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Clare Alexander, head of workplace innovation at Scottish Enterprise, gives her top five tips for business leaders.

People are an organisation’s biggest competitive advantage. It’s a mantra I have often heard, and it’s certainly true that a well-trained, highly-motivated team is something competitors will find it difficult to replicate.

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1. Respect your people

People actually drive systems and processes. When they are respected, they take time to understand each other, build trust and ultimately, employees take responsibility.

Despite this, I regularly encounter leaders who continue to focus on developing business strategy in isolation, with little or no consideration to organisational development issues. Unfortunately, leadership is often still viewed as charisma and getting things done through sheer force of character.

Organisations that focus on developing staff and culture to meet their business strategy get the best results. And this is particularly true where organisations are in a period of sustained and rapid growth. 

2. Establish a shared vision

Once a vision has been set out, it’s important that the strategy is not compromised by operational pressures, inconsistent decision making or different treatment of individuals or departments. From consistency comes confidence.

When employees feel confident, they aren’t afraid of making mistakes and provided these are used as learning opportunities, then companies become more innovative – and ultimately, more successful.

Good leaders tend to be self-aware. They’re people who know their talents and their limitations. You’ll often find they surround themselves with people who are good at the things that they aren’t – complementary talents. 

Skills are like your personal leadership toolbox. I only used to have a hammer, but I've added a lot more tools over the years. I've learned how to coach, to deal with conflict and to develop greater empathy and emotional intelligence

Fraser Haran, CEO, Westcrowns Group

They empower people to be unafraid of making mistakes. Especially in small businesses, you find that as these companies grow – leaders must employ good people (often ‘brighter’ than they are) to step into their shoes, freeing them up to focus on the strategic growth of the business.

It’s about inspiring people. Creating a vision. You need to create a vision that people can buy into. If you don’t have a vision that’s aligned with people’s personal beliefs, then you won’t get ‘buy in’. It’s a real problem if everyone in the company isn’t working towards the same shared goal.

Take a company who begin with a vision to make great quality products. If they find themselves dragged down the volume route, then it can be difficult for employees to ‘believe’ in what they’re doing.

3. Communicate with individuals

It’s also important to take an interest in individuals. People want more one-on-ones. And if leaders don’t do it, whether with their managers or executives or otherwise, then that feeds down the organisation. They must set an example by constantly communicating and reinforcing that company vision – both internally and externally. 

It’s important for leaders to spend time with the people who make the products and deliver the services, so they know how they feel about the organisation.

If the established vision isn’t the same as the day-to-day reality, the organisation isn’t working towards the same common objective. People must understand how everyone contributes to the ultimate goal.

4. Build shared understanding

It’s important for different departments to understand how the others operate and how they are measured – it leads to a greater shared understanding. 

Take Toyota, for example. I remember once one of the managers was asked, “Why don’t you have an office?” He replied “I don’t make cars in my office”. Instead, he spent time with the people in his organisation. Walking the floor, talking to people and finding things out.

Leaders must see this sort of behaviour as a priority, not a ‘nice’ thing to do.

5. Nurture the talents of your staff 

It’s important not to put square pegs into round holes. Utilising the unique talents of your employees properly means that people will enjoy the work that they do and the organisation will feel the direct benefits of that.

It’s also important to be accepting of the possibility that you’re developing people for a career outwith your organisation.

Yes, they may not stay with you forever, but with the right development and encouragement – you’ll get the benefits of their talents while they are working with you.

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