How embracing a soft leadership style changes your ability to attract talent

Laura Prael, director of LEP Digital, describes her experience recruiting during and post COVID. She explains what small and medium-sized business owners can do to compete in the difficult labour market.

A few years ago, I engaged a leadership coach to carry out a workshop for my digital agency. The aim was to find ways to be more productive and efficient together. At the time, I didn’t realise how pivotal this would be to shaping my ability to attract talent today.

My team and I were asked to undertake a personality profiling exercise using the ‘DISC’ self-assessment behavioural tool — used by around 75 per cent of Fortune 500 companies. DISC is an acronym for describing four central personality traits organised in a quadrant: dominance, influence, steadiness, and conscientiousness. People can have a mixture of two styles, but only if they sit next to each other on the quadrant. 

A Google search will tell you that most people believe that dominant and conscientious styles, or ideally a combination of both, make for the best leaders. The adjectives commanding, delegator, risk-taker, calculated, results-driven, competitive and decisive are synonymous with the D and C styles, and mirror what our society expects of a leader. 

According to a recent article published in Bloomberg, corporate leadership roles are still male-dominated in Australia. And, women make up only 9.5% of board chair roles and 6.5% of CEOs across the nation’s biggest companies, according to data from the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors.

So, it’s fair to say that, when we think of leadership in this country, it’s with traditional heterosexual masculinity norms in mind. Leaders who don’t align with this picture often feel left with two choices: change or fail. 

When the workshop began, we had an opportunity to guess what each other’s DISC profiles were. I guessed that I was a D style because I felt that it would be appropriate for the Director of the company to fit squarely in this quadrant. However, as we went around the table, each team member picked me for an S “The Counsellor”  without a moment’s thought. In DISC terms, an S style is steady, sympathetic and stable, known for being patient, diplomatic and people-focused, and is the polar opposite from D on the quadrant. 

They were close. My result was revealed as SI “The Collaborator”. The combination of these two types tends to create an enthusiastic and collaborative team player who focuses on supporting others.

I was disappointed. While the style sounded like a lovely friend, one who might drop around a quiche when you have the flu, it did not make me feel like a leader in control. 

In the following weeks a doubt swirled around my brain: was I too soft to run my company and manage my staff properly? It was a problem that plagued me throughout 2019 as I tried to change the way I led my team. I set tougher deadlines, put more pressure on my team to meet their goals, gave constructive feedback and became more direct. But it didn’t feel like me. If anything, I felt more distance between myself and my team, and couldn’t connect with them as well as I used to. 

During the first COVID lockdown of 2020, despite keeping our company and team afloat and working at full capacity, two things happened. First, some of my long-term staff resigned to pursue new opportunities. And second, the shared struggle to survive — emotionally, physically, financially and operationally — united people in business. Suddenly, the ‘soft’ traits that I had been attempting to suppress, including empathy, compassion, generosity and humility, became the essential ingredients for business resilience. I stopped trying to lead the way I thought I should, and started leading the best way I could, by being my authentic self.

Looking back, harnessing those traits was what saved my business then, and is what continues to improve my business now. And, I believe it’s what’s missing from teams who keep losing staff and struggle to find ‘good people’ in this labour market. 

In a meeting last week with another small business owner in the creative industry, I was asked, ‘how do you hire and motivate people?’ It’s the question that’s on every business leader’s mind right now. According to the Australian Financial Review, Australian businesses are crying out for more workers with the country in the middle of one of its largest ever labour shortages. There are more than 423,000 job vacancies, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

While there’s high demand for workers, businesses are struggling to fill those vacancies. Australia’s unemployment rate sits at 3.9 per cent, a 48-year low, and the proportion of the adult population holding a job or actively looking for work has hit a record high 66.7 per cent.

Large employers have been quick to advertise financial incentives to lure people including high salaries, bonuses, or company shares. But many businesses will find it hard to lift wages, with 46 per cent of businesses experiencing increases in their operating expenses over the previous month, says the latest ABS survey. This leaves small businesses in a precarious position, again facing the same leadership conundrum: change or fail. Or better, innovate or fail. 

My response to the question about attracting and retaining talent was, ‘I ask people what they need to be successful.’ Yes, money is important and it’s a motivator. But, there are lots of reasons why people get up and go to work, and it’s different for everyone. In fact, according to Deloitte, the new generation of workers, Gen Z, value salary less than any other generation, with work/life balance playing key factors in their job hunt. 

In any team, work/life balance and flexibility are the two most attractive perks. A four-day working week, where employees are paid a rewarding annual salary for working a strict 30 hours per week between Monday and Thursday, is attractive. I see this approach as progressive, productive and more inclusive for everyone, especially women, who often balance parenting and studying commitments with work. By opening our minds to what work looks like, we open the doors to more people — mothers returning to work after having a career break, students, remote workers, travellers on a gap year, and people from different industries.

Along with work/life balance and flexibility, challenge, recognition, meaningful work, learning and development opportunities, career progression and company culture are key motivators for people to pursue and stay in company roles. And, the sooner that small businesses use these drivers to innovate their offering, the more competitive they’ll be in the labour market. 

Having since re-hired and recovered from the impacts of COVID on my business, I have learned to embrace my natural leadership style and have reaped the benefits. It’s important to build a culture where all team members feel valued, able to equally contribute, learn, develop, and be recognised.

Laura Prael, director of LEP Digital


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