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Nasty or Nice? What Really Makes the Most Effective Finance Leader?

There’s no doubt, we all instinctively want to work with a ‘nice’ leader. However, most of us will also have seen the downside, when ‘nice’ turns into ineffectiveness. Equally, although they may make us feel uncomfortable, we’ve all had a boss who we’ve had the utmost respect for, but perhaps isn’t the type we’d like to hang out in the pub with. Not nasty, of course, but someone who has impact through assertion, making tough choices and having difficult conversations. Why do we respect them? Simply, because they’re highly effective. They get results.Reading “The Dangers of Hiring a Nice CEO” in June’s HBR caused me to think on this subject – as often as we are developing as leaders, the ability to ‘collaborate’, ‘include’ and ‘engage’ (all ‘nice’ things) are often trumped as essential competencies for any aspiring leader. But is this a red herring, or, at least, do we need to be conscious of focusing too much on being liked?

We’ve put together the common pitfalls of a ‘nice’ leader, and what we can all do to avoid them, without becoming…well, nasty.

#1 Struggling to say no

We’ve all been there. Maybe you’ve worked it out that saying ‘yes’ to everything means you become stretched across too many priorities, but for many leaders, and also professionals, this is an age old issue. Not wanting to let anyone down, we let everyone down by not focusing on the real issues at hand. A sense of fairness, in this case, can equal failure.

As a leader, it is your mandate to achieve results, not please everyone. By critically assessing priorities and making a decision on importance in relation to ongoing challenges, reasoning ‘no’ becomes easier than just saying ‘no’. There is no unfairness, as your decision is guided by the business’ needs, not yours or theirs. Simple.

#2 An inability to face up to conflict or cause friction

This is an obvious one. ‘Nice’ leaders tend to avoid confrontation as they don’t want to upset others. They may steer away from providing negative feedback, which can not only cause problems to perpetuate, and it can frustrate other team members who require issues to be resolved for them to continue with their roles.

It may surprise you to know, but good people can do conflict, and you certainly don’t need to be nasty to have those difficult conversations. In fact, often by swiftly acting on issues, you can often cause less upset through not letting things get to a stage where there is a more serious need to act. Besides, by taking the emotion out of difficult conversations and looking at it from a purely objective standpoint, you can circumvent any friction by ensuring any debate you have does not become personal.

#3 A lack of assertion when it comes to talent management

This is actually one of the most critical issues. Weak talent, or performance, management is often a by-product of environments managed by ‘nice’ leaders. ‘Nice’ leaders tend to act slowly on performance issues, thinking more about the person involved, or what others will think, than objectively about the situation. Obviously, this can affect overall business performance, but even more worrying is the effect this dynamic has on high performers. Seeing poor performers not being managed effectively is one of the most common de-motivators in business, an absolute no-no.

As a leader, driving and ensuring consistency in performance is at the cornerstone of your role. Like with the above point on conflict, by addressing issues quickly, you will cause less upset than letting them fester. Additionally, by lifting performance by swiftly managing underperformers and rewarding high performers you will gain more respect for your actions, which will naturally translate into support for your decisions.

The key challenge here is making a shift in mind-set from “relating to being liked to relating for impact”. By focusing on driving business results, rather than getting everyone’s approval for what you’ve done, you will be a better leader, you will be more respected and ultimately, you will be more successful. And the best news is, you don’t need to be nasty either.

Read more: Botelho, E.L., Wang, D., & Powell, K., “The Dangers of Hiring a Nice CEO”, HBR

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