing as a challenge that’s too big to tackle. When managers adopt this attitude, their people will follow, and every new problem will be seen as an opportunity for greater achievement.

The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it. — Michelangelo

5. Follow-through. When managers make a commitment they build hope. When they keep a commitment they build trust. Great managers only make commitments they can keep. They also make it a point to always get done what they said they’d get done. Nothing confuses people faster than inconsistency. And if confusion due to contradiction is the only constant, you will lose people’s trust.

6. Thrive to be better. Being a great manager is not a milestone that you can reach and then stay there, you have to keep learning, improving, fine-tuning your approach.

Real life example: With the best managers I have had in Google, we had this guideline of giving each other one constructive piece of feedback every week.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” — John Quincy Adams

7. Have strong work ethics. Sometimes doing what’s “right” is the hardest path, great managers are leaders who don’t shy away from the challenge, who rally the troops while ensuring their people will have a safety net and won’t be burnt along the way.

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things” — Peter F. Drucker

8. Be humble. Great managers know they do not have all the answers and are willing to learn from their team members.

Real life example: I had a great manager at HP. He was managing a cross-functional team and he was very open about the fact that he knew less on each area of expertise vs. each individual expert in his team, but his expertise was management. He was incredibly gifted at listening, spotting strengths, and identifying opportunities for his people, acting as a sounding-board in brainstorming sessions. He did not have all the answers, but he had the best questions. De facto, he was one of the best managers I have encountered.

9. Listen, and then, listen some more. When people talk, it comes from a place of knowing. However when they listen, it is with the goal to understand. Active listening is the skill to be able to hear the words being spoken, the message being conveyed, as well as any emotion that may be attached to it. Great managers get that listening can help detect problems early on and help with their resolution. But above everything else, listening is caring. And by caring, a manager provides a healthy work environment.

If you want to stand out as a leader, a good place to begin is by listening. Any organization’s best assets are its people, and if you are ready to help the team to achieve its goals, you can start gathering information on how to move things along just by paying attention to what employees are saying. Leaders who are great listeners are often terrific at uncovering and putting in place strategies and plans that have a big impact — Richard Branson

10. Lead by example. Nothing speaks more loudly when manager’s behaviors model their actions. Great managers are consistent. They don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk. They keep their word and do what they said they will do, not sometimes but all the time.

“A leader knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.” — John Maxwell

11. Be open & ask for inputs. Great managers know they do not have to have a fully formed opinion on everything. They are not afraid to debate their current thinking and observations in 1:1 and to get their people’s insights on them. Sometimes it will influence the decision, every time it will boost the trust people have in their manager as they will their opinions are respected and valued.

Real life example: When she joined, the new Director of one of our IT teams sent an email to the entire org saying that from now on, she will send one email per week with her thoughts on the business, what she has observed, where she’s at in her decision making process about X or Y, she’d join meeting notes, videos that inspired her, etc. In a matter of 2–3 weeks, she had established a very strong level of Trust. She made herself vulnerable, she opened up, she shared her decision making process. This is the kind of leader who you’ll remember.

Tactical ways to set-up a good foundation with your team.

1. Get to know each other. When you start working with a new individual, dedicate at least 1 hour to getting to know each other and co-define how you will work together. Here are a few good questions:

(1) aspirations & ambitions
(2) strengths, weaknesses, misconceptions
(3) communication style preference (what motivates, demotivates)
(4) management style preference (what to do, what not to do)

2. Have weekly 1:1. Even if you don’t have anything to discuss for some reason, having a 1:1 has a value in itself. Your people will (should?) have updates for you on what they are working on. I have found that it’s best for your people to own the agenda of their 1:1

A good agenda that I have had good results with is:
(1) what I have accomplished this week 
(2) what I am struggling with and need help on
(3) optional: something I would like to brainstorm with you
(4) do you have feedback for me?

2. Have monthly career update 1:1. Your people have to see that you care about their progress so it’s best to have these conversation at a separate time vs. regular 1:1. I have recently heard about the concept of “stay interview” (vs. exit interviews). The idea being to understand what is missing to reach employee’s satisfaction so they don’t want to leave.

A good agenda for a career discussion:
(1) Goal: Describe where do you want to be in 1–3–5 years
(2) Purpose: What’s so important to you in achieving these goals? Why does it matter to you? (purpose, meaning, drive)
(3) Gap: Where are you vs. goal, what’s missing?
(4) Strategy: Let’s break-down in mini-goals, agree on a timeline and data points we’ll use to measure progress.

It’s all about finding the right balance.

If you’re a manager, know that not one person can embody all these traits at every single time of every single day, we are all humans. So don’t be too hard on yourself — my advice would be for you to take some time to ask yourself what is your vision of what a manager should be, and work towards that. After all, how you deal with people has a lot to do with who you are. You can learn from articles, from people, from books… but in the end, your style will be unique to you.

If you’re someone who is struggling with a not-so-great manager, know that you have options. You could clarify your vision of what you expect from a manager, then make it a point to share it with them, see how they react. Chances are they did not know and would be opened to new rules of engagement. You also have the option to find mentors and sponsors who will have these traits and make up for the gaps in your manager’s approach. And finally, you can move team and be very specific in how you interview your new team, use this newly found vision to assess whether you’d fit in with the team culture and if the new manager would buy into your vision.

You are never stuck.

In the end everyone is responsible for their career, so great managers can only do so much. People have to want to learn, to grow, to go above and beyond, to take initiatives, to deal elegantly with setbacks.

I find this quote by Jim Rohn particularly inspiring:

“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.” — Jim Rohn

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 333,853+ people.

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