Three keys to more effective business leadership

Leadership comes down to three equal parts: functional expertise, business acumen, and a persuasive style.

What is leadership? I’ve been hearing more about the need for leadership lately, not just in the political world, but in business, and, more specifically, I’m hearing it quite often just within the framework of corporate communicators.

PR people need be to be leaders, the thinking goes, because who else in the organization has such a diverse set of stakeholders and a macro view of the enterprise and what’s required for it to succeed?

So, what is leadership? And can it be taught?

For those climbing the ladder and even those already in leadership positions, I would suggest leadership comes down to three equal parts: functional expertise, business acumen, and a persuasive style.

Let me explain.

Functional expertise
Leadership starts with having, and always enhancing, expertise in your field. If you’re a professional communicator and you’re going to sit down with someone from sales about a comms campaign to support a marketing effort, you better know how to develop effective strategies and messaging, as well as how to deploy all the tools at your disposal, better than anyone else at the table. Same for communications for an investor conference. And so on. That’s your job. In a world where digital is transforming everything, and the increasingly millennial workforce is already digitally savvy regardless of where they work in the company, you need to double down on education and staying on top of the latest trends.

Business acumen
Your level of seniority is directly correlated with the level of sophistication expected. Leadership in an organization is virtually impossible to achieve if you’re not recognized as someone who genuinely understands the business. That means more than the overall business model of the company. Real leaders achieve a certain baseline fluency in the language and intricacies of other corporate functions. Want to work with HR and IT to lead a new enterprise-wide employee engagement initiative? It’ll help dramatically to understand the resources, challenges, and context in which your peers from these functions approach the opportunity. How to achieve that? Get creative. Perhaps shadow your HR peer off-and-on for a month or two.

Persuasive style
This is surely the softest of the requirements yet equally important. I’ve often had to explain to young professionals that compensation grows over time usually in direct proportion to your leverage. The more responsibility you take on, the more people you manage, the bigger your budget, the more you’re worth. Pretty simple.

However, that leverage is usually possible only when personal style instills trust and confidence. When your substantive style generates believers, people buy into your vision for a project and want to support you in realizing it. This requires empathy, intellect, humor, respect, personal integrity, and clarity of direction and responsibility. Of the three attributes I cite needed for leadership, this one is the most difficult to learn, but all of us can get better at our level of persuasion and how we seek to engage and lead others.

It occurred to me that these attributes I reference above are also the same attributes I cite for being a trusted adviser. Perhaps not surprising.

All research suggests personal success inside corporations is getting more nuanced and complex, more inter-dependent and demanding. Working laterally, in addition to up and down, is now the norm; respect and influence, vs. reporting lines, carry the day. 

While leadership has always been important, achieving it requires more study and professional stretching than perhaps ever before.

Bob Feldman is cofounder and principal of PulsePoint Group, a digital and management consulting firm. He can be reached at bfeldman@pulsepointgroup.com.

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