Some people are born leaders. Others have to be taught how to lead. And others still are petrified by the idea of being the person in charge – they’d rather just be issued marching orders and asked to complete a specific task.
And there’s nothing wrong with any of those roles (just ask the U.S. military). In fact, most companies are better off when they have a mix of each personality type.
With that being said, everyone can be a leader. They might just need a little nudging or coaching to get there.
The Year of Leadership
Earlier this year, I was inspired by what Scott Dorsey, CEO of ExactTarget (NYSE:ET) has done to develop their ExactTarget leaders. They have grown to almost 2,000 employees and have a terrific leadership team. At the same time, they are working on their next generation of leaders and have developed a best-in-class professional development team that provides both formal and informal leadership training programs. This year, ExactTarget has defined its people development statement as “The Year of Leadership.”
A couple of months ago, I was asked to speak to roughly 100 ExactTarget leaders as part of their development program (I have been on the Board of ExactTarget for almost 9 years and have watched it grow from roughly 30 employees in 2004). I was impressed by the eagerness and appreciation that the ET leaders had for the program and the company’s emphasis on developing them.
That’s why, at our annual review and planning meeting earlier this year, I followed Scott’s lead and issued a very simple challenge to our firm: Make 2013 your “Year of Leadership.”
The idea was to encourage our entire team – from newly hired associates to founding partners – to:
- Lead something, even if they hadn’t done so previously
- Lead better and more often
- Improve their individual leadership levels
Why do I think developing leadership within every employee – regardless of their hierarchical standing or personality type – is so important?
It’s simple, really. One of the best ways to create true impact in a growing business (or venture capital firm) is to create a team full of innovators who aren’t afraid to start or embrace a movement.
That doesn’t mean I want to construct a team full of rigid, “Type A” extroverts who all feel like they should be spearheading every company initiative.
In fact, as serial entrepreneur Derek Sivers says in this excellent TED talk, leadership doesn’t always have to mean being the first person through the door. In fact, it can sometimes mean being what Sivers calls a “first follower” – the person who brings momentum to an idea by embracing it and encouraging others to join them.
That might remind you of the theory of diffusion of innovations, and it should.
Great ideas are just that – ideas. They don’t become something tangible or relevant until they’re embraced and implemented by a population larger than the original innovator (early adopters, early majority, etc.).
Leadership within a company is no different.
If everyone in your business is comfortable with leading something – be it an enormous, game-changing initiative or a simple task that falls under the umbrella of a bigger idea – then it will be easier to innovate. Everyone will slot into their respective leadership comfort zones and you’ll naturally possess leadership at every level of your organization.
If, on the other hand, your business is comprised solely of idea creators or just “first followers,” it’s going to be difficult to advance ideas beyond the initial stages of innovation (or have them embraced at all).
Leadership at all levels plays a critical role in the advancement of ideas, which is why it’s critical for every employee – whether they view themselves as innovators or not – to understand what it means to lead and to develop the skills to take charge when their strengths are applicable.
Are you ready to make 2013 the “Year of Leadership” at your company?
Doing so doesn’t require you to overhaul your entire corporate philosophy. In fact, it can be as simple as asking employees to:
- Brainstorm for 10 minutes about changes they would make to improve the business
- Write down ideas for how they could lead those changes
- Choose one leadership opportunity per quarter to take on
- Reflect on what did or didn’t work, and how they can improve as leaders
Having every employee embrace leadership might make some of them uncomfortable in the short term – particularly introverts who, as leadership consultant Lisa Petrilli writes in a post on her blog C-Level Strategies, don’t typically draw their energy from leading larger groups.
But that doesn’t mean those people are incapable of being dynamic leaders. In fact, they might prove to be some of your best leaders (or first followers).
It just comes down to context, and encouraging your employees – introverts and extroverts alike – to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, and explore ways that they can leverage or improve them.
At the end of the day, doing that can boost employee engagement, productivity, and self-worth, and create a team-wide excitement around generating and executing new ideas.
What expansion-stage business wouldn’t benefit from that?