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Secrets to being a Top Leader in Tough Times

New Brunswick Business Journal logo

by MARTIN POIRIER

You don’t need to look at the recent state of the global economy to know we are in difficult times. New Brunswick is living through them too.

The province’s deficit nearly doubled this year and unemployment in the province is the highest it has ever been. Companies alike are implementing spending cuts, layoffs and downsizing to maximize profits. So what does it take to be a top leader in tough times?

Dave Veale knows a thing or two about what it takes to be a successful leader. Eight years ago, he started his company Vision Coaching Inc. because he wanted to see a world withDave_for_Martin's_article cropped values that could be transformed by creative compassion and resilient leadership. His team of coaches share his vision and helps executives and leaders to be as effective and efficient as possible.

Veale has also interviewed company CEOs and presidents, founders, entrepreneurs, hospital department heads. “What I’m seeing in successful leaders that I’ve interacted, interviewed and worked directly with is their capacity to be very resilient,” Veale says.

A definition of resilience that resonated with Veale is the idea that a person doesn’t just will something to happen. As they go through a difficult time, they grow and learn and develop the ability to test their resiliency again and again. “What I find in resilient leaders is their ability to create and communicate a strong vision of the future,” Veale says. He believes in an idea called “future preference,” — a belief that the future will be brighter and that things will develop and grow if we push forward regardless of what is going on right now.

Valerie Roy firmly believes that the same principles apply to leadership in tough times as they do when the economy is hot.

“Top leaders have strong values,” says Roy, vice-president of chamber and member services of the Atlantic Provinces Chamber of Commerce. “They are honest and ethical in their dealings with people. They respect their staff, their suppliers and their customers. They are of course concerned with profit, but not at any cost.”

Roy worked from entry level to CEO, even chairman of the board, in a career that has spanned more than 40 years. She received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in August of this year for her contributions to her peers, the community and Canada. She believes successful leaders are in business because they have a passion for their product or service and this passion drives employee enthusiasm and innovation. “They also have a passion for their communities and are generous volunteers and financial supporters,” says Roy. “Top leaders give back, are very often humble, and share the spotlight with the people who helped them to become successful.”

Veale believes that leaders with strong communication skills are the most successful, and more so in tough times. They have an ability to communicate the vision and create momentum and belief about what the future looks like. “Leaders with a higher emotional intelligence have a higher probability of success,” says Veale. “And I think it would be amplified in tough times.”

Veale is referring to the five pillars of emotional intelligence that include self awareness, self regulation, motivation, empathy and people skills. The term “emotional intelligence” was brought into the mainstream in 1995 by Daniel Goleman, a New York Times behavioral science columnist.

Goleman states that having a high IQ is not the decisive factor for success. A leader with strong emotional intelligence behaves assertively when necessary, faces difficult situations with confidence, all without making enemies and without damaging the self-esteem of others.

Veale says limited thinking is a big obstacle. “When you get sucked in hard times and feel like you are losing your inspiration and motivation to keep going, having a strong peer group and community around you can really help you identify the obstacles,” Veale says.
Roy stresses that in today’s work place, with demographic challenges and a competitive global economy, our top leaders realize more than ever they must invest in themselves and their people in order to succeed.

Strong leaders have the ability to anticipate. They look at the obstacles and find ways to clear the way for themselves and their organizations. “You need to see past the current reality and bring people together and get all the information you need. So that takes a special type of leader because you have to build trust,” says Veale.

“Something that can derail a leader is hubris or the lack of humility. As leaders you need to have the ability to mine for conflict, to dig in and to find out what’s not working well right now — even when the revenue is there.”

Veale once again stresses resilience, explaining the ability to change and adapt is so crucial. He cited the failure of Blockbuster as an example. “They were doing so well as an organization, they did not anticipate where the market was going and that led to a spiral down a path were they couldn’t recover.”

“I use to go to Blockbuster and it wasn’t long ago that the store was filled with people,” says Veale. “Now the doors are closed and it’s an empty space. This is in the last five years. The leaders obviously did not anticipate the behaviour change.”
One process Veale’s coaching company uses with its customers is what he calls a 360-degree assessment. “Let’s find out what you think about your leadership abilities,” says Veale. “How your peer group feels, people that report to you and people you report to, let’s look at the patterns that emerge as a result of this feedback from people around you.”
Veale acknowledged that it takes a lot of courage because people are evaluating your strengths and weaknesses. How do you fully leverage those strengths? What are the perceptions and the gaps that you have? Is it knowledge, the ability to communicate, integrity? What are the things that are slowing your career progression down and ability to lead?

From a coaching perspective, Veale starts with that data. Then, he works with the individual to address and then work out an action plan. Some people have a natural ability to lead, but Veale strongly believes leadership needs to be continually nurtured and grown.

“A leader doesn’t hunker down or button down the hatches,” he says. “It’s important not to be isolated. It takes a certain amount of willingness and ability to be vulnerable.”

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