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The Most Important Leadership Lessons I’ve Uncovered During My 30 Years in Business

Business People

To be an effective business leader, you must continually grow and adapt to your industry. That has never been more challenging than in the current business climate.

This inability to evolve is due to a few factors. First and foremost, the rate with which technology continues to change has sped up how we work, transformed workplace communication, and altered how and where we complete tasks.

In the same vein, social networks and marketing channels have grown exponentially over the past decade. From the rise of social media to automated marketing platforms, the digital landscape has challenged the effectiveness of traditional marketing. Now that digital and traditional channels fight for the same dollar, it’s a balancing act between budget, strategy, client goals, and evolving consumer preferences.

It can be difficult for leaders to stay on top of these changes and leverage them for the advancement of their organizations. The only way to pilot your organizations through these changes is by evolving.

Lessons Learned Over the Decades

After 30 years in the auto industry — mostly in leadership positions — I’ve seen countless changes and carried a few lessons with me. Those takeaways usually fall into three buckets:

Internal: I’m most successful when I develop a work culture that I’m happy to be in — one that builds community and fosters transparency. A sense of community prompts people to feel comfortable sharing their perspectives, which makes for a more diverse organization. Transparency also helps by building trust within an organization, which is imperative since 35% of workers say they’d leave their companies if they didn’t trust their managers. Good leaders are transparent and keep their employees in the loop, which can help your team become more stable, involved, and engaged.

External: Personal growth starts by stepping outside of oneself. By that, I mean giving back to the community and volunteering. Involving the whole business in charitable efforts will help establish valuable connections, build a support network, strengthen community relations, and rally associates around a shared purpose. It even helps boost physical and mental health, which will only improve your ability to lead. Many Fortune 500 companies see the value in giving back, going so far as to provide paid time off for employees who volunteer.

Personal: Outside of work, I strive to educate myself continuously — a routine some of the most successful business leaders practice. Bill Gates, for instance, cites reading as one of the main sources of his success. To stay up to date on industry news, I set aside time to read, listen to podcasts, or meet with my peers. I then take those insights and apply them to my business in a way that will improve it.

Change-averse leaders risk losing valuable business, especially when competitors welcome the opportunity to evolve. A commitment to the growth of all kinds is a commitment to realizing your true leadership potential.

Take Your Leadership Skills to the Next Level

Whether you are new to leadership or a 15-year veteran, you should never stop honing your skills. The following three strategies will help you do so:

Walk the floor.The best leaders don’t sequester themselves away in their corner offices. Be visible, walk around the office, and engage with your team on every level. This is the best way to stay up to date on recent events within your organization and to continue to grow as a leader.

By showing that you’re available, you’ll create an open environment where people will feel free to have real conversations. Leaders are much less intimidating when they reach out to their employees instead of making their employees come to them. Be a leader who your team members are unafraid to approach.

Embrace experimentation. You won’t grow as a leader if you don’t expand your horizons to new experiences. Truly effective leaders constantly innovate and look to test alternative assumptions and ideas.

Be open to new and non-traditional business practices such as remote work, paid parental leave, and flexible hours. Embracing new ideas and concepts will help you — and your organization — grow in new and meaningful ways. It will also enable you to stay competitive in the ever-changing business world.

Seek out seasoned voices. If you want to lead an organization effectively, you need to learn from other industries. To gain this perspective, you can join a peer group, teach a class, volunteer, or start a club.

Make connections with people in businesses with which you aren’t familiar. You’ll gain diverse opinions, ideas, and advice that you can then apply to your own business. Plus, you’ll be more open to new leadership and personal growth opportunities.

The mark of a true leader is a willingness to change with the times. As someone who’s worked in the same industry for 30 years, I know that effective leaders constantly refine their skills and strategies to remain effective for years to come.

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Shelley Washburn
Shelley Washburn is the president of GSM, a marketing company specializing in digital and direct solutions for the auto industry. She provides brands with data-driven strategy, technology, and creative across all tiers and groups. Shelley Washburn is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.