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Three questions to help you lead more effectively

The 21st century is often referred to as the "Knowledge Century" by business pontificators. Just how do managers gain this "knowledge" that will propel them ahead professionally? Traditionally, it was gained on the job. Managers tended to stay with an employer for long periods, and the knowledge was specific to that firm. Such knowledge assured the manager some semblance of long-term employment.

Today, managers increasingly are expected to gain knowledge from sources outside their companies and are expected to know more than the basics of their departmental operations. One big change from the late 20th century is that it is up to the manager to diagnose her/his needs and find the most feasible manner of achieving the "education" necessary. Managers with the greatest degree of formal training are more attractive in today's labor market at all levels. But how does a manager who is working full time gain additional formal education? Few companies can afford to allow managers to take significant time away from their duties - especially now, when staffing is short.

Various "new" forms of Master's in Business Administration degrees have arisen in the last 20 years in an effort to allow managers and executives to enjoy the enhanced degree on a more viable timetable - for example, accelerated (one year full time), TV (typically one to two nights per week for persons with no on-site classes available), and executive or professional (weekend programs spread over one to two years). Employers often will pay the tuition (not inexpensive for the executive MBA, in particular) and expect the manager, upon completion, to return to the same job or be offered advancement.

A major advantage of the executive MBA is that fellow students are managers/executives from a variety of industries, and you can learn from their ideas, especially in case-study discussions. In a discussion on "leadership in your company" during a recent executive MBA case, several conclusions were reached that should be beneficial for marine industry managers at all levels. Consider the major questions of the case setting:

1. What qualities in a leader do you admire/desire most?

2. What qualities in your own leaders "offend" (demotivate) you most?

3. What leadership qualities are needed today to achieve excellence in a slowly growing economy?

Before continuing with this column, take each of the three questions above and jot down some answers that seem plausible for your own company. Once you have done that, please continue.

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  • Question 1: What qualities in a leader do you admire/desire most? After considerable interaction and small group discussions, this list was produced. The top four had wide agreement on priority.

Credibility: Leaders must be credible; they must "walk the talk." The leader's word must be heard and believed based on previous actions and words. Trust evolves. This includes corporate communications, handbooks, polices and the spoken word. A credible manager often uses the earned reputation to sell changes to be made at a minimal cost to morale.

Creativity: Leaders must be able to see things that others do not see. They see potential, both in the organization and its environment as well as in people. The creative leader seeks input from all levels of the organization in developing strategic plans and shows what all the components mean when properly assembled. This is a difficult quality to gain; it may be in the genes.

Communicator: A set of clearly defined expectations is the single most important aspect of motivating high-potential employees and managers. The Gallup organization has found this to be true in its surveys. Thus, the leader who communicates well will make sure all workers clearly understand what is expected of them. The good communicator will watch and offer proper recognition and guidance.

Celebrator: Imagine a manager being willing to recognize the extra effort and knowing how to recognize and reward in a continual motivation cycle. The works by Bob Nelson have been suggested here in past columns for ideas on recognizing good performance. His paperbacks are available in the major bookstores.

Diversity: Cutting-edge leaders know how to bring diverse members of an organization together to accomplish extraordinary goals. They see beyond ethnicity or gender and see what that person can do when matched with certain others.

Listener: Good leaders listen - to customers, both internal and external, as well as to their spouses and children. They likely do the "MBWA" thing from Hewlett-Packard (management by walking around.) Listeners are loved by others, since many managers only want to direct and do not have time to listen.

Current: A true leader is always reading, absorbing, looking for new ideas and never content with past knowledge and skills. This person also encourages emerging leaders in the organization to grow in both one's specialty areas as well as in leadership skills. The leader pushes colleagues to stay current on industry and general business thought and to discuss in a constructive manner with each other.

Growing leaders and networking: A great leader is someone who is not afraid of others knowing more than him or her. The true leader wants all staff members to develop to their greatest potential and, equally importantly, to network with other managers, leaders and professionals. The networking provides access to many streams of thought.

Relentlessly positive as they guide: Never "Can we do this?" but "How do we accomplish this?" This type of leader is much like a coach; the leader is always guiding and making everyone feel good about the progress.

  • Question 2: What qualities in your own leaders "offend" (demotivate) you most? Not surprisingly, the major qualities that offend managers are the absence of the ones they admire. A likely conclusion is, "If we are not the kind of leader/managers our followers respond to, we are not maximizing our effectiveness." Look back at the nine qualities above. Which of them do you see not being characteristic of you? Ask your spouse. You'll know what to work on.
  • Question 3: What leadership qualities are needed today to achieve excellence? Much discussion developed in trying to narrow the list of nine down to a workable list for possible improvement efforts within a leader. Which three ended up as the top qualities? Decide for your own company leadership and share with me. I will compare your responses in the January issue.

A few weeks after this executive session, I was on a flight from Tucson, Ariz., to Roanoke, Va., and had a layover in Atlanta. While waiting for my flight, I picked up a paperback by Stan Toler titled "Minute Motivators for Leaders." (I am not connected in any way with Toler, nor am I involved in the distribution of his work.) Toler suggests that leaders can make a difference, and he lays out a series of skills that must be used. He must have heard the M.B.A. class discussion, because many of his ideas are similar to the that group's. You might want to spend $6.99 and buy a copy. It is an easy read, and you will come away wanting to develop some of the qualities he lays out for leaders.

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In the September issue, I shared some ideas about consulting. I have received several requests for names, and I have offered some ideas to those readers. One reader suggested I failed to mention some mainline sources and offered up a relevant Web site with suggestions about choosing a consultant:

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus - international management at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail:

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue.



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