Most professionals think of leaders as people with an innate ability to pick up a ball, run with it and have everyone follow along because – better than most – they can see and communicate a clear vision for success. Leaders inspire individuals and groups of people to tap into their peak performance by enabling them to maximize their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses.
All of these characteristics certainly contribute to leadership. But for entrepreneurs, and especially women in leadership roles, these widely accepted descriptions do not go far enough. To be a true leader, one must also commit to nurturing talent.
The connotation of nurturing may sound somewhat sensitive. Indeed, some men might dismiss nurturing as a feminine trait akin to child rearing or intimate relationships. However, nurturing as defined in the business world simply means recruiting, mentoring, empowering and standing behind promising individuals who can ultimately help grow an organization.
Studies suggest female leaders are better than men at nurturing competencies, such as developing others and building relationships. However, this concept should apply equally to every organizational leader – regardless of gender.
Former GE CEO Jack Welch famously said, “Before you are a leader, success is all about yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” Every leader must exercise both an intelligence quotient (IQ), which involves being adept at performing and understanding necessary business functions, and an emotional quotient (EQ), which means empathizing and caring about the career aspirations of your team members. Leaders who pursue one of these competencies at the expense of the other will forfeit the confidence, trust and respect of key employees, who in turn will seek opportunities elsewhere.
On the other hand, entrepreneurs who can effectively strike a balance between leading and nurturing key employees dramatically improve hiring and retention, boost productivity and drive the kind of innovation that can help their businesses differentiate, compete and evolve.
Improving Hiring and Retention
Competition for strong talent is fierce, and entrepreneurial organizations must do everything possible to attract and retain the best and brightest. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States had a record 6.6 million job openings last quarter.
Entrepreneurs in the early stages of building a business have the rare opportunity to do things right from the beginning. Start by embracing servant leadership, putting the needs of employees ahead of the business. This may be uncomfortable for many startups focused on assembling the right products, getting them to market, finding investors and paying the bills. But if the philosophy is baked into corporate culture from the beginning, it becomes second nature and can help with hiring and retention. Just ask Southwest Airlines, whose servant leadership mentality is renowned for attracting remarkably dedicated workers.
Leaders should also put considerable time and thought into developing and executing their nurturing strategies. It is not just mentoring. It is not just listening to understand someone’s strengths and weaknesses. And it is not just counseling and consoling employees losing their way within organizations. It is a combination of all of this, every single day.
At the same time, successfully nurturing talent does not mean being overly sensitive or delicate in every engagement. Sometimes it will be necessary to deliver a little tough love (or tough nurturing) to nudge them in the right direction to become effective leaders themselves. This could involve delivering advice on leading internal stakeholders, giving critical feedback in a clear and concise way or encouraging employees to take leadership courses themselves to begin gaining that experience.
There is an exuberant, infectious, and wonderful spirit permeating teams defined by strong leadership, a servant’s-heart approach and a sense of purpose. For instance, in Glassdoor’s 20 Best Places to Work in 2018 list, nearly every employee from top-ranked companies indicated they are energized working for companies investing in their careers, showing appreciation and giving them a voice.
As part of any leadership and nurturing strategy, therefore, it is important to consider ways to gauge employee engagement beyond issuing annual satisfaction surveys. It is also important to check in with top talent regularly, just as one would with a top customer or client. Leaders must show interest, monitor changes in employee attitude or behavior and do their best to keep their team members motivated, recognizing motivation is a key ingredient for high performance and productivity.
In addition to improving performance, leadership and nurturing can pave the way for increased critical thinking and innovation.
When you have a high-performing and cohesive team with a leader willing to nurture talent on-the-job, one of the major outcomes is trust. Such trust makes employees feel valued, needed and respected. Not to mention, it makes them unafraid to take calculated risks. Employees unburdened by the impending pressure of a helicopter manager are more willing to get creative and suggest ideas because they are given the room to experiment and even make an occasional mistake without punishment.
A classic mistake many entrepreneurs make is to assume innovation will always emerge from a small group of insiders, most likely company founders. Nothing could be further from the truth, because innovation depends on creativity. In fact, a Boston Consulting Group study suggests that increasing the diversity of leadership teams leads to more and better innovation and improved financial performance.
This does not mean you need to involve every employee in every creative process. However, as part of nurturing, varying the group of brain-stormers to keep every employee engaged can engender better collaboration and innovation and spur ideas which may not have emerged from a more homogenous group.
Many characteristics contribute to leadership. But in the future, the most entrepreneurial organizations will strike a strategic balance between leading a business down the road to success and creating new career paths for talented employees.