How to Be a Powerful Leader

An effective team starts with an effective leader. Set the tone with your employees and enable them to take ownership, succeed, and add dynamic to your team.

In the beginning, you may be able to run your subscription business completely on your own. You may find yourself well-equipped to develop your creative assets, handle development and technology, procure products, and provide stellar support to customers. But as your business grows, you’ll inevitably need to bring on more people: there’s just no way to automate every function of your business, and at a large scale, there’s just no way to do it all by yourself.

So, how do you plan on being an effective leader?

Truth is, this is one of the most difficult questions to answer. Leadership skills are nuanced, complex, and at times difficult to follow when faced with tough decisions. By focusing on your leaderships skills and being a powerful leader, though, you maximize value from your employees and ensure that they both take ownership of their duties, in turn going above and beyond to personally succeed (that’s good news for your business!). The result is a cohesive, strong team that can project your business to new heights.

1. Setting a Culture: Defining Your Ethos

Greek philosopher Aristotle spilt the means of persuasion and appeal into three categories, one of which was “Ethos” or the ethical appeal and credibility/trustworthiness of  a person. This credibility, he argued, is what led people be more or less likely to believe (and follow) a speaker. It was a perceived sense of validity, which at times could have no relation to the facts of the matter, that could persuade others to change their beliefs as well as their behaviors.

As a company, this credibility is a big draw for customers who want only the best product from the best business. (Consider how trusting shoppers are at natural food stores, and how distrustful they can be of other grocers. The ethos of these natural food stores appeals to a specific set of principles that appeal to a particular type of shopper. This leads them to make different purchasing decisions, and even go out of their way to shop at their preferred store.)

This same phenomenon comes into play as a business leader with your employees. Writers and speakers on the subject refer to it as “company culture” or “operating principles” or “values we live by,” but whatever the incantation, it means the same thing: a well defined ethos has the power to uniquely inspire and motivate employees by creating a binding culture. By instilling a core message in your employees (examples below) AND by following through with the practice in day-to-day operations, you develop credibility and trust. It becomes clear to employees how your business operates and therefore provides the “rules” by which the employee can operate by. These can be good or bad, and it depends on you as the leader to define them.

“Great organizations and great teams are built (intentionally or not) around a very strong and coherent culture.” – Rob Go

When thinking about your internal ethos, start by building a list of core principles that you feel are important to your company. You can start by defining what these looks like for your customers (like the organic, fair trade ethos found in the natural food stores mentioned above) and working backwards to what that would mean for your own operations. For example, the business owner of the natural food store would do well to adopt the same ethics and morals of his products, as that is what attracts his customers.

Here are some examples of defined company ethos:

  • Be passionate and accountable to customers: Do everything you can to serve them both superbly and honestly
  • Conflict is healthy: Challenge ideas and suggest new ones whenever possible
  • Be sustainable and follow environmentally conscious business practices: Work with the world in mind (recycle, ride share, etc)

What you’ll notice is that by having a cohesive set of principles that are honestly followed by you and your staff, your employees will naturally feel more connected with their work and invested in their experience. They’ll be more likely to take ownership of their duties and want to succeed authentically. Make your business a movement, and you will move people.

2. Making Your Employees Feel Safe

Stemming from your ethos is your ability to make employees feel safe. This idea rang true to me after listening to Simon Sinek talk about what makes leaders great. Sinek argues that we’ve evolved as social creatures specifically because of the benefit of good leadership: we insulate ourselves from danger by trusting others in a circle of saftey. Further, when we trust others incredible things happen. Followers go out of their way to help other followers, and a phenomenon of reciprocal and mutual benefit builds upon iteself.

What is at the heart of feeling? For employees, it’s knowing that the leader is willing to put the well being of the employees (or customers) above their own. They sacrifice the numbers for the people. They opt for the greater good. Sinek points out something great in his talk: not all of those with authority are great leaders, and not all great leaders have authority. The leader in your customer support team, for example, could be the lowest agent. But if this agent shows commitment, sacrifice, and dedication to the whole, you can bet your other agents will naturally follow that person. Sure, they’ll listen to the authority figure and his or her orders, but they’ll trust the true leader in the team.

Engaging and sparking this trust is incredibly powerful. It serves as some of the cleanest burning fuel for motivation, inspiring your employees to replicate the sacrificial culture you’ve defined. This can mean they choose to work extra from home or they more frequently engage in thought about their job, potentially finding new solutions to your unique problems when they’re not even at their desk.

The takeaway: by making your employees feel safe through trust, you cultivate a sense of purpose and coherency, something we are naturally drawn to as social creatures.

3. Charisma is in the Voice

Many say the best leaders are the most charismatic, and in some regards, this is true. While I would hesitate to argue that the best leader is always the finest speaker, there is a kernel of truth to this, in that those who can more effectively communicate their ideas and beliefs (like company ethos) are more effective at drumming up support and morale inside a business.

Research conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles confirms this suspicion. In fact, it found that that those who are better able to control acoustic elements of voice are more apt at inspiring others. Common sense already tells us that in politics and business, public speaking is a powerful and essential tool, so this doesn’t come as a huge surprise to many.

“Our voice transfers our essence to others.” Bruce Gerratt, UCLA’s Voice Perception Laboratory.

What may be more surprising to some, though, is that this can be trained to some extent. The researchers found, for example, that specific vocal qualities – such as frequency, intensity, cadence, and duration – can measurably affect perceptions by listeners. Having a deeper voice (perceived as big and dominant) that provides range during speeches (stretching the voice from lower to higher limits in speech) both impact how qualified the leader is perceived to be, regardless of what it is they’re saying.

Turn these learnings to your own experience. Analyze your own speech. Records your messages, and practice speaking with vocal illustrations in mind. How vivid is your speech, not just in diction (word choice) but also in tonality? Think of what great leaders sound like to you. How can you replicate or derive inspiration from their vocal quality?

4. Gamify Sparingly

“Gamification” has become a hot buzz word in ecommerce and the startup world, and not just for customers, but also for internal operations and your team. Gamification simply means adding a game-like element to a part of your business. For customers, this could mean gaining “points” for rating products, which they can use for special additions or discounts related to your service. For your staff, this could mean offering badges, goals, and scoreboards to help improve employee morale and keep them competitive.

While gamification is a great thing to think more about and implement in your business, I recommend using it sparingly and only in thoughtful ways. Why do I suggest a light-handed approach?

  1. For customers: Overly gamifying your business can take away from the inherent novelty of gamification. You don’t wait to saturate your business with an abundance of instructions (aka, “call to actions”) or points, otherwise they can feel worthless.
  2. For your team: Gamifying an experience is a side-step for properly motivating people. To put it more bluntly, when a badge motivates your customer service agents to succeed, you may have failed to be an effective leader. For the agent, your ethos and shared trust is not driving superb service. Instead, a weaker, less compelling reason is motivating the action, which can mean less productive or inspired work.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t gamify your customer support experience for agents (or other facets of gamification in sales or creative teams). It just means that before worrying about making the process fun for your staff, you should first worry about making sure they are invested and already desire to do well. The motivation to do well and be personally successful is more powerful than the desire to win a game.

Effective Team Management Starts with You

As you build and expand your business, remember that the buck stops with you: you are the accountable business leader who is setting the tone of the business. Take time to work through these steps and suggestions, and really put effort into defining the particular elements to your business. Develop a culture, make your employees feel safe, be an effective communicate, and inspire honest ownership over competition. By doing so, you poise yourself to be a successful, effective leader.

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About Jesse Richardson

Jesse Richardson is an author, educator and co-founder of several successful subscription businesses. He focuses on building engaging communities and has been described as "insanely customer centric." Find him in the Subscription School group or at his blog.

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