HR & Management

6 tips for boosting your leadership capacity

7 min read

11 June 2014

Did you see the film Limitless where Bradley Cooper takes some “smart” pills which catapult his capabilities and output to an almost bionic level by using 100% of his brain capacity?

How many times have you and your teams felt you were firing on all cylinders like that? (Without the pills of course!).

Probably, if the truth be told, nowhere near often enough, if ever? This notion was tested at a conference I attended recently, where the speaker leading the session asked the room full of business leaders: “How many of you are really operating at your maximum capability? 

Out of a hundred delegates only a handful put their hands up. So, should we be surprised? Should we be asking what we might be doing as leaders, possibly inadvertently, to slow our own teams down?

I’ve spent my career leading growth businesses, investing in them and mentoring both teams and individuals in a variety of sectors and business sizes/stages. As a result, I am no longer surprised by the consistent human characteristic of us putting barriers in our way, inhibiting us from fulfilling our true potential. Even some of the most successful people I’ve met do it too, so imagine what their true potential could be?

As Summer holidays approach, it’s time to recharge, re-fresh and most importantly to” re-new”, because as we all know if we “do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got”.

So here are 6 practical, not limitless suggestions to increasing capacity, without resorting to Bradley Cooper’s smart pills (!):

1. Ruthless diary and time management: How many meetings do you go to, that you don’t need to attend? Can you do more by phone, Skype, get the other parties to come to you, attend just the beginning or end of a meeting, get through more with tighter agendas and better actions/timelines? 

People’s email inboxes are usually quite a good indication of how organised they are – the ones who leave everything in their inbox, not in folders, waste time deciding what to deal with next and often confuse the urgent and important with the rest. There is almost always more capacity if you are ruthless and pragmatic with your time to stop the Time Bandits stealing it all from you.

2. Leverage your role design and recruit people better than you think you can afford: We’ve all heard this before, but it is probably the biggest and most important business lesson I have learned. The key to increasing capacity is to recruit a team to support you who can do the tasks (particularly functional/specialist ones) you are doing faster and better than you can, leaving you with more time focused on growth. 

At another conference I spoke at, we asked several hundred CEOs to put up their hands if they had concerns about the capabilities of their direct reports. Most put their hands up. When asked to leave them up if they were doing something about it, only a handful remained. 

So, beware the “enthusiastic amateurs” in your team – well meaning, but dangerous and address it now. Use this as an opportunity to design your own job at least annually to focus on where you can add most value.

3. Follow a path of true wisdom: On a recent trip to India I heard an interesting definition of a wise man. Not somebody steeped in knowledge, but somebody who has an open mind to continuous learning. 

The biggest mistakes we make are generally by not asking enough questions and digging deep enough, drilling down to get the answers we need. Ask: “Why? What? Who? How? When”. Be prepared too to ask the dumb questions that others are too embarrassed to ask.

4. Be mindful about your “busyness”: We are all in danger of becoming “Busy Fools” permanently attached to our electronic devices, in case we miss something important. If we don’t switch off we can’t recharge, we won’t give our teams the opportunity to grow without us always there and eventually we will burn out. 

As leaders we love new initiatives but we don’t always know when to stop. My team taught me to work with them to make 3 lists: (1) The stuff we absolutely have to do (2) The stuff we should do once we’ve done what we have to do (3) The stuff which is fascinating, but a distraction and we mustn’t do. Ruthless prioritisation works.

5. Develop the squeezed middle: Once a business grows and a middle management tier emerges, these are the people who can make or break growth. They are submerged by the instructions from above and the demands from below and unless their skills are developed, the culture is collaborative and the direction clear, they will drown. Identifying the skill and personal development needs of these individuals to help them become future leaders can catapult your capacity to a new level.

6. Keep it simple, Stupid: Whether it’s your elevator pitch, your business model, your organisation structure, pricing structure etc, human nature has a tendency to add more and more layers of complexity, which not surprisingly slows the organisation down. As leaders, it is essential we act as The Simplifiers.

We are all in search of limitless growth, but so often, the cure comes from within.

Martin Leuw is a serial entrepreneur and former CEO of IRIS, the UK’s largest private software house