What does it mean to be an effective leader? Surely a title alone doesn’t make you one, nor does not having a title mean you can’t motivate a team to reach a common goal.
Early Lessons in Leadership
I learned that early in my career, when I started out as a senior accountant at BellSouth Cellular and was quickly promoted to a market manager role. At 26-years-old, I was running the northeast Georgia market and pretty much everyone reporting to me was older than I was. I often wondered how I could motivate a team of people who had lived more life than I had — both personally and professionally.
I’m sure I made my share of mistakes, but one piece of advice changed my leadership perspective and my communication style, and it still rings true today.
A former supervisor, who continues to be a mentor for me, offered me this guidance:
“George, you have to find the way that works for you and for your own personality to make an impression with the people you are leading. You can’t use my style, you can’t use another person’s leadership style. You have to find that style that is authentic to you. When you find that, you will be effective because it’s yours and no one can take that away from you.”
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To Be Effective, Be Authentic
Now, as vice president of channel operations at Cricket Wireless, I’ve learned that being authentic is the most important characteristic of an effective leader. To develop that authenticity, I reflected on my upbringing in Macon, Georgia. My parents instilled in me faith and family values. I attended a private school where I recognized the financial and socio-economic differences between me and my peers. This has prepared me to lead teams of people who come from different walks of life and have different experiences and world views.
It’s important to recognize and acknowledge diversity among members of your team because that diversity is reflective of our customer base. Customer satisfaction and retention is our goal, but customer service can be a direct reflection of how a company treats its own employees.
To understand and build upon the power of diversity, open and honest communication is essential — in one-on-one conversations and in group meetings — to make everyone feel that their contributions are valuable. I have an open-door policy, not just with my team, but with anyone within the organization. I want our team to understand I’m in the trenches with them and that the decisions I make take their feedback into account. You have to listen to employees who are often on the front lines of the business and can provide credible feedback that drives the decision-making process.
I’ve also learned to step out of my comfort zone to inspire the team. We host a monthly team meeting called “First Friday” that usually has an activity with a fun theme, such as '80s rock bands, classic movie characters or a Halloween costume contest. It’s a festive way to update the team on results, recognize team or individual achievements, celebrate birthdays and tap into people’s personal interests, such as music or sports. It’s also where you will find me dressed up as Lenny Kravitz or a wizard.
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Don’t Neglect Employees in the Field
Events like a First Friday work great for the employees who sit outside your office door. But how do you engage employees in the field? A large portion of my organization is spread across the country. It’s important that people in remote locations feel just as engaged as their colleagues in the office and have the same opportunities to share feedback and ideas that enhance our customers’ experiences.
We utilize technology to help maintain engagement with external team members. We created an internal social media tool that allows Cricket’s front-line representatives to post feedback on what they are experiencing. This in turn allows Cricket’s communications and technical teams to use that feedback to respond, troubleshoot or re-educate employees about issues they experience with technical products or processes.
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Integrity Is What Really Matters
In our careers, as in life, we all experience ups and downs, successes and failures. This is when leading with integrity is important. You have to be honest and direct yet fair in your feedback with your team, whether praising them for a job well done or providing feedback to redirect behavior.
If you find yourself leading a team of disengaged employees, one of the best ways to begin engagement is to get people out of the office environment. I recommend a community service project. That’s a great way to remind ourselves about what really matters — helping our neighbors, our community and our colleagues in times of need.
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