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Why the Best Leaders Actually Work Behind the Scene

October 10, 2016, 2:40 PM UTC
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Hill Street Studios—Getty Images/Blend Images

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: “What’s the key to great leadership?” is written by Jennifer Risi, Ogilvy PR’s global chief communications officer and managing director of media influence.

With the exception of West Point, there are very few institutions focused on teaching leadership. But every woman in business, whether she’s at a global firm employing thousands, or the owner of a one-person company, will need leadership skills. So if a future in the Army isn’t in the cards, you’ll need to educate yourself to become a strong leader.

The dirty secret of the professional world is that you don’t learn about business in college – you can only learn on the job. You have to jump into something, fail at it, figure it out, correct yourself – then you learn.

Leadership skills are developed by the same principle. Going through this process of trial-and-error is how I learned to be a communications and public relations maven, and it’s how I developed as a leader.

Below are some of the key lessons I’ve learned. If you’re currently in a leadership role, consider how you can apply them to your team. If – like most people – you have a boss, question whether your work environment has these attributes.

Empower your team.

I’m a firm believer in empowering my team with the freedom to accomplish what they need to get done. Give someone an open runway to do their work and great people will find a way to get it done. A good leader encourages his or her staff to figure out a problem and find a solution for it.

Be a mentor and a sponsor.

A successful leader will find opportunities to advise as a mentor and to advocate as a sponsor. Mentors need to keep a mindful eye on their mentee’s work and expect regular progress reports, which make it possible to step in and provide guidance as needed. They’ll learn by doing, and you can course correct them along the way. You should also be a sponsor who identifies promising junior staff and opens doors for them. If a colleague or a boss has stood up for you on your behalf, now it’s your turn to return the favor to someone else.

Be inclusive

Be generous when thanking and giving credit to your staff. The rule should be to say “we,” not “I” when your staff has contributed to a project. You’re the boss so you’ve already earned authority and kudos. Giving credit to your staff will strengthen their reputation in the company while inspiring their loyalty to you and the team.

Go to battle on their behalf.

The other best technique for developing loyalty among employees is to be their best defense. Stand behind your team. Big companies are always saddled with complicated internal politics, but regardless of size, any company made up of people is going to have interpersonal and bureaucratic drama. Employees need to know that you have their backs, and that you’re willing to get into the trenches to protect their interest.

Always be transparent.

As a responsible parent needs to give a child tough-love, a boss needs to be open, transparent and honest with his or her employees. If there’s a problem, tell them. Don’t ignore it and hope it will get better. If you’re transparent at all times then employees will always know where they stand with you, and they’ll appreciate you for it. The other side of the truth-telling coin is to be a good listener. Allow your employees to be honest with you and they’ll tell you what they need to be the best employee they can be. Like in life, a two-way, mutually beneficial relationship built on trust and an open, ongoing dialogue will foster the best work environments.