What makes a good leader?
December 7, 2023
By John Weeraratne
Skills can be learned, but the right personality is also key.
Consulting engineering is a ‘people business.’ Our largest and most important resource is our people. It is important for leaders to create a positive culture and connect with their employees to earn their trust and respect, within a nurturing and supportive workplace.
A good leader should be expected to harness the power of employees’ creativity, intellect and collaborative teamwork—but this raises the question of who can be a good leader. Is leadership a learned skill, which anyone can be taught? Or is it a naturally inherent attribute?
There is an abundance of self-help books, development guides and online resources filled with tips and ideas describing how introspective self-evaluation and best practices can jump-start and shape readers’ leadership skills. Career coaches also offer mentoring to those aspiring to develop leadership skills.
Those in positions of leadership in consulting engineering firms have learned—or should have learned—over time what works and doesn’t in leading teams. We ought to be able to recount mistakes we have made, including errors in judgment, complacency or indecision, as well as our successes in implementing strategies and promoting and rewarding good practices.
While experience is invaluable, however, it is not sufficient by itself, unless combined with sound judgment, behavioural integrity and coherent communication.
Articulating a vision
The role of organizational leadership starts with defining and articulating an aspirational vision and goals, simple and coherent in its messaging.
This process requires ‘homework,’ insight and diverse expertise, so as to inspire employees in their actions, decisions and behaviour.
Leaders need to exercise tact and diplomacy.
Success relies on the motivation of staff, both individually and in teams, to work toward a set of common goals. Sound communication skills are vital, as well as personally demonstrating behaviours and values. Employees tend to embrace goals and targets that are delivered with passion, sincerity and empathy by leaders committed to listening, being present and practising what they preach.
Employees also respond well to recognition and acknowledgement. Effectiveness in this context depends somewhat on individual personality. We remember managers who possessed excellent skills in delivering messages and demonstrated personal commitment by adhering to the values they espoused.
Motivating employees and sustaining their commitment requires leaders to keep in touch. It is important to be aware of how employees seek recognition and acknowledgement. The role cannot be practised from afar; it requires personal engagement, understanding and responding to needs and feedback.
To promote employee satisfaction and a sense of belonging, it is imperative to reward performance in a meaningful way. Financial incentives, bonuses and profit-sharing are highly effective, but equally so are other intangibles, including public acclaim of noteworthy performance, profiling individual contributions in corporate correspondence or internal publications and funding skills development programs or supplemental education. In many situations, peer recognition is another powerful tool.
The lesson learned is that a corporate culture that promotes flexibility in its ability to recognize and reward staff, beyond typical programs dictated purely on milestones, resonates heavily with staff on a personal level.
As leaders, what we say, how we say it and how it is received and absorbed are all important.
Generally, employees across consulting engineering firms—including engineers, scientists, technologists and support personnel—want to hear from their leaders about such matters as: the health of their organization’s performance relative to market metrics; progress on achieving internal targets; trends and growth plans; and other relevant developments. There are numerous means of reaching employees, but such communication must be frequent, consistent, clear, open and honest.
It is not enough to limit communication to factual information. To create a connection between leaders and employees, personal opinions on relevant matters must also be voiced, in an appropriate manner. ‘Humanizing’ the corporate persona is highly effective in countering skepticism and mistrust harboured by staff toward ‘corporate-speak.’
It is common for large organizations to have a department with dedicated staff preparing communications, but too often, insufficient attention is paid by leadership to the tone and nuance of such material, even though the face of the leadership is reflected in information disseminated to employees.
An astute leader must also understand there are different audiences to engage in various forms of communication. In addition to communicating with employees, it is no less important to engage owners, executives, directors and shareholders. And when differences in opinion or approach emerge, leaders must exercise tact, diplomacy and a willingness to accept who calls the shots.
Many strong-willed, opinionated leaders learn battles cannot be won with heavy-handed pushback. It is infinitely more effective to present thoughtful and insightful recommendations with patience to win over decision-makers.
The right people
To lead an organization to success, much emphasis is correctly placed on recruiting staff based on attitude, skill, personality and personal goals. Where there is strong, effective leadership, you will typically find employees who have bought into the organizational agenda.
Effective leadership also involves empowering local and regional managers to likewise recruit and develop people with the right attitude and values.
Every effort must be made to prevent recrimination toward constructive criticism.
Responding to behaviour and feedback
A strong, decisive leader must demonstrate there are lines that cannot be crossed without consequences and certain behaviours and actions that will not be tolerated within the organization. Any inaction or procrastination over the need to act swiftly when necessary will usually diminish authority and respect.
Input sought and received from others, including managers and leadership support personnel, can be helpful, but acting upon such feedback requires careful assessment and good judgment, based on successful experiences from the past.
Inviting feedback through properly framed questionnaires and surveys can produce a range of valuable comments, questions and suggestions, but what is important next is the response by leadership. If there is a willingness to be responsive regardless of how critical or diverse the feedback might be, the ensuing trust that is fostered will enhance the connection employees feel with their leaders.
Every effort must be made to prevent recrimination toward constructive criticism. Many undesirable lessons have been learned by leaders in allowing a ‘shoot the messenger’ culture to proliferate.
It is impossible to describe a formulaic approach to sound leadership. It cannot merely be taught or instilled; rather, it is a combination of experience, judgment, emotional intelligence, integrity, drive, communication skills and a personality that draws people with trust. It is also not difficult to describe and recognize traits that are contrary to good leadership!
A leader may feel ‘alone’ when confronted with the need to make difficult decisions. Despite being surrounded by supportive advisors, you must possess the internal fortitude to own your decision and stand behind your actions. Thus, self-assured confidence is an additional, vital attribute of good leaders.
Great leaders are also generally able to identify leadership potential in their employees. Succession planning, after all, is essential to maintain the ongoing health of the organization, as the mantle of leadership changes hands.
John Weeraratne, P.Eng, is a retired civil engineer and former president of Wood Environment & Infrastructure Solutions (E&IS) Canada. With more than 30 years’ management and leadership experience in consulting engineering and construction, he has overseen and directed the career development of engineers and scientists who have gone on to leadership roles in consulting engineering firms across Canada.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Canadian Consulting Engineer.