Not too long ago, my alma mater asked me to give a talk about “what comes next” after business school. I was to address a group of MBA candidates about the discomfort of figuring out what to do with this fabulous new degree, and how to embrace the path to leadership. And in the process of preparing for it, I came across some pretty dismal statistics about the workplace.
1) Actively listen.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not surprised to learn that we only remember 25% to 50% of what we hear. I mean, I can only listen to my mother’s story about the deer eating her hydrangeas so many times, right?
But at work, tuning people out can be dangerous, especially when you’re managing them. You might miss important feedback, directions, or updates. Even worse? If your team thinks you’re not hearing them, they won’t confide in you. That can diminish the chances that they’ll turn to you when they have questions or need help, which in turn prevents them from producing their best work. That’s a top management faux pas: Not helping your team succeed.
That’s why it’s so important to learn how to actively listen, especially in the early stages of building credibility and earning trust as a leader. It’s not an easy task at first — especially when we’re constantly overloaded with information and stimuli — but it can be learned with a few good habits.
When colleagues are speaking to you, keep distractions minimized or at bay; try moving the conversation away from anything that might cause your attention to stray, like your computer or mobile devices. And don’t be afraid to do whatever’s necessary to make sure you heard the person correctly, even if it means repeating back to them what you think you heard.
2) Get to the point.
Not only do we only retain about half of what we hear, but now, studies say that humans have a shorter attention span than goldfish. So when you speak to your team, cut to the chase — you want them to remember the important parts.
The Brandon Hall Group listed what I like to call the “CSS” of verbal communication:
The first, “clearly,” is particularly important — according to a recent Wrike work management survey, 37% of employees blamed “unclear priorities” for decreased productivity. So don’t water down your message with a lot of big words or details to prove your competence; not only does that detract from your confidence as a leader, which we’ll get to later, but it’ll undercut focus from your main takeaways.
But while you’re keeping things brief, make sure your team knows that you’re also receptive to questions and feedback. Only 20% of employees say that their managers take action when concerns are voiced, so when you invite input, you’re setting yourself apart as a leader.
3) Be consistent.
When I asked my friend Dessa — rapper extraordinaire and President of Doomtree Records — what her career has taught her about leadership, she said something that really resonated with me.
“Do what you say you’ll do.”
It seems simple in theory, right? But imagine this scenario: Being goal-oriented, you’ve taught yourself to eradicate the word “no” from your vocabulary. So you start off by saying “yes” to everything — more than any one person can actually take on — until you realize you’ve completely over-committed and can’t deliver on everything you agreed to. Been there? I have.
If you go from always saying “yes” to being so overwhelmed with commitments that you snap at new requests, it creates a major inconsistency in your leadership style. It makes your temperament look unpredictable, which can really stress out your team and make people less inclined to approach you. In fact, a recent study showed that employees actually prefer a manager who’s consistently mean over one with erratic behavior.
“One of the most important things for leaders to think about is consistency,” James Harder, Director of Communications at Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries, told me. “If your messaging is consistent, it gives you more credibility. That is true with any phase of marketing, or for that matter, communication.”
So before you make a promise, be sure to ask yourself, “Is this a priority? Can I really take this on right now?” Knowing when to say “no” will create a balanced sense of priority among your team, and on your own to-do list.
4) Get to know as many people as possible.
When I asked Harvard Business School Leadership professor Ethan Bernstein for his thoughts on leadership credibility, he summed it up with one line: It’s “built by doing, enabling, and recognizing great work.”
So while you’re likely in a position of leadership because of your own achievements, it’s important to acknowledge that people around you do good work, too.
Why is that?
Well, to start, employee recognition goes a long way — 70% of employees in North America say that receiving recognition is “effective,” for example, when it comes to their engagement.
But by going beyond the parameters of your own team, you’re better able to recognize the far-reaching talent throughout your organization. That creates an opportunity to “design mutually beneficial partnerships” — another leadership lesson that Dessa says she’s picked up — which can accomplish a few things.
Reaching out to more people within your organization sends the message that you’re open to different perspectives. Since that kind of behavior shows that you’re looking beyond your own self-interest, it can build credibility. At HubSpot, for example, we follow the philosophy of solving for the customer first. So when our leaders are able to seek out multiple perspectives and talents within the company, it ultimately leads to more people improving and creating new solutions.
No wonder McKinsey identifies “seeking different perspectives” as a leadership best practice. It can lead to the beneficial partnerships that Dessa was talking about: The ones that reach across different departments to work toward a common goal.
5) Seek out speaking opportunities.
Remember all those lessons on the best ways to speak with your team? For those who don’t love addressing groups to begin with (and don’t worry — you’re in good company), effective communication might require a little extra effort.
That’s why my colleague, Lindsay Kolowich, suggests that leaders go out of their way to find speaking opportunities. “Not only will it get your name out there,” which is always a good way to build credibility, she says, but “it’ll give you good practice. The more advanced you become in your career, the more you will be expected to speak.”
So how do you go about finding these opportunities? Then — once again — start with the people around you.
“I got my first few speaking gigs by emailing someone on my PR team,” Kolowich says. “I asked how I might be able to find events that could be a good fit.” As a result, she ended up being booked for several talks.
If you do reach out to your company’s PR department, just make sure to be specific. Identify your area of expertise, the geographical location(s) where you’d like to speak, and the types of events that interest you the most: Workshops, conferences, etc. And even if your organization doesn’t have a PR rep, these are the details you’ll need when looking for opportunities on your own.
6) Trust the training.
Corporate training gets such a bad rap, doesn’t it? When we think of it, many of us have visions of things like trust falls and kitschy name-games. But look beyond the stereotypes. Training has changed, and it can be highly valuable.
Most companies — 83% of them, in fact — have said how important it is for all leaders to receive some sort of training. But only 5% of employers actually have it. So while it might be easy to roll your eyes at the idea of training, think of it this way: Your company is part of the small percentage employers who actually care enough to invest in leadership development. (You are valued!)
That’s true no matter where you are in your career. Even if you’ve been with your company for years, writes HubSpot Principal Marketing Strategist Sam Mallikarjunan, “it’s probably been a while since you went through new hire training.” And because many of the people reporting to you have gone through this process recently, you might want to experience it, too.
When you have something like that in common with your team, it can heighten your ability to relate and empathize, which helps to improve credibility — leaders with empathy show a 40% higher overall performance than those without.
7) Have trust in yourself.
When I first started at HubSpot and felt a little nervous about my new role, someone suggested that I try Googling “new job anxiety.” I immediately felt better, if for no other reason than my fears seemed to be more common than I thought.
For a lot of us, a big part of this stress can be traced to something called “imposter syndrome”: The sense that, no matter how much we’ve achieved, we don’t belong in a leadership position or deserve the success of having gotten there. A whopping 70% of us — especially particularly ambitious folks — will endure that feeling at some point in our careers.
But if we don’t even lend ourselves any credibility, how can we expect to build it within our teams? Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy has discussed this phenomenon quite a bit. In her TED Talk, she even referenced the “fake-it-till-you-make-it” approach.
By “faking it,” Cuddy isn’t suggesting that you lie about your credentials. Instead, she’s encouraging the idea of doing what scares you the most — like public speaking, as we discussed above — and internally reciting whatever mantra you need to in order to make it happen (for example, “I am a rock star”). When you repeatedly face these fears, she says, you’ll get to a point where you realize — and believe — that you do, in fact, belong in this position of leadership.
When you think about it, confidence = credibility. Merriam Webster defines the former as “the feeling of being certain that something will happen or that something is true,” and the latter as “the quality of being believed or accepted as true, real, or honest.” So believe in your team, believe in the training, and believe in yourself — the sooner you can, the sooner you’ll be on your way to building credibility as a leader.