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The importance of visible leaders (and how to be one)

Let’s get one thing straight: having your leaders’ photos (as taken at some time in the early noughties) displayed in snap frames in reception or within the “Meet Your SLT” organogram on your intranet does not make them visible leaders. Nor does an annual appearance for a one-way overview of performance at an employee conference.

He that would run his company on visible figures alone will in time have neither company nor figures.

– W. Edwards Deming

In this context, visible means so much more than being seen. This is about leaders’ presence – both in the literal ‘being present’ sense and the ‘executive’ definition encompassing prominence and gravitas. It is also about leaders being accessible, approachable, and relatable. Of course, no two leaders are the same. All humans are made differently, after all. But there are certain characteristics, approaches and attitudes that are arguably more important than the rest when it comes to good, visible leadership. They are passion, strength, empathy, commitment, and consistency.

If the adage about managers managing people and leaders leading people is a cliché, it’s because it’s true.

Good leaders will possess a clear understanding of the strategy, vision, and purpose of their business. They will know what needs to happen to get to the company’s goals. And, because they are visible leaders, and they understand the importance of engagement, they will share this.

Visible leaders get that communication is a two-way street and that fully engaging with, rather than simply communicating to, their people is the difference between leading and managing them and, ultimately, the difference between a motivated, high-performing team and a disparate, disenfranchised and dysfunctional one.

As I mentioned in last month’s ramblings, we are living through times of enormous stress, change and public anxiety, meaning that visible leadership, and one that embodies the five qualities listed above, is more important and beneficial than ever.

And so to the advisory part of the piece. How can we be more visible leaders?

Here are 3 quick Guru tips…

1. Be seen, be accessible

OK, I know. I opened by saying that it’s so much more than this. And it is. But it still includes this! This is about building trust and relatability. There is no better way to earn trust than to do it with eye contact. Being physically seen by our employees is a fundamental and powerful tool for engagement. Anyone who’s ever worked for a leader whose presence is felt solely via emails from their account, and whose face they may not recognise in a line-up, will understand the difference this can make.

In the best case scenario, when and where it is possible for leaders to meet their people on the factory floor(literally or metaphorically), getting to know them personally and showing a genuine and sincere interest in their work and personal lives, and their interests, opinions and beliefs, will create a sense of psychological safety and an environment that both supports their needs and eases operations.

Where this is not possible, and in-person interaction isn’t available or appropriate, leaders should consider video calls or messages in their place. This way, employees can still see the whites of their leaders’ eyes, and there is a relatability delivered that the written word would rarely allow. But this brings us neatly to…

2. Use a wide range of communication methods

There is no one internal comms strategy that works for all businesses. It has to be bespoke as it has to represent the nature of that business and its workforce. (It will also need revisiting and revising over time as technologies, staff needs and business structures change. Things like global pandemics also mix things up to a degree where a comms health check can be a hugely beneficial investment.)

But that strategy should include multiple ways to reach all people, regardless of level, role and working arrangements. On top of the above-mentioned video comms, newsletters or news channels, intranet, social media, ambient messaging, blogs, and the usual digital platform suspects should be considered to join the company email platform. And, referring back to the importance of two-way comms, interactive Q&As, surveys and polling are a fantastic addition to meetings large and small, in-person and remote. Or just to have running in the background.

3. Recognise and appreciate

Feeling appreciated and a recognised part of the bigger picture has always been important, but it seems to become even more so with each passing generation, with Gen Z thriving off it even more than their Millennial friends, who, in turn, needed it more than Generation X.

Recognising and appreciating are essential practices for a visible leader. Rewards don’t have to be financial (or even tangible), and appreciation doesn’t have to be for specific or defined achievements. There is plenty to recognise and shout about outside of “salesperson of the month”: effort, collaboration, creativity, innovative thinking, colleague support, customer feedback... the list is almost endless, but the critical thing for visible leadership and trust is that this recognition happens and is shared widely. (A peer-to-peer recognition platform can also be an engaging, fun, social experience for our people, but this should never replace the recognition from leaders who intend to stay visible.)

Every organisation has its leaders (or, at least, its managers). It’s the visibility of those leaders (their passion, strength, empathy, commitment, and consistency), their availability and relatability, and the trust they earn with their people, that will ultimately boost morale and productivity, increase profits, and generate staff loyalty and commitment.


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