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Improving Your Leadership Skills


If you want to build loyalty to you and your organization, your products and your goals, you have to constantly refine your leadership talents. Whether you're operating at the retail, distribution or manufacturing level, the development of a successful selling team means you must bring forth that extra effort and support to compete in a tough, aggressive market. This analysis discusses effective leadership so that you can examine and improve your skills.

After three months of developing and discussing a special group of prospects in your best salesperson's territory, they still haven't been contacted even though everyone agrees that the goal for the quarter is to expand new business. What do you do?

More likely than not, you're going to lay down the law. You'll probably tell the salesperson that by the end of the week you want all of those prospective clients contacted and a report on your desk.

On Friday afternoon, your salesperson turns in his or her report and has opened three new accounts. The job was done, and it was done on time. But was it good leadership?

Some of you will say yes because often, the end justifies the means. But many would contend that it wasn't good leadership because results were achieved in an undesirable manner. Successful leadership would have resulted in the salesperson wanting to do the job at hand, rather than being forced to do the job.

But is there a "right" kind of leadership? It's not "right" to take over responsibility that should properly be assumed by another member of your organization. When you do that, you lower his or her self-esteem. It's not "right" to issue edicts. The total scope of the program should be discussed with the individual involved. Forcing obedience is never right; it destroys an individual's initiative.

As our earlier example illustrated, there is no "best way" to handle leadership. There is no simple list of do's and don'ts to follow. Every individual and circumstance calls for a different type of leadership.


Forms of Leadership

According to most experts, there are three major methods of handling people:

1. Autocratic--With this type of leadership you, as the manager, assume full responsibility for all actions individual and group. You're seeking obedience to specific orders. You determine policy and consider decision making as your perogative.

Let's say you've decided that you want to test-market a product or service to see if there is a need, if a market exists, how it should be priced and what the competitive situation is.

You would prepare all of the necessary instructions and announce the project to your staff. It's not a matter that is open for discussion.

As can be expected, there are members of the organization who will predict the failure of the project. It is then your task to talk to them individually, taking full responsibility for the outcome, and outline the benefits you expect to be derived from the effort. You divert arguments and concentrate on how your staff can help get the information needed. If all else fails, you will have to demand that each individual concentrates on getting the task accomplished.

2. Democratic--With this style, you will seek ideas and suggestions through discussions and conclusions. This method is often used when you are working with your sales staff to establish sales goals. But let's go back to our test-marketing example and assume that the product or service was needed by your staff to capture an even greater portion of the total market. In the meeting, you allow each individual to contribute his or her ideas. The result should be a very productive meeting and an example of productive leadership.

Whenever possible, good leaders will treat individual problems and situations on a democratic basis. For example, you are a retailer selling to both consumer and commercial accounts. One of your people appears to have more talent in business situations than with individual consumers who come in the door. Your job is to help the salesperson convince him or herself that he or she would be more successful selling to businesses. Once the individual realizes the benefits, it's only a matter of discussing how to manage the territory and selling effort.

3. Free-Rein--With this type of leadership, you exercise comparatively little direct control, but are the prime source of information, suggestions and authority. This style of management is best if you feel that your staff is well-trained, very responsible and professional. This type of leadership is required in many sales organizations where people have to make immediate decisions or if your sales people are in remote areas and have little direct supervision.

Free-rein leadership is used by most hardware/software manufacturers and rep organizations. Within certain limits, individuals are allowed to set their own goals. Most of the time, this results in outstanding performance.


Choose Your Method of Leadership

As stated at the outset, there is not a best method of leadership ... only the most appropriate for a particular occurrence. This means that you have to plan your actions for a given situation.

You can't choose between autocratic and democratic leadership. That's like making a golfer choose either woods or irons. During any golf game, they're all used.

Decide on the type of leadership that is needed based on:


1. Individual Personality--Some people only perform (and then excellently) when a certain type of leadership is used. For example, an aggressive, hostile type of individual does better if you are understanding but autocratic. You recognize their hostility, but control it.

An individual that is aggressive and cooperative will perform better if your leadership is democratic or free-reining. Since they are often perfectionists and enjoy accomplishment for its own sake, these individuals self-assertiveness may be very constructive. Individualists are most productive when they can operate in a free-reining type of environment. This is assuming that they know their job. If not, they need a firm but friendly hand.

If you're having some leadership problems, perhaps you should take some time and review the personality characteristics of each of your people by working with each individual, you may determine that you have to modify the type of leadership you are using with each person.

But don't think one review alone will solve your problems. Constantly evaluate your people and your programs.

2. Situation -- Changes in the market, customer crises, new products and policy changes often make new demands on the type of leadership you use. If quick decisions and fast action are necessary, you're going to have to be autocratic in your leadership. If you lack information, or at times question your intuition, then use the more democratic approach. After all, the people who are on the front line contacting customers or prospects can be helpful sources of input to help you make the best possible decision.

3. Organizational Flavor--The total make-up of your organization reflects the type of leadership that should be used. Sometimes group needs and individual needs are quite different.

If your organization has a large number of experienced, cooperative people, then democratic leadership will work. If you have a dispersed organization that seldom meets and is made up of strong individualists, a mixture of the leadership methods depending upon each situation may be best.

If your staff is largely untrained and undisciplined, then autocratic leadership is a must. You have to be the firm and decisive force that quickly makes the organization productive.

If you have a highly trained and professional staff, including good engineers, good software people and good sales people, then free-reining leadership will win out. These individuals are generally quite creative and will solve the problems that they encounter, so they require much less guidance.


How About You?

The success of your leadership will depend on whether or not you're flexible enough to recognize the need for the different types of leadership and are willing to change gears when necessary. You will have to determine what is best for each individual and each situation. And, just as you periodically evaluate each person who works for/with you, evaluate your own operating style as well.

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