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Joel Zeff: What Makes a Successful Leader?
Friday, September 27, 2013 6:45 AM

Leadership means different things to different people, so the definition of a successful leader can vary greatly depending on who you ask. Motivational speaker Joel Zeff, who headlined the Cornerstone Credit Union League’s recent Leadership Conference & Expo in San Antonio, has an opinion on the matter and he shares his thoughts with Leaguer readers.

Following are Zeff’s six observations that allow leaders to be successful:

  1. Engage and Participate. I encounter all kinds of managers when I speak to various groups and organizations. I was asked to speak to a small group of managers. The person giving my introduction hadn’t even finished before the company president walked out the door. The person giving my introduction, part of the leadership team, also didn’t stay for my presentation. What do you think this says to the group of managers?
  • “I know everything so there is no reason to listen to the person I hired to speak to you.”
  • “I am better than everyone in the room.”
  • “My time is more valuable.”
  • “I don’t interact with the ‘lower’ managers.”
  • “I want to be first in line for the deli lunch boxes.”

These thoughts may or may not be true. I have no doubt everyone in the room thought at least one of them. There is nothing that frustrates me more than a leader that doesn’t participate. If you expect your team to experience it, then you, as their leader, should also participate. Engage with your team. Participate in every activity, even the ones that are silly. You might learn something. You will also gain valuable respect from your team. I think great leaders stand beside their team when they lead. They are part of the team, not separate from the team. You will always lose more by not participating.

  1. Admit Mistakes. During my discussion with a book club, one of the leaders mentioned she had two small teams. She invited one team (five people) for a discussion followed by lunch. She didn’t invite the other team (two people). Each team does separate jobs so she thought the small team wouldn’t be interested. She asked my opinion.

To me, great leadership is about inclusiveness and finding common ground. Great leaders bring people together and find commonalities. We can always learn from each other. I think she should have at least given the small team the option to attend. Let’s not forget, there was a free lunch involved.

As we talked through everything, the manager realized she had made a mistake. Her plan was to admit her mistake and plan more opportunities for the two teams to interact and learn from each other.

Yes, it hard to admit our mistakes. We all make them. The great leaders admit their mistakes and find a way to correct them.

  1. Ask Questions. We all want opportunity in our jobs. And opportunity is different for all of us. We could want more responsibility, customer interaction, travel, training, or the opportunity to present ideas. Some of us are very good about raising our hands and asking for opportunity. Some are not. As leaders, we have to ask our team what opportunity they need to be happy. You will be surprised by the answer because it is not more money. That happiness only lasts until the next paycheck and then we are right back at the beginning, looking for something else.

You will be surprised by the answer. And you will also be surprised by how easy it is to give that opportunity to your team member. The best part is the employee becomes more energized and passionate. The result to that passion is always success. Ask your team one question: What opportunity do you need to be happy? And then ask the question: What can I do to make the people around me more successful? Find the answers and act on them.

  1. Avoid trying to make everyone happy. Sometimes a new client will explain they have a few malcontents in their company. They never like anything new. They are cynical. They have a bad attitude. I have heard it all. They then ask me, “What am I going to do to engage the malcontents?” I have a simple plan: I could care less. They are not my problem. They are your problem because you hired them. Companies and leaders spend too much time, money and effort trying to make everyone happy. It is not going to happen. Think of the classic bell curve. There are three groups:
  • The beginning of the curve. These people are your stars. If you walked in and said we were only eating carrots for lunch this week, they would clap their hands, jump up and shout, “Carrots. I love carrots.”
  • The middle part of the curve. This is the big part of the curve or bell. These employees can go either way. They want to be led. They want to be motivated and inspired to be successful.
  • The end of the curve is where the malcontents live. I call them “Bye-Bye” people. They don’t care about goals or making the customer (internal or external) happy. Mentally, they are gone. They are “Bye-Bye.” They are not happy. And nothing is really going to make them happy.

Spend your time rewarding and appreciating the stars; and motivating and inspiring the team in the bell curve. Engage the “Bye-Bye” people. You have to at least give them a chance. Hopefully, they will participate and help the team create success. If they don’t make the choice, then it might be time for them to find opportunity and happiness at another company.

  1. Communicate. During a leadership book club, one of the managers mentioned that there was a huge change in her team. A key leader was leaving. Her team was worried because of impending change. What should she do?

We discussed three steps:

  • Always communicate what is happening. If you don’t fill the space with news, they will fill it with rumor. And the rumor and conjecture they create will always be negative. That is just how it works. Communicate what is happening and the next steps in the process of finding a new manager. Fill the void with positive and correct information.
  • During the transition, make sure you communicate your appreciation and support for their hard work and passion. Positive support is a gift. And it doesn’t take a budget. It just takes a few seconds.
  • Reward the employees who have taken on more work and filled the gaps during the transition. Surprise them with a coffee run. Give everyone a birthday card on the same day (even if it is not their birthday). Take the team to lunch. Just tell them you how much they are appreciated.
  1. Laugh and have fun. Yep, we have circled back to dressing up as a mermaid. In reality, you don’t have to wear a silly costume. Just open up a little more. Be a part of the fun and games. Find ways to laugh with your team. Laughter is our great common denominator. It humanizes us.

Every time I bring the “big boss” on stage to participate in an exercise with me, the audience goes wild. They love it. After the presentation, everyone talks about the “big boss” participating and having fun. It is amazing the respect and admiration they gain by stepping out of their comfort zone.

There is nothing that bonds and connects people like laughter. If you show me a leader with humility and that can laugh at themselves, I know they are a respected and admired.