How to Be an Exceptional Leader: A White Paper
ARE YOU PREPARED TO LEAD A TEAM?
Starting a business isn’t easy. There’s so much to learn, new challenges to face, and a million moving parts to coordinate. You might think you have all the ingredients — a solid business plan, startup capital, equipment and employees — and don’t get us wrong, this is a great start. But as you focus on pulling everything together, there’s one element many new entrepreneurs overlook: leadership.
In many cases, when people start a new business, they’re leading a team for the first time. For some people, leadership comes easily; they’re naturally inclined to take charge and inspire a team to build something amazing together. For others, it takes extra effort to get comfortable in the leader’s seat.
If you’re not a natural born leader, don’t worry: you can (and will!) still be exceptional. This guide will give you tools to inspire and coach your team to success.
LEADERSHIP: HOW TO GO FROM ORDINARY TO EXCEPTIONAL
The differences between ordinary and exceptional leaders are minor — but they will have major impact on the success of your business. With a few tweaks to your leadership style, you can be an exceptional leader, too.
THE COST OF POOR LEADERSHIP
We’ve all seen the stats: 90% of startups don’t survive their first year. This can be attributed to a number of factors — lack of demand, toxic culture, or mismanagement of finances, to name a few. But there’s common thread between all these issues that often goes unnoticed: they can all be traced back to poor leadership.
Either directly or indirectly, these components of business fall on the leader’s shoulders. It’s not that you need to balance your own books, but it’s up to you to find the right person for the job. Likewise, your company’s culture is a direct reflection of your values, vision and the people you bring on board.
To put it simply, it’s not enough to have a bright idea and ambition. If you want your business to be successful, you need to be willing to learn how to be an exceptional leader.
The cost of poor leadership is indisputable, and yet, it’s one of the biggest missing systems in companies today. We believe that YOU are the exception to the statistic. Read on to learn how to become part of the 10%.
LEADERSHIP AT A GLANCE
Think of your business like a sports team: every person has a position to play, an objective for the game, and needs to work together to succeed. But even if the roster is stacked with all-stars, victory will be out of reach without a strong coach. It’s the coach’s job to visualize the goal, build and communicate strategies, and motivate the team to win.
That’s where you come in: you are the coach and it’s up to you to guide and support your team. So get your game face on. These are the four key focus areas you need to develop to be an exceptional leader (we’ll be diving into each in detail):
- Personal Characteristics
- Interpersonal Skills
- Critical & Creative Thinking
- Practical Skills
THE SKILLS OF EXCEPTIONAL LEADERS
These four focus areas set exceptional leaders apart from the ordinary. Here’s how you can develop and implement these strengths for your business and your team.
1) Personal Characteristics
Visionary leaders are creative, open-minded and see the future as though it’s already here. They may not know how to get there yet, but they have a dream for their business and are committed to achieving it — no matter what.
Every new business should start with a clear vision and purpose. This will be the ongoing source of inspiration, not only for you, but for your team. It will keep everyone rowing together and on track to reach your business objectives.
It’s been proven that visualizing and writing down goals makes you more likely to achieve them. At O2E Brands, our vision is called the Painted Picture. It’s a crystal-clear snapshot of what our business will look, feel and act like every five years. Sometimes, our Painted Picture seems impossible to reach — but it holds us accountable and because of this, we rarely fall short.
If your vision is where your business is going, your values are how you’ll get there. At O2E Brands, our values are Passion, Integrity, Professionalism and Empathy (PIPE). They guide everything we do as an organization: our actions, behaviours and beliefs.
Your company values should always ring true to what you want your business to represent, both internally and externally. They should align with what you believe in and what you expect your team to believe in, too.
It’s your job as leader to develop and enforce your values at all levels of your business. This means onboarding people who are aligned with what your business stands for, and never (ever!) compromising on who joins your team. Keep in mind: if someone doesn’t embody your values now, they probably never will — so try to find people who are already in sync. This way, your business will always be authentic.
c) Positive Attitude
Fact: people who lead with positivity are more successful than their pessimistic counterparts. Choose a positive, confident attitude that inspires your team to achieve greatness. Give positive feedback for wins and constructive support for failures. Yes, negative things will happen and challenges will arise. But when you lead with optimism and forward-thinking (instead of harping on setbacks), your team will be motivated to move forward and to follow your lead.
Of course, it’s a fine line: positivity is a good thing but rose-coloured glasses can become a hazard. Always infuse your optimism with a healthy dose of reality.
d) Appetite for Risk
Business ownership is all about calculated risk. Entrepreneurs who play it safe are rarely the most innovative and inspiring. Exceptional leaders are comfortable being uncomfortable. They take chances, try new things, and inspire others to do the same.
At O2E Brands, our appetite for risk goes by a unique name: WTF. With a Willing to Fail attitude, everyone is inspired to step outside their comfort zones. If we don’t succeed, we don’t let it get us down — instead, we recognize failures as opportunities to improve going forward.
2) Interpersonal Skills
a) Conflict resolution
We get it: conflict is uncomfortable. But this is only true in cases where it goes unresolved. Where most people see conflict as a negative thing they’d rather avoid, exceptional leaders see opportunity for growth and learning.
Conflict avoidance has the potential to destroy your business; it festers beneath the surface until it reaches a breaking point. When you face it head-on, however, it turns into a powerful tool to assess roadblocks and implement change. As a leader, you need to be prepared to race to problems and resolve them quickly and productively.
Better yet, you can prevent conflict by regularly checking in with your team. Ask what’s working (and more importantly, what’s not), and proactively work together to find solutions. In short, conflict is malleable — how you treat it will determine whether it helps or hurts your business.
Strong communication is a two-way street: you need to know how to give and how to receive. There will be times when you need to share strategies, communicate new initiatives or delegate tasks. In other situations, you’ll need to sit back and listen. The most important communication skill is recognizing the difference.
Communication is absolutely crucial to alignment — on values, operations and everything in between. It’s important to take a hands-on approach and encourage transparency. By keeping the lines of communication open, you’ll be able to identify and react quickly to challenges.
c) Vulnerability & Humility
Leaders are often pressured to be “on” all the time. You’re the one in charge so you should have all the answers, right?
Not so. In fact, we believe that if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. Build a team with the best of the best and be willing to learn from them. Own up to your mistakes (you will make them and that’s okay) and admit when you don’t have an answer. You’ll earn more respect than if you act like you have it all figured out.
When you’re running a business, it can be tempting to take control of every task. While you should certainly be aware of what’s going on, you should not be in charge of everything. If you try to do it all (from bookkeeping, to customer service, to marketing), you’ll take yourself away from your primary role in the business: vision and coaching.
Realize that no one is an expert at everything. Just because it’s your business, doesn’t mean you’re the best person to handle payroll, or social media, or scheduling. Clear your plate of the things you don’t excel at and don’t enjoy, and delegate to someone who does. This doesn’t make you less competent — it makes you smart enough to acknowledge everyone’s strengths and weaknesses (including your own).
e) Honesty & Transparency
Trust is possibly the most valuable (and most elusive) asset a leader can have — both from their team and in their team. Without trust, there’s no way to achieve your vision of success.
It comes down to being open about failures and wins, and encouraging your team to do the same. You need to lead by example and show them that it’s okay to fail — in fact, taking risks should be a cornerstone of your culture. Transparency in both good times and bad will establish you as a trustworthy leader. In turn, your team will be honest with you and prove that you can trust in them, as well.
3) Critical & Creative Thinking
Leadership is all about inspiring people to shoot for the moon. Exceptional leaders are out-of-the-box thinkers with innovative ideas that challenge the status quo. They can see situations from a variety of unique perspectives and generate creative ways to improve their businesses.
Instill a creative mindset in your team by letting them know that there are no bad ideas. The more free people feel to entertain their wildest dreams for the business, the more innovative and successful you’re likely to become together.
There will be a lot of tough calls ahead when you own your own business. You need to be prepared to assess and address issues in the blink of an eye. Problem solving relies on your ability to use logic and facts to make impartial decisions about what needs to be done.
Decisiveness is key here, and your intuition will play a major role. When problems arise, you need to think fast, be assertive and trust your gut. More often than not, your first instinct turns out to be the right one.
Business owners are constantly being pulled in opposite directions. You have people to manage, customers to serve, and there’s always a fire to put out. With so many commitments, it can be a challenge to prioritize effectively — but it’s something exceptional leaders excel at.
The key is to never have more than three priorities — for the day, week, month or even the year ahead. If you have more than three, you’ll be stretched too thin and won’t be able to give each task the focus it deserves. Start by listing out your top three priorities for each time period (day, week, month, quarter and year) and get to work. As you work your way through, your yearly priorities will become your monthly, then weekly and so on. Breaking your workload down into digestible chunks will make it easier to handle and will make you a more focused, present leader.
Entrepreneurs are inherently opportunistic. They see possibility where others don’t — in people, situations and ideas. The ability to seek out and seize opportunity is a necessary skill to become an exceptional leader. It will help you attract better talent, build positive culture, and create a more innovative business.
Keep in mind, though, that there’s a difference between being an opportunist and being an opportunistic leader. An opportunist takes advantage of people and situations for their own personal gain. Opportunistic leaders, however, find and create opportunities that elevate their teams, support their vision, and align with their company values.
4) Practical Skills
a) Goal Setting
Running a business is a marathon, not a sprint. Strong leaders look ahead to the future, set goals for how to get there, and proactively work to make their vision a reality.
Goals will give you, your business and your team a direction. They’ll also provide a benchmark for you to measure your success against. To improve your goal setting skills, we recommend using the SMART goal method. All of your goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. You should also write your goals down; putting them down on paper makes you more accountable and likely to achieve them.
The best leaders are always on the hunt for learning and growth opportunities. They don’t sit idly by and wait for change to happen, and they don’t think they know everything. They seek out knowledge, adapt to change, and constantly work on their personal and professional development.
Those who don’t value learning as a key tool for growth are rarely effective leaders. Don’t allow yourself or your business to become stagnant. To stay ahead of the curve, you should actively look for learning opportunities in everything you do.
Strong leaders develop not only their own leadership skills — they prioritize the growth and development of their team members, too. Exceptional leaders take an interest in and invest in their employees’ futures, in and out of the office.
Coaching is about supporting your people’s growth now and for the future, and inspiring them to go above and beyond their current role. It’s about pushing people to think out of the box and try new things, without fear of repercussions if they fail.
A business is only as strong as its commander-in-chief. Sometimes, leadership is innate. Other times, it must be learned. But is always an essential skill to run a successful business. Become the kind of leader you’d choose to follow, and watch your business go from ordinary to exceptional.
Below is a list of business and leadership books we recommend to all new entrepreneurs.