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  • Writer's pictureUlrika Gustafson PCC LL.M

Empowering Leadership: Navigating Complexity with Authenticity and Agility

For senior leaders in this fast-paced world, the key to success is in navigating all the complexities of modern business with strategic insight and a genuine connection with your team. My own experience leading diverse organizations, including cities, has taught me that truly impactful and effective leadership is not just about making decisions; it's about inspiring your team, driving innovation and achieving sustainable results. The best leaders are those who combine clear vision with the ability to engage authentically with their teams, fostering an environment where everyone is motivated to contribute their best.

"The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership." - Harvey S. Firestone

This Leadership Insights post explores essential leadership practices that can make a real difference for you and your team. These practices are more than just strategies; they are the pillars of a culture that values growth, engagement and resilience. Let's dive into each of these aspects, looking at why they're important, how to implement them and how they work in real-world scenarios.

Setting Clear and Challenging Goals

Setting goals is a fundamental part of leadership. It is one of the main things we learn early on in our careers, often as individual contributors. Goals gives your team direction and a clear understanding of what success looks like. But the real challenge lies in setting goals that are not only clear but also ambitious enough to push your team to excel - this balance is crucial for transforming a good team into a great one.

Clear and challenging goals align team efforts with the organization's vision, motivate team members by pushing them to stretch their abilities and spark innovation. Effective goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART). It's equally important for leaders to communicate these goals effectively, ensuring that everyone on the team understands and is committed to them.

While leading a city's initiative to streamline its budget, my executive leadership team and the City Council set a goal to cut expenses by 20% within four years without compromising essential services. This goal required very intentional collaboration across various departments and stakeholders. The success of this initiative wasn't just in setting a bold goal but in clearly communicating the plan and getting everyone on board. The result was a collective effort that not only met but exceeded our target, thanks to the innovative approaches adopted by different teams.

My client Anna, a tech executive tasked with developing a new product feature in just six months, used this strategy to challenge and lead her team. Despite the very tight timeline, Anna set clear, measurable milestones for her team. This clarity turned a daunting challenge into an opportunity for the team to innovate and collaborate in new ways. They met the deadline and in the process also strengthened their team dynamic, proving that ambitious goals can lead to exceptional outcomes.

These examples highlight the power of setting clear and ambitious goals. Not only do they provide a roadmap for success, but they also inspire teams to go beyond what they thought possible, fostering a culture of excellence and innovation.

Reflective Question: Are your organizational goals challenging enough to inspire growth, yet attainable to maintain motivation?

Fostering Learning and Development

Fostering a culture of continuous learning and development is crucial for long-term success since it ensures that individuals and teams are not just keeping up with industry trends and technological advancements but are also expanding their skill sets and adapting to new challenges. The importance of learning and development is in its ability to enhance team agility, innovation and resilience, hence making it a key driver of competitive advantage.

Implementing a robust learning and development strategy involves understanding the unique needs of your team and providing tailored opportunities for growth. This could include anything from formal training and workshops to more informal learning experiences, such as mentorship programs and cross-functional projects. Encouraging a mindset of continuous improvement and curiosity not only helps in gaining more skills but also boosts morale and job satisfaction.

Working with one of our advisory clients, a leading global tech firm, the introduction of a "Learning Friday" initiative transformed the company culture. Employees were encouraged to dedicate the last Friday of each month to learning new skills, whether related to their current role or an area of personal interest. This initiative led to the development of a more adaptable and innovative workforce, with employees bringing fresh ideas and approaches to their roles, ultimately driving the firm's growth in new directions.

My client Maria, a marketing executive, recognized the need for enhanced leadership skills within her team. She organized a series of workshops focused on leadership development, covering topics from effective communication to strategic decision-making. The workshops not only equipped her team with vital leadership skills but also fostered a sense of unity and shared purpose, significantly improving team performance and engagement.

Investing in learning and development goes further than just enhancing skill sets; it's about building a culture that values growth, adaptability and continuous improvement - all key ingredients for success in any industry.

Reflective Question: How does your organization's learning ecosystem support your team's growth and adaptability?

Empowering through Delegation

Empowering your team through delegation is not just about offloading tasks; it's about trust and development. Effective delegation involves assigning responsibility with the authority to make decisions, fostering a sense of ownership and accountability among your team members. This empowerment can lead to higher job satisfaction, increased efficiency and the development of crucial leadership skills within the team.

The key to successful delegation is in understanding the strengths and potential of your team members and matching tasks to their skills and development goals. It's also crucial to provide the necessary support and resources, setting clear expectations while allowing enough flexibility for individuals to approach tasks in their own way.

In a large city redevelopment project, empowering department heads with the autonomy to make key decisions led to innovative solutions and a more engaged team. By my delegating significant responsibilities, each department felt a stronger sense of ownership over the project's success, resulting in a more cohesive and effective approach to complex challenges.

Working with David, a financial services executive, we created a cross-functional team to tackle a pressing organizational challenge. By delegating authority and encouraging autonomy, David's team members were able to leverage their diverse expertise to develop a comprehensive solution while also improving collaboration across departments and fostering a culture of empowerment.

Empowering through delegation not only optimizes operational efficiency but also creates a workforce that is more engaged, capable and prepared to take on leadership roles in the future.

Reflective Question: Are there areas in your leadership where increasing delegation could unlock team potential?

Valuing Feedback

Feedback is the cornerstone of personal and organizational growth. It provides both leaders and team members with insights into their performance, behavior and how they're perceived by others. Valuing feedback means not only soliciting it regularly but also acting on it constructively to make sure that you are leading in line with your intention. This practice fosters an environment of trust, encourages continuous improvement and helps in identifying and addressing issues before they escalate.

Creating a culture where feedback is valued involves establishing clear channels for both giving and receiving feedback, ensuring it's timely, specific and actionable. As a leader you should lead by example, showing openness to feedback and a commitment to using it for personal and team development.

Together with a professional services firm, we implemented a 360-degree feedback system, allowing team members at all levels to receive and give feedback. This system uncovered valuable insights into team dynamics, leadership effectiveness and important areas for improvement. Acting on this feedback led to a targeted development program for mid- and senior leaders, enhanced team collaboration and improved client satisfaction.

Through insights gained in our coaching sessions, my client Sophia, a senior project manager in the construction industry, introduced weekly review meetings with her team, focusing on open feedback regarding ongoing projects. These meeting provided a platform for her team members to voice concerns, share successes and offer constructive criticism. The result was a more cohesive team, quicker problem resolution and a significant increase in project efficiency.

Incorporating feedback into the organizational culture not only improves performance but also builds a resilient, adaptive and engaged team.

Reflective Question: How effectively does your current feedback mechanism uncover actionable insights?

Celebrating Success

Recognizing and celebrating success is crucial in maintaining high team morale and motivation. Celebrations reinforce positive behaviors, acknowledge individual and team achievements and strengthen the sense of community within the organization. And it doesn't have to be complicated, it can range from formal recognition programs to informal acknowledgments in team meetings.

Celebrating success also involves reflecting on the journey, recognizing the challenges overcome and the lessons learned. This not only boosts morale but also encourages a culture of striving for excellence and appreciating the contributions of all team members.

Leading a citywide senior health initiative, celebrating milestones and achievements played a key role in maintaining momentum and public support. Public acknowledgments, community events and media coverage not only recognized the hard work of the involved teams but also rallied the senior community around the initiative, leading to its fantastic success.

Working with Elena, a sales director, we implemented a quarterly celebration for her team, recognizing top performers and significant deals closed. These celebrations coupled with personal acknowledgments, fostered a competitive yet supportive environment while driving sales figures to new heights and improving team cohesion.

By celebrating success, leaders can create an environment where effort and achievement are valued, driving sustained engagement and performance.

Reflective Question: How do you ensure your team's efforts and achievements are celebrated and recognized?

Transformational Principles

The practices of setting clear and challenging goals, fostering learning and development, empowering through delegation, valuing feedback and celebrating success are not just strategies; they are the pillars of a thriving organizational culture. These practices, when applied with authenticity and a clear vision, can transform teams and organizations while driving them towards unparalleled success.

As leaders, our role extends further than achieving business objectives; it's about nurturing an environment where every team member can grow, contribute and feel valued. I believe that the true measure of our success is in the growth and achievements of the individuals we lead. I encourage you to reflect on these practices and consider how they can be integrated into your own leadership approach. Think about the last time you set a challenging goal, encouraged a team member to learn a new skill, delegated a critical task, acted on feedback or celebrated a team achievement - each of these actions can have an enormous impact on your team's engagement, growth and overall performance.

As we strive to lead with authenticity, clarity and purpose, let us also remember the power of connecting with our teams on a human level, understanding their aspirations and supporting them in their journey towards achieving them. If you're looking to enhance your leadership skills or seeking guidance on how to apply these practices within your organization, I encourage you to reach out for a conversation. Together we can explore how to further your leadership journey and drive meaningful change within your team and organization.

Ulrika Gustafson LL.M PCC is a Certified Executive Coach, former C-suite leader and partner of HAMILTON THERRELL Executive Advisors, an international advisory group of experts in leadership and organizational transformation. She advises CEOs and coaches senior executives on succeeding in demanding environments.


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