Practical tips for becoming a more effective leader


Leadership expert Tracey Swanepoel - whose new book The Leadership Riptide and How to Escape is helping corporate executives adopt research-based and human-centred approaches to leadership - offers some practical tools and tips that can help corporate executives become better leaders.

Swanepoel suggests four simple tools that executives can use to engage productively with employees, and create happier workplace environments.

“Many people believe storytelling is a pastime of childhood or best left to Hollywood’s actors but we’ve found that visual story telling is the most effective way for leaders to communicate abstract concepts like strategy with employees. It’s an incredibly powerful tool that leaders can use to create shared meaning and help employees gain a clear picture of what the company is about and where it is headed.”

While many people hold the belief that they are not creative and therefore not good storytellers, Swanepoel says human beings are natural storytellers. “We tell stories all the time - when talking to family and friends, or hosting colleagues at a business lunch. Somehow though, in the workplace we get into a different mode and storytelling gets left at the door. That’s a big mistake. When leaders use a specific anecdote or story, they are able to quickly communicate concepts to employees in a practical and relatable way, enabling employees to get a clear understanding of what’s being communicated.”

Swanepoel says rather than one needing to be born creative to tell stories, it is a skill that is easily learned. Through her company THINKspiration, (which is the only African partner of the world’s largest business storytelling firm, Anecdote) she offers the globally recognised Storytelling for Leaders course that teaches leaders very practical, easy steps to storytelling. “They learn how to tell stories that can influence people to think differently, stories that reflect a company’s values, and how to convey their corporate strategy with clarity in two to three minutes. It is far more effective for a leader to share an example of someone who has shown integrity in the workplace than to merely say that one of the business’s core values is integrity. The power of storytelling is transformational.”

Storytelling forms a big part of Swanepoel’s ‘Strategy to Story’ methodology, which is outlined in her book. It shows leaders how to use visual storytelling to convey their corporate strategy and vision to employees in a fun and engaging way so as to facilitate better communication between leaders and their teams.

“We turn a company’s current challenges, strategy, mission and vision of the future into a visual, graphic story called a Visual Strategy Map. Through the story, every employee gets to see their role and how they are contributing to the big picture. They get to understand the external business environment, the current reality of the business, what it aims ­­to achieve, its unique value proposition, its ultimate purpose and how it plans to get there. It is also a powerful tool in that it enables leaders to start different kinds of conversations and interactions with their teams, which increases employee engagement, improves productivity and transforms the workplace environment.”

Another key tool for effective leadership, says Swanepoel, is listening. “Leaders’ most powerful persuasion tools are not their mouths, but their ears! There’s so much to be gained if leaders really listen to their employees. Not the fake listening that goes on in so many organisations, but authentic listening. The key is to show genuine interest in what the person has to say and to make every effort to understand their point of view. We encourage leaders to engage in regular listening sessions with people at all levels of the organisation so that they really get a handle on what is going on in their businesses and what employees are thinking and feeling. This is imperative for the health of the organisation.”

Showing appreciation is another effective tool that leaders can use to enhance performance, says Swanepoel. “We have found that when people openly express appreciation for one another at the end of a meeting and let people know what they are valued and appreciated for – something that men often cringe at doing – it has a significant impact on performance. I call appreciation the legal ‘performance-enhancing’ drug. It is unbelievable how feeling appreciated ignites teams, makes people feel valued and improves productivity and buy-in from employees, who feel motivated to work towards achieving the company’s goals.”

Another technique Swanepoel encourages leaders to practice is to start a meeting by asking a positively framed question. This is proven to be highly effective in getting people into a positive frame of mind as the meeting begins. “This is really a simple technique to set the tone of a meeting. Asking questions such as when was the last time you laughed out loud or what is the best compliment someone has ever given you, acts like a mental ‘palate cleanser’, breaks down tensions and creates an enabling environment for good, creative thinking and collaboration.”

These are just a few of the tools and techniques that Swanepoel teaches leaders to put into practice. “What it’s really about is bringing humanity back into the workplace,” concludes Swanepoel.

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