In our consulting work with various companies in Asia, we have found some common factors that make the workplace attractive. We observed that one of the top three motivating factors that influences employees to stay on with an organisation is the practice of professionalism by its leaders.
There is a common saying, “People don’t leave companies; they leave bosses”.
If leaders know how to manage people professionally – especially Gen-Y – by engaging them fully to make a difference, they will be more fulfilled and hence more likely to stay on.
Drawing lessons from companies that are successful in retaining talent, the following are the 10 most desired characteristics of professionalism that Gen-Y look for in their leaders.
1. Leaders who have an open mind and are good listeners
Only with an open mind can a leader listen to real issues. People will only speak up if leaders allow them to.
Leaders who are dogmatic about their own views will have flawed communication. People will only tell such leaders what they want to hear and not the truth.
The ability to listen and accept feedback is an important characteristic of professionalism as it allows leaders to solve relevant issues effectively.
Leaders who maintain an open mind and encourage people to speak out without fear get an accurate pulse of the organisation. This helps them uncover their blind spots and enables them to make the right decisions.
2. Leaders who are objective and impartial
Knowledge and skills will be of little relevance if leaders are not objective. If a staff has the expertise but a leader favours someone else of lesser competency, the organisation will become less efficient in achieving its goals.
Whether it is choosing a lesser idea, promoting the undeserving staff or simply pandering to office politics, leaders who lack objectiveness and impartiality lose credibility and respect from their subordinates.
This lack of professionalism will demoralise people and sap their energy and enthusiasm. On the other hand, leaders who are objective and impartial win respect from their people and they achieve full cooperation from them, hence are more effective in achieving organisational goals.
3. Leaders who are competent and committed
There is no substitute for this aspect of professionalism. To earn the genuine respect of people, a leader must have the competency and commitment in what he/she does.
For example, an accountant is credible only if he/she is competent and committed to put to practice his/her accounting knowledge in their organisation.
The financial disasters of companies like Enron and WorldCom are good illustrations that companies fail not due to lack of competency in accounting, but due to lack of commitment of the professionals in practising sound and ethical accounting.
4. Leaders who practise great interpersonal skills
Another good sign to indicate whether leaders are managing people professionally is the level of interpersonal skills they practise. Knowing is not enough. One has to do what one knows.
Most leaders know that they should smile more, yet we encounter more glum managers than cheerful ones. They know that they should be patient, but they interrupt in the middle of sentences of their subordinates.
They know that they should listen to explanations, but they shoot first before asking. They know they should praise people in public and reprimand them in private, but they do the opposite. Good interpersonal skills smoothen the path to solving problems.
5. Leaders who inspire and encourage others to act
Effective leaders know that they have to motivate people to take action. Thus, great leaders create a vision of an exciting future that addresses the aspirations of their people.
These leaders communicate the benefits of the vision right down to the individual level. They listen and understand the needs of people and come up with projects or initiatives that meet the organisational as well as individual needs.
They give work a powerful purpose which becomes a first reward intrinsically while money becomes a second reward extrinsically. And that makes perfect sense, because the company has to achieve its goals and targets first before it has money to reward people.
6. Leaders who are calm and collected during crises
The test of discipline is its practice on a consistent manner. There are many leaders who can maintain their calm when all things are going well, but when a crisis comes along, they act in an uncontrolled and unprofessional manner.
Managing people professionally requires leaders to practise controlling their temper. Leaders who are calm and collected especially during crises win respect and support from their staff.
And it is with such support that leaders can leverage on their people to help overcome the challenges during difficult times.
7. Leaders who provide strategic direction
Managing people in a haphazard manner without strategic direction not only reflects the lack of professionalism, but also creates a sense of frustration in people. Managing people professionally calls for leaders to avoid the managing-by-crisis approach.
Too often, leaders are preoccupied with “firefighting” to have time to think about how to “prevent fires”. Just like any fire department, the efficient firemen focus on how fast they can put out fires while the effective firemen focus on understanding the root causes of how fires are started and find the right strategies to educate people to prevent fires.
The former is a short-term strategy while the latter is a long-term strategy. The short-term strategy will eventually lead to a fatal result. Albert Einstein said it best, “Intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them”.
Managing people professionally calls for leaders to get the long-term strategy right through with a clear strategic direction to enable people to be effective – that is doing the right things.
This should help guide the success of the short-term strategy which is to provide the resources to ensure that people are efficient – that is doing things right.
8. Leaders who develop and reward people
One of the challenges faced by human resource practitioners today is retaining talent. To retain them, leaders need to institute career and succession planning in their organisations.
Too much emphasis and blame have been attributed to salary and compensation as the key reason for people leaving an organisation. The truth is that money is only a “pull factor” that attracts an employee to leave for another better paying job.
The more important reason for people leaving is due to the “push factors” inside the organisation, which may include factors such as unprofessional practices of leaders as well as the reward system.
Professionalism calls for leaders to develop people and reward them based on merit instead of on seniority.
9. Leaders who are committed to positive and productive change
No leaders can claim to exhibit professionalism if they are not committed to positive and productive changes. People are not amused by leaders who preach about change but embrace status quo.
They do not find it logical for leaders to talk about innovation but do not allow risk taking. They find it odd that leaders would position their organisations with positive goals but are negative in their attitudes and disposition towards positive change. Managing people professionally requires leaders to be wholeheartedly committed to change out-dated, irrelevant and counterproductive practices and policies. The key is to start some initiatives for improvements and show positive results.
There is no need to go for the big bang approach; it is better to focus on achieving many “small wins” early rather than wait too late for one “ big win”.
10. Leaders who are courageous to take the necessary action
It has been said that all the lovely sentiments in the world would weigh less than a single concrete action. Achieving results requires more than just knowledge and expertise, it requires action.
A leader’s commitment is judged by not what he believes, but by his/her actions. Thus, if a leader believes in fairness, then he/she must take the bold action to eliminate favouritism and other unfair practices.
This may require the leader to be unpopular. Yet, these are what authentic leaders must do if they want to manage people professionally – take courageous action on what is right rather than what is safe and convenient.