How Do Leaders Inspire Continuous Improvement?

Secrets of Leadership Success

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Establish an Environment of Continuous Improvement

“If you're still in the same role in two years, I've failed.” I heard this statement from a Vice President very early in my career — in fact, I was only 6 months out of grad school. It obviously made a big impact on me. It was the first time I had thought about the role of a leader as helping the employees grow and develop.

Now, this man was speaking specifically to me — a new grad looking for my first professional job.

It's not practical or wise to think that every person is ready to move on within two years.

The higher the job level, the longer you need to stay before moving up the ladder. Otherwise, you're not ready for the demands of the next level. But, regardless of the level of employees, leaders should always look for opportunities to help their employees move to that next level.

The concept of continuous improvement isn't just about increased responsibility and promotions. It's about every aspect of our careers — and personal lives. While we are all responsible for improving our own lives and careers, if we want leadership roles, we need to focus on improving more than just ourselves.

Improving Your Employees

It's not just about getting your employees promoted (although that is definitely part of it), it's about improving their performance in their current job. It is also about changing the job and their responsibilities as they improve – so that they can continue to grow.

The latter can be a bit complicated — as you need the same tasks accomplished, no matter how long the employee doing them has been in the job. But, there's always a better way to do something. Helping your employee learn that better way makes your department look better, makes your employee feel better about herself, and prepares her for a promotion into a different job.

Some managers don't want their best employees to move on to different jobs — after all, they are difficult to replace. While this feeling is completely understandable, you'll lose your best employees anyway; you just won't have any control or say in the matter.

If you create a culture where improvement is expected and then rewarded with raises or promotions (either in place promotions or promotions into new jobs), you'll attract the very type of employees you love—the hard workers who are driven to succeed.

Improving Your Department

It's not just about developing the people, it's about developing your department and responsibilities as well. You need to constantly ask, “Is this the best way to do this?” and, “Is there something that we're not doing that we should do” and (strangely enough), “Is there something that we are doing that we should not do?”

All three of these questions, when asked regularly, can lead to an improved department or business function. Here's how.

Question: Is This the Best Way to Do This?

Sometimes we do things one way because that's just how we always do it. You may say to yourself, “I've asked myself that question three times already, why on earth would I find a better way now?” Well, the answer may be that there is new technology now.

But, you may also be asking the wrong person — try asking the employee responsible for the task.

Try keeping up on professional publications. Now, of course, you can't spend your whole life trying to find the holy grail of project perfectionism, but when an employee has a suggestion about how to improve things - listen. She may just be right

Question: What Are We Not Doing that We Should Do?

Even when you're feeling overworked, you can't improve if you're not asking this question. Are there thngs that will not only help your clients or customers, but will help develop your people as well. There are things that can make you more efficient and better prepared to handle the future.

If you're not looking for things that are better, you may lose out. For instance, once Kodak was the king of film. When digital photos were introduced, they didn't say, “Hey, we should do that!” instead, they focused on their film.

The result? Well, when was the last time you used film? Someone should have said, “We need to focus on digital.”

What Are We Doing that We Should Not Do?

This question isn't asked nearly enough. There's an old story of a newly married young woman who buys a ham, cuts off both ends of the ham, plops it in the pan and sticks it in the oven. “Why did you cut off the ends of the ham?” the husband asks.

“This is how you make ham,” she says. “You always cut off the ends.” He pushes her a little more so she asks her mom, “Why do you cut off the ends of a ham before baking it?” The mom replies, “That's how my mother taught me to make a ham.”

The two of them go to grandma and inquire. Grandma says, “My pan was too small to hold a whole ham.”

You can laugh at this silly story, but you may have things you do in your job that are done for reasons that no longer exist. A report that no one uses. A process that was replaced by an app. Asking this question regularly can bring about the spirit of improvement that you need for a successful department.

When you take the idea of continuous improvement seriously, you'll begin to make things get better. Which means you can, essentially, have a better job without even updating your resume. Your employees will thank you for it as well.

Characteristics of a Successful Leadership Style

Much is written about what makes successful leaders. I will focus on the characteristics, traits and actions that, I believe, are key.