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How to be one of 2023's best business leaders

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by Startacus Admin


Karen Meager, co-founder of Monkey Puzzle Training shares some insights on how leadership has changed in the last decade, and what it takes to be a great leader today.

Anyone launching their first startup should be aware of what will be required of them as a leader of the business. And it may be useful to know that leadership has changed over the last ten or so years. 

amy-hirschi-K0c8ko3e6AA-unsplash In 2012, Monkey Puzzle Training ran a survey of over 60 UK and European business leaders to understand what kinds of people were in leadership roles and what they enjoyed and found challenging in those roles.

In 2020, we reran the same survey to see what had changed for business leaders over the past decade. The most surprising result was how little had shifted in terms of their day-to-day experience. The biggest challenges remained the same: managing time and dealing with difficult behaviour.

What had changed were the topics and expectations business leaders now have to deal with. Along with strategic thinking and making business decisions, modern leaders are faced with managing mental health, wellbeing, psychological safety, diversity, and inclusion. 

What’s more, the qualities leaders are expected to embody have grown. Leaders are now required to be strong yet vulnerable, provide both autonomy and protection, and be clear and straightforward yet also understand complex nuances – an ever-growing list of expectations that are arguably unrealistic for any single person, and most certainly exhausting.

Pandemic and leadership

Of course, since we ran the research, we’ve all experienced a two-year pandemic, which brought with it unprecedented changes in the history of modern working. Staff working from home with suit jacket on top and jogging bottoms below presented challenges at the time, but we’re not done with the knock-on effects. Working in slippers was fantastic for some, but a misery for others. And now that people are returning to the office, we are seeing flare-ups of pent-up grievances. Leaders will need to become adept at facing up to hard conversations, to mediating, and, where necessary, to facilitating exits. 

Burnout is a real risk

Dealing with your own stress, the interpersonal issues of colleagues, and the already exhausting list of expectations leaves many leaders stuck struggling to meet new demands while still trying to master the essentials. It’s no surprise, then, that burnout rates in leadership are reaching alarming levels and many people are seeking less stressful roles. 

What we need is to find a balance between qualities and expectations while managing to motivate and inspire people. Here are five ways to achieve this: 

Remember you can’t be everything to everyone

It’s unlikely you will ever be the leader everyone wants you to be, so let go of your perfectionist tendencies and get to know your limitations.

Often, leaders are told to iron out and expand their limitations. Yet, this will often leave you giving up developing your strengths by overextending yourself into a weakness. There’s simply not enough time to focus on both. Instead, it is usually possible to find ways around your limitations. If you’re not great at organisation, you can find support from a deputy, for example.

linkedin-sales-solutions-W3Jl3jREpDY-unsplashStart by finding your unique advantage ? the place where the Venn diagram of strengths, business needs, and personal enjoyment overlap. Anything else, you can either work on improving or find someone else to plug the gaps.

You can always improve

It is useful and important to use feedback to work on self-development. You may think that your organisation skills are weak but perhaps your team doesn’t need organising as much as they need attention to detail. 

Seek feedback from a variety of trusted sources and look for themes and perspectives on your behaviour. Of course, getting honest and trustworthy feedback can be difficult. People you manage are less likely to give you negative feedback, while those in senior management may be too far removed from your day-to-day to have anything constructive to offer.

A third-party training provider or a coach can be invaluable for this activity. They can gain honest feedback, filter out unhelpful content, and present key themes in a way that avoids hot buttons.

Set realistic goals for your leadership development

Avoid setting any goals that your brain won’t accept. If it’s not relevant to you or your role or doesn’t fit your personality, this will make it impossible to achieve a goal. You should also try to avoid getting distracted by the ‘next big thing’ – fads fade.

Once you have identified relevant and useful goals, begin practising them in a safe environment where you can risk getting them wrong. You’re unlikely to be great at first, so it is unwise to practice your new skill when there is a lot on the line. Applying new strategic thinking skills to a multi-million-pound pitch is risky and could lead to a major setback. Instead, try applying it to your internal strategy first and get feedback from the wider team to help you improve.

linkedin-sales-solutions-1A8yP_5msac-unsplashUse a coach or mentor to support you

Coaches and/or mentors can be an invaluable resource. Not only can they provide a different perspective, but they can also be a compassionate ear to express your own fears and frustrations. 

It may also be useful to ask whether they are appropriate to your profession. Needing to explain the context and industry to your coach can be a massive waste of time. So, some background technical knowledge can be extremely useful.

However, the absolute key thing to look for in a coach is someone with whom you feel like you could share your weaknesses and whom you trust. Needy, emotionally dysfunctional coaches are a nightmare as the work becomes more about keeping them happy than having your own needs met. Coaches aren’t there to be liked; coaches are there to help you improve.

Mentoring is often more specific to your job. Mentors are often found in your network and/or organisation (e.g., peer mentoring, swapping skills and experience). The benefit of mentors from your network or organisation is that it takes away hierarchy, making it work well for senior leaders or anyone under a strict NDA. 

Set and maintain boundaries 

At the start of a new business, it’s tempting to be ‘always on’, available to both employees and senior management, but at some point you need to develop the knack of saying ‘no’ without saying ‘no’ – being unavailable without making a big deal about it. 

Start by defining the boundaries you are comfortable with—perhaps committing to switching off your phone in the evenings, or making a promise to yourself not to work late at least two nights a week—and once you have identified your own boundaries, stick to them. You don’t need to broadcast when you will be unavailable, simply be unavailable. People will get used to these quiet boundaries without there being a “Ted Talk” explaining your reasoning.

HR Karen Meager Monkey Puzzle Training.jBut when you need to be all in, be all in. Work hard, develop skills, overcome weaknesses, and find a style of leadership that emphasises your unique talents. Just don’t be a leader all the time. Make time for yourself so that you avoid burning out – if that happens, no one wins (except your competitors). 


Karen Meager is co-founder of Monkey Puzzle Training, a leadership development and organisational design consultancy. Monkey Puzzle works with business leaders to help align teams, support innovation, build sustainable organisations and develop exceptional people who are better able to achieve results - giving leaders more time to do what they do best. 





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Published on: 2nd February 2023

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