Are leaders born or made? It’s a question that has been the subject of debate for centuries. For business coach Diane Allen of Mount Laurel, the answer is clear: good leaders are made, not born, and good leadership is a skill that can be taught.
Allen will teach a new two-part series on leadership skills this summer at Burlington County Community College. The first of the three-hour evening workshops, “Strategic Thinking for Leadership Success,” will begin on Wednesday, June 15 at 6:30 p.m. at BCC’s Mount Laurel campus. The second workshop, “The Leader as Coach,” will be held the following Wednesday, June 22, also at 6:30 p.m. Cost: $79 for each class. Participants can sign up for one or both workshops. Visit www.bcc.edu.
“My early experience of having great mentors — some teachers, but mostly my early bosses — sparked my interest in leadership,” says Allen, who after several years in the corporate world opened her own business coaching and consulting business in 2001.
Allen graduated from St. Joseph‘s University in Philadelphia in 1985 with a bachelor’s in business administration and received her master’s in training and organizational development from St. Joe’s in the early 1990s. She worked for several years in human resources at Aramark and was then named vice president of human resources for the Hibbert Group in Trenton.
When she decided to open her own coaching business, Allen became a professional certified coach, accredited by the International Coach Federation. She also is a mediator for the Ford Motor Company’s dispute resolution board.
#b#Thinking strategically#/b#. One of the essential skills for leadership is to learn to think strategically. “It’s not just an organizational business tool,” Allen says. “Learning strategic thinking will help anyone to handle a myriad of personal, professional, and leadership situations. It is about finding the balance between doing what is important and urgent today, and anticipating the possibilities and goals of tomorrow.”
The workshop aims to break strategic thinking down into steps that can seem almost overly simple, Allen says. Nevertheless, the true practice of strategic thinking is about “analysis and creativity in the way in which we examine assumptions, synthesize multiple ideas, and see patterns” in a wide variety of events and situations. “It is about looking not just at the immediate situation, but focusing on the external environment.”
Things such as government legislation, your market, and the overall economic climate all enter into your thinking. You must understand how these outside forces affect the issue and make your decisions accordingly, she says.
#b#Coaching others#/b#. Strategic thinking is only one small aspect of leadership, explains Allen. A much greater role is to direct others to carry out the plans and ideas that result from that thinking. “A strong and competent leader knows how to use the powerful techniques of coaching to inspire and motivate others to peak performance,” she says.
There are several different styles of leadership: coercive, authoritative, affiliative, democratic, pace setting, and coaching. A leader should understand all of them, and with the exception of coercive, should be able to understand which situations call for each style of leadership.
Allen believes that coaching is the type of leadership that should be used in most situations. Coaching, she says, is “helping the people you lead to develop and grow by identifying their own strengths and weaknesses.”
This is particularly important for leaders who work with other high-performing staff people. “Using a leadership coaching model is the ideal way to empower individuals to even greater performance and growth,” she says.
The leader who is a coach will challenge constructively to build confidence and skills, rather than in a way that tears down confidence, Allen says. This involves really getting to know and understand the people who are working under you as individuals, because one size does not fit all. “The direct approach that works well for one of your people may tear another person to shreds,” she says.
For example, an autocratic leader might say, “you did this wrong,” while a coach will say, “let’s discuss this project. What do you think worked, and what could be done better in the future?” she says. “It’s all about not making the other person defensive while still allowing him to be clear about his actions and accountable for them.”
But there are also situations where coaching is not appropriate. There are times when you are in a group situation and you need to lead democratically in order to build a consensus about what should be done. Other situations call for peacemaking, or an affiliative style.
In a crisis, however, it is often necessary for the leader to take charge and give orders in an authoritative way. But, says Allen, “if you use the coaching style of leadership as your base, when the time comes to be authoritative, your team will respect you, understand why it is necessary, and follow you.”
#b#The personal touch#/b#. One of the biggest challenges for leaders in today’s business world is E-mail. It often seems easy to quickly write an E-mail to someone, but there is a danger in using it to discuss complex or sensitive subjects. When writing an E-mail, “we should be much more aware of the language we use, and choose our words much more carefully,” says Allen. E-mail takes away the subtle cues of body language, tone of voice, and facial expression of a personal meeting and makes it much easier for the reader to see a message as harsh and critical.
A few simple rules Allen lives by are: Never use all capital letters (because it is just like hollering at someone); be careful of exclamation points; use emoticons, but use them wisely — they can soften a statement, but can also be misread as sarcasm; and read over your E-mail out loud before you send it.
“Read it without any voice inflection or expression,” she says. “That will help you to hear how it will sound to the person you are sending it to.”
And if you have had a string of three E-mails on the same subject, pick up the phone. “It is often much faster and easier to just talk to a person. It’s something we forget today,” she says.
The final, and most important rule for a leader to remember is flexibility. “Everything is situational, and you cannot just use one method of leadership all the time.” she says. “You must flex as needed, and you must always show respect to the people you are leading.”