The leader’s role in productivity

An organization’s performance is directly linked to its leader’s effectiveness. In fact, extraordinary leaders can make extraordinary employees out of average employees while poor leaders can turn extraordinary employees into poor performers. And it has nothing to do with the organization’s systems, processes, policies, or procedures.

Employees are impacted by their leader’s behavior. In a McKinsey Global Survey published in October 2009, nine critical leadership skills were identified. Inspiring employees ranked number one (Leadership through the crisis and after: McKinsey Global Survey Results, October 2009).

Inspiring employees is crucial if they are to serve customers in the best possible way, all the time. Since they are the organization’s front line to customer service, employees are the organization’s key to success. Empowered employees will perform their best to achieve their organization’s goals. The leader’s role in positively influencing this behavior cannot be overstated.

To sustain inspiration and empowerment, employees need recognition and reward. Both monetary and non-monetary reward can be used. Some employees may need a bonus to settle personal debts, while others may appreciate a more flexible working schedule. Ask your employees how they want to be rewarded and act accordingly.

While difficult to measure, strong leaders can impact the work environment by contributing to improved employee morale through a “snowball effect” of positive outcomes. It takes just one employee to hinder change, but it also takes just one employee to create positive effects. It starts with leaders.

There are five areas that every leader should consider to better influence productivity in their organizations. These areas are:

  1. Defining goals and objectives. Clarity around organizational goals and objectives and how projects fit within them needs to be provided. When employees understand the projects on which they are working, they are better able to identify and close gaps between the projects and the organizational goals.
  2. Assigning ownership. For any work undertaken in the organization, there should only be one owner of the work. When one owner-employee takes responsibility for the project, there is a greater chance of project success. If there are multiple owners or if ownership is not clear, efficiency and productivity suffers.
  3. Managing employee expectations. This includes ensuring employee job satisfaction and providing incentives and rewards. If employees are empowered and receive appropriate support (e.g., training, resources, etc.) to complete their work, their job satisfaction increases. In addition, recognizing and rewarding employees helps increase their self-esteem and further strengthens their resolve to continue working hard on behalf of the organization.
  4. Communicating. This is a two-way experience. Leaders need to be clear in their communications with employees, but they also need to listen to their employees and act on what their employees are telling them. By engaging in open communication, leaders build trust with their teams, further empowering productivity.
  5. Innovating. Without innovation, organizations will not grow. Leaders need to embrace innovation and encourage innovation and creativity in the workplace. Same old, same old has no place in organizations that want to be successful. Creating or inventing/re-inventing new markets, products and services—this is how successful organizations thrive.

Leadership competency models provide boundless traits and behaviors that differentiate between good and great leaders; they are all useful. But when higher levels of productivity are desired, straightforward behaviors—defining goals and objectives, assigning ownership, managing employee expectations, communicating, and innovating—can be achieved by every leader.

A core business goal, productivity is under the direction of leaders. Leaders who are able to motivate and inspire their employees will be the leaders of successful organizations. Those who do not may soon find themselves out of work.


24 thoughts on “The leader’s role in productivity

  1. I enjoyed reading this post. I find it very complete.

    It got me thinking about what really worked in my 20 years of working in large and small IT teams and I couldn’t find much. There were a few small projects where we were tight and supportive to each other.

    But what worked exceptionally well was managing up.

  2. Every organization i worked in succeeded or failed because of its leadership. The 5 areas noted above are important, but in my mind the most important is the ‘moral boundaries’ that a leader sets. Get these in place and the rest will work itself out, don’t and the organisation will fall in on itself.

  3. I would agree that leadership is an essential ingredient for the success of any organization. Great leaders inspire their employees and partners to achieve great things. In my experience, the best leaders create goals with the team’s input then step aside and let them do it.

  4. I was elected president, and effectively CEO of the BC Government Employees Union in 1985. At the time the union was a male dominated 34 thousand member pubic service union. Shortly after taking the leadership, the Premier decided he would privatize the public sector. What looked like the end of the union and its members became an opportunity for change and growth.

    14 years later the union had 65 thousand members, the majority of whom were women. The union shifted to a mindset that put recruiting new members and bargaining units as a priority. We followed members and their work into the private sector, bargained female friendly provisions like pay equity, flexible working time, and child care into contracts. We reached out to the occupations where women were the majority of the workforce. The union became known for its assertive pro-women policies. We built a team of organizers who were committed to bringing in new bargaining units, often in very non-traditional areas for a former public service group. The BCGEU attracted new members and doubled in size in a decade.

    It has been my belief as a leader that each staff person and each elected officer needed to feel like their work was the most important thing going on in the union. When people feel an ownership of their work within a progressive and committed organization working for social justice, they are entitled to feel fully creative and fulfilled.

    I agree with your premise that the nature of leadership has a determinative role in any organization. I also want to point out that the most successful leadership is distributive. Leadership cannot be successful if it is hoarded at the top. Responsibility for the success of the organization has to go all the way to the front line. People who do the work are as responsible for success as the president and the CEO.

  5. I agree with the 5 areas. What i would add is that a good leader also has a good balance of focuses and limit the amount of projects on the go. Being clear on what you want the team to focus on (maximum of 3 or 4 things) is very important.

    In today’s world where change is rampant and consumers are ever more demanding with all the competition, it is important that a leader keeps the staff focused on the things that will ensure success. There are always many things that we could be upgrading, starting, evaluating etc., but that can be distrating if it gets away on you and takes away from the key success factors.

    Know what made you successful and which parts of that you need to continue doing and where your innovation needs to happen.

    It has been said a thousand times, but it is still true today an effective leader needs to show humility. He/she has to be seen more as a coach than a general manager (to use a hockey analogy).

  6. I have a client for which I just completed an employee engagement survey–278 people and 274 responses. I created a word cloud from the open responses about the organizations leadership. The words trust, communicate, support, innovative, creative, inspire dripped from the cloud like west coast rain.

    No question about the role of leadership. Nobody ever followed a manger into battle as I’m wont to say. I’ve seen many managers but few leaders. In fact, I sometimes wonder why there are so many more horse’s asses than horses!

    Great leaders fully engage their people and, in the end, great things happen. Their character is demonstrated through the way they use power. I’ve been working with organizations for more than thirty years and I’ve found that true leaders are always willing to ask the hard questions–to solicit feedback and act upon the answers they get.

    Very little happens in the absence of great leadership.

  7. Employees and their productivity normally reflect the corporate culture. A leader’s job is to change the culture to improve the organization. So you are correct. Lack of employee motivation usually means the leader failed to create an enabling culture of achievement.

  8. I like it!

    I will state though that I personally have a problem with the whole ‘reward’ thing. I really feel that employees, regardless of their level within an organization forget the fact that they receive a reward for their work on a regular basis…it’s called a pay cheque. If you have to add incentive for employees to do their work, then I think employers need to rethink their model. The pay cheque is a reward…the majority of people have forgotten that. In my experience, it is communication that is paramount to successful leadership. If you have good communication, then trust, respect, accountability all follow. I find that poor communications breeds a lack of those qualities. Do I ‘blame’ leaders…they are human…I think it is more holistic and organic than that…but that is my ‘head in the clouds’ kind of thinking! We have created expectation that our leaders lead…the reality is that our leaders are also lead by their leaders, and their leaders, and ultimately a board of directors or owners. So I guess the question for me is, who is the leader and who is the follower? Definitely can go in circles on that one!

    I firmly believe you are as good as the people with whom you surround yourself…and then you can only surround yourself by good people if you, yourself, recognize your own strengths, do not have an ego, and promote collaboration.

    Funny enough, I am in the process of writing a book and I have a chapter on Leadership…my main points include communication is key, and rather than ‘there is no I in team’, I state ‘there is no I in success’…

    My two cents!

  9. I completely agree.
    The team rises or falls because of the leadership.
    ‘Change the context , change the behavior.
    Change the leader, change the culture’
    Thank you for sending me this article.

  10. I read the blog and the comments. The only one opinion I would disagree with is payroll as reward. By the Hygiene Scale, equitable monetary compensation is quite neutral in its effect. If pay is perceived as inequitable it is a negative. Only certain types of people – stockbrokers, sports figures, dentists, some lawyers, etc., are motivated by MONEY and indeed for them it is the marker of their success, the primary way in which they self-measure recognition and sense of achievement.

    I think your blog is spot on, but it does treat the organization as a hermetically sealed capsule as it were. The other parts of the organization system that need to be explored are hiring: you won’t make racehorses out of cows; and disciplining and dismissal and its effect on performance … perhaps for another day.

  11. I very much like your messaging regarding leadership. I think setting clear goals and objectives is critical.

    I also thing good leaders have ability to identify other people’s strengths and put them in positions where they will succeed. Good leaders have a good eye for talent and empower people by creating successful scenarios. Once the project is successfully concluded, strong positive recognition is crucial and monetary incentives and promotions can also have positive long-term effects on individual employees and the whole organization.

    I also think good leaders lead by example. Do what I do….not just do what I say. People love to follow success! Aside from these additional observations I very much like your analysis!

  12. I read the blog and the comments. The only one opinion I would disagree with is payroll as reward. By the Hygiene Scale, equitable monetary compensation is quite neutral in its effect. If pay is perceived as inequitable it is a negative. Only certain types of people – stockbrokers, sports figures, dentists, some lawyers, etc., are motivated by MONEY and indeed for them it is the marker of their success, the primary way in which they self-measure recognition and sense of achievement.

    I think your blog is spot on but it does treat the organization as a hermetically sealed capsule as it were. The other parts of the organization system that need to be explored are hiring: you won’t make racehorses out of cows; and disciplining and dismissal and its effect on performance … perhaps for another day.

  13. The leader’s role in productivity is paramount. They set and reinforce the strategic direction for the organization. Those that have a commitment to excellence ensure an excellence framework (QMS) is implemented and the system is functioning well (i.e. best management practices in place and running efficiently and effectively). Essential to the system functioning well is alignment (i.e. linkages between the strategic direction, business plan, work processes, employee performance plans, performance measures).

    The most effective leaders use ‘appreciative enquiry’ to engage and involve their employees to continuously improve the system (e.g. improving work processes, increasing productivity).

    For those interested in the components of a global excellence framework, more information can be found at .

  14. Took a quick look through the blog, and the comments. While I teach Leadership MAs at RRU I teach them several aspects of management, not specifically leadership, but here goes! I’ll agree that leadership is probably the single most important requisite for success, and if done right the employees will be effective, efficient and innovative as well as being taken care of.

    Leadership covers almost everything. But systematization is almost as crucial.

    W. Edwards Deming said “if you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing”. So operational and management systems are nearly as important – hence we management consultants! The effective leader will make darned sure the employees have all the systems they need to excel. And more and more they are online. But that also means the leader needs a certain amount of knowledge, which some just don’t have.

    I am currently working with a start-up who’s owner already has one successful company. He’s a great leader in my view. He is largely self-taught and knows little about innovative management technology – but he has great vision, sticking power and, above all, curiosity. He is also wide open to good advice. If he succeeds again, it will be because of his leadership (50%), his systems (30%) and his product (20%). Without the leadership, the product and the systems will be of limited value. So yes, I think the blog is about right!

  15. Boy talk about a bottomless pit for a topic. There are about as many theories on this as anything else. I agree with much of what you say in your blog, but one of the best presentations I have seen on the topic is by Colin Powell, here is the link.

    By the way I think it depends on the kind of organization a person is in as well.

  16. One of my observations from nearly fifty years of working primarily in healthcare is that organizations generally have a tendency to reflect the personality and characteristics of their leaders. (Let’s call it Rowlands Rule). I think that’s nearly the same as the opinion in the blog. But we are dealing with sweeping generalities and of course there are times when other factors contribute.

    The LEADS Framework (which we developed here in BC and which is now the leadership capabilities framework for Canada’s health system and has been adopted in other countries) addresses the need for leaders to be self-aware and able to engage others appropriately, to achieve results, develop coalitions and to think & act systems and inter-personal levels to sustain an organization or endeavour.

    You have some great topics on your blog and I will add it to my favourites.

  17. I think leaders have an important role to play that might be somewhat asymmetrical. Bad leaders/bosses can demoralize employees so that the employees just go through the motions or, worse, act against the organization’s interests. Good leaders can engender enthusiasm, commitment, etc.

    However, if the employee does not have the required skills, experience or competence, all the enthusiasm in the world will not make up for these gaps. I also think employees need to make some investment in their jobs. So, I think good leadership needs to be supported by training and learning.

    Unfortunately, I encounter many employees who are only interested in learning if it’s on company time and at company expense. I’m all for company-supported learning (some employees could not afford it on their own), but also look for employees who are self-starters, read or take an interest in the field in which they work and are prepared to invest some of their own time (courses might be evening or weekend, for example).

    Success depends on good leaders, but also on good followers.

  18. Rather than “leaders are to blame” I would suggest performance is inhibited by the leader’s strengths and vulnerabilities. If a leader is unable to prioritize effectively – the entire organization will spin; if leaders fail to set clear expectations any results will suffice.

    The power of leaders come when they know their strengths and leverage them and shore-up weaker capabilities with the strength of other team members.

    The organization is one systems lead by many leaders – the challenge is to pursue excellence/effectiveness as one team.

  19. Your article does a great job of summarizing the elements that effective corporate cultures have in common. The one additional element that I would add is that truly effective organizations have leaders who have created a corporate culture that embraces occupational health and safety as a core value.

    Through the BC Safety Charter we focus on supporting leaders in their efforts to drive a culture change that supports occupational health and safety in the workplace. We are finding that in many cases, it’s not that the leaders do not want to achieve the end goal of creating a healthy culture at work, but that they do not know how to proceed effectively to achieve it.

    One of the ways we’ve help these leaders drive this cultural change is by developing a strong business case for developing an effective health and safety program. We have learned that CEOs, when provided with the facts, understand full well that a healthy and safe workplace is not only the right thing to do but, when they realize that without their active involvement not much will happen, then they become fully engaged and ensure that the change happens. To be successful, the corporate culture change has to come from both the shop floor and the corner office. If either is left out, very little of any significance will happen.

    Our annual CEO Roundtable brought together CEO and other senior leaders who engaged in a variety of active discussions, including where they are in their journey of driving culture change, and shared information on the very significant productivity gains which have resulted from their efforts.

    I invite you to take a look at the Charter for more information on how we are helping create more productive and efficient workplaces.

  20. Yes, leaders are supposed to lead and be responsible for organizational productivity. In my experience, their impact is mostly implicit, namely, the key leader’s responsibility is to create and sustain efficient organizational culture.

    As a consultant, I have learned that most organizations go through three phases:

    (1) when small and imature, the competitive advantage comes from superior resource management (money, knowledge, people…);

    (2) when medium size and more developed, the source of competitive advantage becomes the ability to better manage processes (best practices, ERP, ISO standards…);

    (3) when mature and fully developed, the competitive advantage comes from leadership style, motivation, communication, teamwork, conflict management.

    Leadership style and organizational culture seem to be the main catalysts of change and the key productivity driving force.

  21. Great post Mary! Leaders “set the tone” for the organization and most importantly demonstrate a set of behavioural “values.” Today’s competitive advantage comes from capabilities such as innovation, creativity, speed of response, customer focus, agility etc. and ALL of these are created by the culture. In my mind leadership is everything. Plug for our book “Reflective Leaders and High-Performance Organziations!!”

  22. I agree that strong leadership is critical for successful organizations and there are definitely important leadership skills to be developed. What I’ve found over many years of working with organizations is that these concepts are not always easily translated into enhancing productivity and innovation. The notion of empowerment is important and is closely linked to engagement.

    Over the past few years, I’ve been incorporating an approach to organizational development called Creative Performance© (CP). CP was developed by David Smith, who has successfully been using this approach for more than 20 years with business, the public sector, elite sports teams, and as a leadership coaching tool.

    My clients are finding that they relate very quickly to the concept of the “creative process” and the role each individual plays in it. They love the activities that allow them to explore creativity in fun, non-threatening ways. They feel engaged and energetic which are key components of productivity and innovation.

  23. The Blog is well done – no question. It’s just that this issue of “Leadership” after my 40 years is something that has been beaten to death. I’m just not convinced that there is anything new to learn. The characteristics of a great leader, authentic leader or whatever term you choose are well known.

    The list is probably 20+ characteristics in length – even superman couldn’t do it all. Consequently we are left with “humans’ who, by definition are less than perfect as that’s how God, I guess, in His infinite wisdom made us.

    The key for me is saying that if you could ONLY have 3-5 characteristics, which would be most important – most critical – the critical success factors associated with a great leader (once we define a great leader – is that someone who has more people following him than anyone else – probably not as the Pope is Spiritual leader of one billion Catholics and while he is good, he is not God or perfect, either). Then focus on those 3-5.

    It’s easy to come up with laundry lists of 20-30 characteristics. But I’ll be honest, in study and research after study and research, and in my own in-depth interviews of CEO’s/Managing Directors I have my list. The rest are “nice to haves” as far as I’m concerned.

    For example I believe one characteristic should be “capability to think strategically” which does not mean the capability to develop strategy and execute it – strategic thinking is a talent more than a skill and while tips and techniques can be learned it cannot give an executive the capability to sort through a myriad of actionable information from multiple sources, see the patterns (connect the dots – dots other people don’t even see), ask the right questions and in 15 minutes get to the right answer.

    Strategy formulation and execution? It’s a business process – follow it and you’ll get there. Don’t follow it and you won’t. It doesn’t take a great leader to figure that one out. Sure it’s faster and you get better results (strategies) if you have a true strategic thinker on your team, but you can still do well without him/her

    Anyway, there are some thoughts for consideration – not saying I am right by any stretch of the imagination – just my educated view based upon 40 years of experience with “leadership” or those who at least considered themselves “leadership” but weren’t – just management instead but their ego got in the way.

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