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Leadership Challenges In Business : How To Overcome Them

What are the most common leadership challenges facing West Midlands SMEs now and how can businesses overcome them? We spoke to Dr Sara Gracey, Lecturer in Leadership and Human Resource Management at Birmingham City Business School, and delivery lead on the Help To Grow Management programme.
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Leadership Challenges In Business : How To Overcome Them

What are the most common leadership challenges facing West Midlands SMEs now and how can businesses overcome them? We spoke to Dr Sara Gracey, Lecturer in Leadership and Human Resource Management at Birmingham City Business School, and delivery lead on the Help To Grow Management programme.
Leader looking out of office window.

Q: Tell us a bit more about you

In terms of my research interests, I focus on frontline and second line supervision in the workplace. This is because this is the level where we get a really deep understanding of employee engagement and motivation at work.  

I’m also increasingly interested in neuropsychology and leadership and thinking about inclusive work climates to support creativity and innovation at work. 

When it comes to the Help To Grow programme, I’m often brought in to discuss employee engagement in its broadest sense, thinking about the background and contributing factors businesses need to be aware of. I also contribute to the high performance work systems module, thinking about cultural factors, employee management and development factors  

Q: What are the challenges of leadership impacting regional businesses?

Generally, in a post-covid world, there is the idea that a leader has lots of different roles to undertake. People management is a key aspect of that – understanding how to deal with problem employees as well as high flyers at the same time.

It’s also realising that what your employee thinks about your business is impacting on reputation externally, as their thoughts are signalled to your customers, clients or other organisations you work with.

This leadership challenge is particularly difficult for smaller businesses, owner operated businesses or family businesses. It becomes difficult to know when to pull out certain leadership tactics or management tactics and how to generally negotiate these alongside the realities of running a business.  

Post Pandemic Changes

The second big impact related to COVID is limited research that suggests today people are behaving differently than before the pandemic. We’re interacting differently in the workplace, dealing with customer service employees in a different way and responding to the government differently. Some people say we’ve lost our social skills, I’m not so sure, however, it is clear we’re communicating in different environments (I.e digital communication tools) to how we interacted previously.  

The way businesses cope with these challenges is by realising that these changes are ok, and that business as usual isn’t going to happen. Businesses need to have that conversation around improvement, how do we tweak and fiddle with the business environment to ensure we create a more understanding and more responsive environment that works well for people and business.  

Q: What are the solutions to leadership problems in an organisation?

I know it’s really cliché, but listening is key to businesses overcoming and improving in these areas. By listening you uncover the low level instability in your business that you may have well be unaware of. There are very often people at work who are very frustrated, lonely, disengaged or who have started to look for other opportunities it’s important to talk to people, listen and deal with these challenges. 

Informal listening

Microbehaviours can be a core root of grievances, like someone deliberately drinking someone else’s coke out of the fridge at lunchtime, and there being nothing in place to deal with it. All of these microbehaviours add up and create frustration and unhappiness at work. 

 Every leader and manager is capable of closing their mouth for a second and listening to what other people are saying, and there are two ways we can do that. Firstly, we can listen in an informal capacity which is asking good questions, putting your phone in your pocket and listening to the answers that you’re given.  

Formal listening

Secondly, we can put formal measures in place. This can be annual or biannual performance reviews or staff voice surveys. Using these as an information gathering tool to inform your decision making is crucial. By keeping both these types of listening up, you can begin to understand the way your business thinks and feels and improvements that need to be made.  

Finally, it’s important to act on this, you should take what you’ve heard and run it through your filter of leadership, saying ‘OK, this is what they’re telling me. This is likely what they mean. How do I respond to that in a responsible way but also in a way that demonstrates that I actually am listening to what they say.’ 

The only risk with listening to the employee voice and it’s a big one, is you HAVE to listen to the answers. So don’t ask questions you don’t want answers to right now.  

So, it’s figuring out the time at which you have the capacity to use that voice for good. It’s worse to request voice and then not listen to it, than it is to not request voice at all. 

Q: How is Birmingham City University’s Help To Grow Management Course supporting businesses with their leadership and management?

A: Throughout the programme we discuss processes and structures that have been proven to work and can help individuals and organisations in general to overcome leadership and management challenges.  

For example, I know a salon that has a whiteboard in their staff room. It’s a free for all to input their thoughts and every Friday the salon manager goes in and takes a photo of it and then writes messages out in their whatsapp group about how she’s going to deal with certain issues that have been raised. Processes like this work because they’re informal and you’re reducing people’s risk in using their voice.  

In Week 7 of the programme we look specifically at employee voice and four factors that should be considered. We look at these four factors and get the participants to write something down that they could achieve in a relatively short amount of time. These are not structural or procedural changes, they’re all small and quite soft changes that help to make a real difference.

Interested in finding out more about how the Help To Grow Course can support your development in all areas of Management?

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