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10 Traits of Exceptional Leaders

Jan. 10, 2020
Selecting the right people is first step toward building a healthy culture.

I received the following feedback from my December 6 column, Nobody Likes a Bully:

“I agree with you that bully is not a good choice for executive management. What attributes do you think they should possess?”

The following column I wrote in the fall of 2016 pretty much lays out my thoughts on that issue:

There is probably nothing more important to the future of an organization than to select the right people for positions of authority. Not only will such individuals need to successfully oversee tactical day-to-day activity; they will also have to provide strategic direction and leadership. The overall makeup of an individual selected for a leadership role communicates—both internally and externally—an awful lot about the culture that the organization is trying to create.

Below, I’ve listed the Top 10 criteria I consider in reviewing candidates for leadership positions. Before I detail them, however, let me start by saying that there is no substitute for doing a significant amount of background research. Although this is traditionally accomplished through one-on-one candidate interviews, I’ve found it is often more revealing to touch base with their peers, previous direct reports and—in the case of purchasing positions—suppliers they have worked with in order to gain an individual’s true measure.

Most people who are being considered for leadership positions can point to a long track record of significant accomplishment. What I’m also looking for—and have found to be an important differentiator between candidates—is finding out how they achieved their accomplishments since this correlates strongly with the culture issue cited above.

The following are listed in no special order.

1. Promotes teamwork

Establishing a philosophy of team is important to organizational productivity. Executives need to be good at promoting teamwork and setting an example of it. I avoid putting people into leadership positions that stress their own importance above the contributions of others since, in the long run, this is a major organizational de-motivator and also a sign of having too much ego. In addition, showboater and grandstander -type individuals tend to distract from what should be the main issue: organization success.

2. Asks for input

In a similar vein, leaders who don’t ask for and take input from employees don’t produce optimal results. Those who ask for and thoughtfully entertain the input of those who work for them are not weak—they are strong. When bosses listen, employees tend take ownership which—by the way—is strongly correlated with organizational success. By definition, leaders who think they can best figure everything out for themselves are called tyrants. Most people I know don’t want to work for a leader who just wants them to follow his or her orders.

3. Creates middle ground

Following up on the last point, I’ve found that a lot of know-it-all leaders treat alternative input as a type of disobedience; i.e, if you aren’t with me—don’t agree with my ideas—you are against me. This is certainly not a recipe for achieving the best business outcomes. It is natural for people of different backgrounds and experiences to have varying insights on issues. Leaders create middle ground by pulling in the best parts of all input and use it to craft better overall solutions. Consequently, they are more apt to have people who will offer insights. On the other hand, people working for leaders who react to input outside of their personal opinions—demeaning and negatively marking the people offering it—learn to keep their thoughts to themselves, negatively impacting an organization over the long term.

4. Has on-the-job experience

There are certain individuals with such rare talent that they will likely excel in any position, regardless of their background. I keep on the lookout for these types of folks but in over 40-plus years in industry, I’ve only personally run across two. Most people need a critical mass level of experience in a specific functional area—or one closely related to it—to appreciate the structural challenges they will have to face to be successful. Hiring people without a background within the construct they will be operating in exposes an organization to significant risk of failure. For instance, if you are the owner of a Ruth’s Chris Steak House, would you really consider hiring a head chef with only experience in cooking Tex-Mex foods?

5. Sticks to the facts

I’ve found that some candidates for leadership positions have a difficult time dealing with facts to the point where you almost need fact checkers to review the validity of just about anything they say. Such people are usually sharp enough to understand that some nugget of truth needs to be included in their statements so that at least upon the surface they appear reasonable. The old line from Dragnet—“Just the facts, Ma’am”—applies here. If a candidate can’t back up their words by citing authenticated facts and data they are probably stretching the truth, or worse, misrepresenting a situation.

6. Is consistent

I don’t want managers who shoot-from-the-hip as their primary mode of operation. Sure, sometimes this sort of thing is required. Shooting from the hip, though, increases the probability of taking one position one day and having to either revise it or backtrack from it the next when it proves to be off-target. Or worse yet doubling-down on a position in the first place. Either way, people are impacted by words.  In leaders I look for thoughtful, measured strategies and actions.

7. Shows compassion

Employees are not and should not be treated as standardized clones. People have different strengths and weaknesses. Leaders need to recognize this and position their people for both personal and organizational success. Publically identifying and criticizing individuals demoralizes an entire organization, leaving employees wondering “Will I be next?” Many times, subpar performance by an individual is just as much the fault of the manager as it is the employee. I believe the old rule-of-thumb that constructive criticism of others should be private and verbal while praise should be public and visual. People like knowing they have a boss who has their back. Leaders that go around criticizing everybody-and-their-brother are likely just trying to take focus off of their own failings.

8. Strives to do a good job

I once asked a candidate what his primary goal would be if I placed him in the leadership position I was trying to fill. He answered, “I want to position myself for my next promotion.” At least he was honest. I know what he was getting at, but I’m more interested in people focusing on doing a good job for that job’s sake first and foremost than someone with an eye on what the job can do for him/herself as an individual. Avoid individuals whose primary goal in life seems to be “looking out for # 1.”

9. Answers with details

Leaders need to both have listening skills and when they talk be specific about what they are talking about. When I ask candidates questions, I am interested in some level of detail in their answers. I don’t want to hear the one-line PowerPoint bullet item-type responses. Better, I like to have the candidates ask for more detail about the question being posed and then consider it a bit before jumping directly into an answer. In my experience, it is relatively easy in an interview to identify candidates who are more interested in listening to themselves talk than giving a meaningful answer to a question. They should be avoided.

10. Is known for integrity

Integrity is generally something that doesn’t need to be defined. You know when you see it and you know when you don’t see it. For instance if I hear a whiff of evidence about a candidate for a leadership position not having honored their word this disqualifies them for any position of authority. An example of this might be failure to pay full contract price to a supplier after delivery of goods or services. I want nothing to do with such an individual. ‘Nuff said.

Hopefully, the above discussion will positively impact to your evaluation of people for positions of authority.

About the Author

Paul Ericksen | Executive Level Consultant; IndustryWeek Supply Chain Advisor

Paul D. Ericksen has 40 years of experience in industry, primarily in supply management at two large original equipment manufacturers. At the second he was chief procurement officer. He then went on to head up a large multi-year supply chain flexibility initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. He presently is an executive level consultant in both manufacturing and supply chain, counting Fortune 100 companies among his clientele. His articles on supply management issues have been published in Industrial Engineering, APICS, Purchasing Today, Target and other periodicals. 

Read Paul's articles

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