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5 ways to be a great leader at work

Effective leadership skills are tough to acquire and even harder to refine. Here's how you can become a better manager.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
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Climbing the career ladder means people look to you for leadership, but taking on that new-found responsibility can be an eye-opener.

Research by the Chartered Management Institute suggests 82% of bosses are "accidental managers" without formal leadership training. The survey reveals a fifth of managers aren't confident in their leadership abilities, with many struggling to deal sensitively with issues facing their team members.

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Managers who don't lead their staff effectively have a deep impact on the workplace, leaving employees feeling unmotivated, dissatisfied, and more likely to leave their jobs.

So, what's the best way to embrace management and become a great leader? Five bosses give us their top tips.

1. Be true to your values

Tim Lancelot, head of sales enablement at technology specialist MHR, said great leaders command respect rather than laying down the law: "Be someone people want to follow and who leads by example."

Lancelot said taking the lead often means providing clarity in challenging business situations -- and he told ZDNET how effective leaders pan for gold. "There's often data overload and you need to strip out the key issues and say, 'These are the handful of signals that are the most important ones that will define the right action for today,'" he said.

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Lancelot said being value-led is also important for senior executives. One of the main reasons he took a role at MHR 18 months ago was that the family-owned company had a different culture from the equity partner-owned organization where he'd worked previously.

"I think it's crucial to be true to values, whether those are company values or personal values. That is the kind of leader people want to follow," he said, before suggesting the best leaders are honest and practical.

"You must steer a straight course because leadership is not whimsical. Some values and principles stay the same, even though the data and the circumstances change."

2. Work alongside your team

Sophie Gallay, global data and client IT director at French retailer Etam, said the best leaders don't dictate. Instead, they convince people to take the right path.

"A great leader makes people want to work with them and follow their direction," she said. "Leadership is not about making people do things, it's about making people want to do things -- and that's a big difference."

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Gallay told ZDNET she aims to be a positive leader who works alongside her people, not against them.

From establishing the foundations for data-led change to investigating the potential of artificial intelligence, she looks for opportunities to co-create a strategy with staff that delivers information and insight to the business.

"I suggest a vision and then try and convince people that it's the right way," she says. "When these people are convinced and want to work with me, we co-build the roadmap and the operational strategy to achieve this vision."

3. Set unambiguous goals

Attiq Qureshi, chief digital information officer at Manchester United Football Club, says a great leader is only as good as the people they manage.

"It's all about enabling your colleagues that work for you and elevating them," he said.

Qureshi told ZDNET that effective leaders ensure staff who are given fresh workplace opportunities also receive coaching and support.

"It's about giving your people headroom to stretch into," he said. "That headroom can be about setting the bar high and providing challenging targets. I always find people respond very well to that approach."

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Qureshi said great leaders are confident in setting the vision. They clarify the goal and define what good looks like, so there's no ambiguity for people on their team.

"Every organization has more demand than supply. So, leadership is also about prioritization and working out what matters," he said.

"Make sure everyone focuses on that goal, give them the headroom to grow, and support them to deliver results."

4. Focus on staff requirements

Debra Bonomi, head of learning and development at marketing specialist Rakuten, recognizes that while people in senior positions can adopt several management styles, the most successful executives prioritize the requirements of their staff.

"A great leader is a servant leader. They're listeners," she said.

"I learned that lesson the hard way in my twenties. Today, I believe that the focus on servant leadership is crucial. In every role, you need to understand your contribution and the needs of your staff, so concentrate on finding out their requirements."

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As head of learning and development, Bonomi is exposed to various management approaches and helps people across Rakuten to excel and achieve their ambitions.

She told ZDNET that the modern servant leader always works with their staff to expose and embrace fresh opportunities.

"I have been pushing the idea that a leader isn't the stereotypical person who just manages a team and oversees people," she said.

"A leader is someone who takes risks and brings amazing ideas forward. You don't stop and you make your ideas work."

5. Listen to your talent

Benoît Dageville, co-founder of technology firm Snowflake, told ZDNET at the recent Snowflake Summit 2024 in San Francisco that the key to successful leadership is a good ear.

"The great leaders have to listen," he said. "To me, that's the number one quality. Leverage all the talents in your organization and help these people rather than imposing yourself and taking a top-down view."

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However, the people you manage will also come to you for bearings. Dageville said great leaders provide a route map to their employees.

"You need a vision and you have to execute and push through and not stop because of things that happen," he said. "A great leader is someone with direction and a North Star. They don't flip-flop. They know where the business needs to go and how."

Dageville said this strong sense of direction was crucial from the first day of Snowflake. "I always asked, 'What do we need to build?' As a leader, you need to push. The people who work for Snowflake must be aligned with what we think is important as a leadership team."

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