Leadership Talent – The Availability Myth….

I recently gave a talk to a group of business professionals on the topic of Leadership Development. As I gave the presentation my mind kept returning to a thought that has troubled me for some time; the alleged perception amongst business leaders in general and CEOs in particular that there isn’t sufficient leadership talent to go round either today or certainly to meet the future needs of their respective organisations.

This can’t possibly be true I kept thinking… after all the world is full of Business Schools and various other organisations whose very existence is focussed on the delivery of ‘world class’ business education and leadership development programmes of one form or another. Furthermore, every organisation worth its salt has numerous internal initiatives targeted at developing their various ‘high potential’ pools of talented employees.

So given all this targeted investment how can we end up with such a gap in perception between requirement and availability of this vital resource?

As the evening wore on a clue to the answer to this conundrum began to emerge and was brought into sharp focus during the Q&A session.

“I’m currently working with my senior management team to develop some performance measures for our Leadership Development programmes and quite frankly we are struggling.” expressed one of the Finance Executives present  “Have you any thoughts on how we might improve our approach?”

“Well, first of all it’s an area of concern for most organisations in my experience. The measures that the majority of organisations adopt fall within two broad streams neither of which really hit the mark.” I began.

“The first grouping tends to focus on the inputs to the process and consequently measure activity levels against various elements. You can recognise these organisations by measures such as ‘The number of managers who have completed particular stages of a programme’ or ‘The number of senior executives with an MBA or similar qualification’ “ I continued. “This group are primarily focussing on quantity and are assuming that, because they are using high quality training organisations, the quality is a given.”

‘ The second grouping attempt to measure the output of their programmes but this is notoriously difficult to achieve so the tendency is to measure some notion of business performance that should benefit from improved leadership performance. Whilst this seems a sensible alternative in reality it often belies what is really happening in an organisation”

“Hmmm, I think I follow you but could you give us an example of the second grouping?” responded the Finance Executive.

“Yes, sure” I continued. “An example arose recently when I was talking to a Departmental Head at my local University who was bemoaning the fact that his leadership was under scrutiny as the performance measures of his department had shown their first decline after several years of steady growth. In reality both he and his team were facing several adverse external factors as well as an internal reorganisation and relocation to a new building. His assessment was that his team were displaying far more leadership during this period of substantive change than they had done throughout the whole period of recent growth none of which reflected in the current measures.”

“ But surely the organisation must have been aware of the challenges it was facing and should have been able to adjust accordingly.” responded the Finance Executive.

“Yes, you would like to think so’ I continued “but in reality this is often not the case as the basis for the adjustment is as elusive as the measure in the first place! The major issue is that organisations have a tendency to confuse leadership performance with the performance of the leader, whereas in reality these are two very different activities. Developing leader performance is only one aspect of Leadership Development. Yes, it’s very important but if the environment, processes and capability of the organisation at large are not present then leadership will not flourish. The development of these attributes is equally if not more important than developing the leader.”

As the Q&A session developed my thoughts returned to the perception of the challenge facing today’s CEOs and how to channel their focus away from developing the leader to truly developing leadership within their organisations…..

Leadership Charisma…….

“Have you noticed how much of the current popular literature on Leadership focuses on the high profile charismatic leaders and their success stories?”

This comment sparked a somewhat heated debate amongst a group of my students as to the validity of such literature and what contribution these types of books made to the overall understanding of leadership.

“It seems to me that to be a good leader one has to be first and foremost charismatic” he continued as if to emphasise his point.

“And male” retorted a somewhat aggrieved female from within the group much to the amusement of her sisters “well, come on, can somebody name a popular book on leadership that is based on the story of a successful female leader?”

The impact of this question on the group was considerable. After the initial amusement subsided there was an uneasy realisation amongst both sexes within the group that a characteristic that it is cited by many as a fundamental trait of a good leader was widely perceived in popular literature to be predominantly attributable to male leaders.

“As we all know” she continued “charisma is seen by many to be at the root of Transformational Leadership. It’s a key behaviour that defines a change agent in the eyes of the team. It affirms them as a role model, brings life to their vision and provides them with the authority that serves to empower the team.”

It was a pretty powerful and well-articulated argument and one which I, for one, had not really considered hitherto. Whilst it could be argued that the bias in popular leadership literature is a reflection of the relatively low number of female senior executives compared to their male counterparts closer examination would support a proposition that this was exclusively so.

“Interestingly” she continued “it can be reasonably argued that many of the other attributes broadly associated with transformational leadership are no better suited to leaders of either sex so this bias would seem to stem directly from this one attribute.”

The debate continued long into the evening without seemingly coming to a conclusion. Each argument was met with counter argument as to whether leadership skills could be classified in terms of gender or no and indeed whether this could be considered to be a useful categorisation in taking the debate forward. My conclusion, having listened to the various arguments throughout the evening, was that it would not be but I, along with the rest of the group, continued to be troubled by her initial assertion.

“It would seem to me that there is confusion between charisma and heroism in much of the literature” she stated as she rose to leave “and if that’s the case I’m pretty much certain that the attribute that is being described can be used both constructively and destructively with equal effect……”

Leadership Development…..

A regular topic of conversation amongst the students at my local business school and indeed amongst many commentators in the field of business education is that of the value or otherwise of various types of leadership development programmes. Whilst much of the latter commentary is focussed on the cost/benefit analysis of pursuing formal programmes such as an MBA, (my students take a somewhat personal interest in this debate!), there is also a healthy dialogue amongst students and practitioners alike as to the merits or otherwise of the various types of “in-house” leadership development programmes.

“In your opinion which of these programmes yields the most immediate benefit for an aspiring leader” asked one of my recent MBA graduates.

“Well, first off, I regard Leadership as an expertise that is developed over time and therefore my perspective is that we are in it for the long-haul. Whilst some programmes can be used as a stimulus to achieve short-term objectives the more robust aspects of development are accumulated across a wide range of learning and typically over a considerable time period. A lifelong journey if you will.” I responded.

“But surely in the short-term I need to focus on the benefits that my MBA brings” responded the student. “I need to leverage the benefits of the qualification over the next three to five years to ensure that I get the most from it.”

By now other members of the group were keen to join the debate, expressing contrasting views of the best way forward.

“Yes, of course it’s important that you make your MBA work for you but you also need to think how it fits with other aspects of your development in both the short and longer term” I continued. “You might like to think of your development needs over time from three or maybe four differing perspectives.”

“Well if you’re unsure then what chance do we have?” challenged one of the group.

“Well ok let’s see if this helps” I responded taking up the challenge.

“First off, you all recognise that your MBA has a shelf life; so it’s really important that you pay attention to keeping yourself up to date. As you all know I’m an avid reader but I also regularly attend forum events and participate in Executive Education programmes across a broad range of topics. You might also like to think about a professional qualification if it’s appropriate – both breadth and depth are important to your long term career goals.”

“Ok, I don’t think anybody would argue with you there. Pretty much in line with the advice we get here at the school” continued the student.

“And so is the second” I continued. “I strongly recommend that you find yourself at least one and preferably two or three mentors. Typically the kind of individual who you can respect and have the confidence in to help you understand how you are developing as leaders and provide the support and guidance that you will inevitably need as your careers progress.”

The group members nodded their broad agreement.

“The third strand builds on what you have been doing here for the last 18 months or so; developing your network. Most of you are already reaching out way beyond your cohort into the alumni at large and throughout the School. Continue to nurture these relationships as they will stand you in good stead throughout your career.”

“Finally” I continued “there is the development that builds up over time from your previous and future job roles. This can be a challenging aspect of your development especially for those of you working in large organisations although it has to be said that there are aspects of these companies that can really work in your favour.”

“I’m not sure that I follow your logic. My view of many large organisations is that they can be very process oriented and transactional in their management style” responded the student.

“That is often so” I continued “but it’s precisely these attributes that can provide the real opportunity. Many of these organisations use the need for change as a leadership development tool. It enables them to release their aspiring leaders into cross functional teams who can embrace change across the organisation at large – way beyond the scope of their normal remit”

“Hmmm, that’s all well good but how can you establish whether the organisation you are looking to join operates in this way?”

“Well you could always ask them how they manage their change programmes at the interview……”

Developing Vision& Values…..

During a recent trip to the USA I met with a group of colleagues who were engaged with the senior executive team of a medium – sized organisation developing a change programme against a backdrop of difficult trading conditions. It seemed that the programme had been progressing well over the last six months since launch but was now showing signs of stalling as the team began to look towards developing the required values to support the future vision.

As we sat for dinner in the private dining room of the hotel’s restaurant this topic continued to dominate the conversation.

“These programmes are notoriously difficult to implement due to the long-term nature of the required commitment from the seniors and the overall expense” I commented by way of confirmation of their opinion. “As you are aware many of the Fortune 500 companies support these types of programmes with internal Leadership Institutes and the like to confirm both the commitment to and the importance of the programme to the rest of the organisation.”

“Hmmm, I’m not sure our Exec team are up for that sort of programme right now; they have a lot on their plate and I think that they would be looking for a lower key approach” responded one of the team.

“Perfectly understandable” I continued “but whichever way they address the challenge they need to ensure that they address the key issues. I’m assuming that they are proposing to lead this programme themselves with only a light touch from us”

“Yes that’s pretty much their thinking at the moment” my colleague continued. ”I think their thinking reflects both the appetite for the potential expense and I also sense some control issues too.”

“OK let’s look at how we can address some of the key issues” I started. “First off let’s make sure that we give them a clear picture of the challenges they face in taking the lead on this programme. As a team, they and most importantly the initial group that they choose to support them in rolling out the programme need to be the best ambassadors they have. If they are not perfect role models then cynicism will ensue and the programme will be undermined from day one. Also we need to ensure that they embrace in real dialogue not just dictum or they will fail to engender the necessary buy-in”

“Raises some interesting questions around how we select the initial cohort” my colleague responded. “We haven’t touched on that area with them as yet.”

“Ok, let’s think about that a little” I continued. “We need to ensure that they choose the people from the organisation who are already demonstrating the required behaviours and embody the required values. They need to be absolutely clear on their selection criteria and be able to commit to them consistently over time.”

“We also need to make sure that they are sensitive to how the organisation responds to the people selected to lead this programme” my colleague continued. “Whilst not necessarily a ‘Fast Track’ for promotion they need to ensure that successful participation in the programme is seen as a key element in career progression.”

“And finally, we need to make sure that they ring fence the funding for the programme” I continued. “Otherwise the programme will be cut at the first sign of a down-turn promoting the exact behaviours and values that they are seeking to eliminate.”

The discussion continued long into the evening as each issue was addressed and proposals considered. Tomorrow’s meeting with the Executive team was clearly going to be an interesting affair….

Do You Have A High Performing Leadership Team?

“I’m beginning to question whether we have spent sufficient time with the Leadership team preparing them for the months ahead. It’s inevitably going to be a difficult period and I don’t believe that they are well prepared to take on the changes that they need to make.”

Our discussion continued as we drove away from the plant. We had spent a considerable amount of time addressing the required restructuring of the group to improve profitability and competitiveness but precious little time addressing issues within the leadership team. Right from the beginning of our engagement the problem statement excluded any mention of the Leadership team and its role and yet clearly a lot of the existing issues had developed on their watch.

“Yes of all the groups in the organisation they are the least well defined, are under led and are certainly under resourced” my partner continued.

“It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the team that is best placed in the whole organisation to address these issues is the one that has most difficulty in doing so” I responded. “It’s as if they are too close to the issues to be able to make an objective assessment and take action.”

“You’re right” my partner continued “they lack both structure and direction probably as a result of the lack of independent input to their strategy and organisation.”

This last comment brought home to me the importance of external stimulus to the functioning of a Leadership team. It was clearly evident that this group had lost its way over the past years. Its purpose was unclear and its roles and tasks were poorly defined. And yet the irony is that, as a group, they possessed the highest level of authority in shaping their own working contexts.

“I propose that we get the group off-site somewhere to give themselves some space away from the day job to start addressing some of these issues” my partner was beginning to warm to the task ahead. “Probably needs to be over the weekend so that they won’t be missed by the rest of the management team. It will also help us to start breaking down some of the barriers and launch some team building work with them.”

His take on the situation was right on the mark. We needed to get the team to address their own shortcomings in a safe environment where they could begin to address how they as a group need to develop. The team dynamics did not support the strategy going forward and there were also some resource gaps in key areas that would seriously prejudice the successful implementation of the strategy.

The key issue now was how to broach this with the CEO in the morning. It was clearly going to be a delicate conversation…….

How Do You Recognise Leadership Potential?

“I’ve been really impressed with Colin since his appointment to the Board at WireCo; he’s really blossomed – way beyond my expectations. I really didn’t think he had the necessary skills to make it to the top.”  My colleague was expressing a view that was shared by many within the organisation; I can remember the disbelief that greeted the news of Colin’s appointment to the senior ranks.

“Yes, his appointment raised a few eyebrows at the time. Sure he had a good reputation but it was more for being a safe pair of hands. Very capable but not somebody with the potential to make it right to the top was the view” I agreed. “It makes you think about how many others there are like him in their organisation. How much potential is being overlooked by their inability to recognise those who can truly lead?”

“How do you mean; they have one of the best Leadership Development programmes around and some of the best leaders I know” retorted my colleague.

“Yes, I know but much of that is driven by the investment in training and coaching that they make post appointment. Like most organisations I suspect they have a wealth of leadership talent that they’re not tapping into” I continued “It’s a paradox that organisations face when looking for talent”

“Hmmm, I’m not sure I’m following your line of thinking – care to enlighten me?”

“Ok. First off I’d like you to share with me your views on how WireCo approach the selection of their potential leaders” I asked.

“Well pretty much like most organisations, I suppose, they focus on their high achievers. The individuals within the organisation they view as having high potential and who, as a matter of course, get things done. The individuals who routinely excel on a personal basis and typically possess boundless energy and drive.”  You could almost feel their commitment oozing from his description.

“You’re right – that’s exactly what they do. They look for people within the organisation who have a strong orientation to achieve.” I responded.

“Well that seems to me like a pretty reasonable place to start” he continued.

“Yes but as you quite correctly say much of this is driven by their personal need to achieve which often results from either their ego or a need for power. But what the organisation needs from its leaders is the ability to set the context for the others in the organisation which is a very different skill set” I concluded.

“Let’s think about Colin for a moment. The surprise at his appointment was mainly the result of his lack of conformance to the model you suggest. Yet throughout his career he has been consistently demonstrated an ability to influence those around him. Not just his own team but other teams across the whole organisation along with his peers and most importantly his seniors. To my mind it would have been surprising had he not made it to the Board” I argued.

“So what you’re saying is that organisations should look to who the key influencers are when thinking about their future leaders”

“Well as you would say … it seems to me like a pretty reasonable place to start”

Leadership…..And The Change Management Paradox

“You know it never fails to amaze me how difficult managing change can be. Even when everybody’s up for it it’s just a struggle from beginning to end.” My partner was clearly suffering after a difficult week with our client. It seemed that everything that could go wrong had done so along with a few more things that hadn’t been foreseen by either us or the management team with whom we had been working for several months.

“I can’t see why you are so surprised” I responded somewhat unsympathetically as we sat down at a table to enjoy a well-earned beer. “You know that managing major change is amongst the most difficult of challenges that any leadership team can face.”

“Yes I know but whatever approach I take I cannot get them to buy into the need for them to change along with the rest of the organisation. It seems as if they are blind to the fact that the change impacts them as much as the rest of the organisation” my colleague’s frustration was all too evident. “They just don’t seem to accept that they need to change both individually and as a group as much as the rest of the organisation.”

It was a situation that we had faced many times before. The Leadership team’s focus was on the rest of the organisation. The imperative was to help the organisation to face up to the changes that needed to be made not to face up to the challenge that confronted them as a leadership team. The impact of change on the leadership team is often under-estimated primarily on the basis that they are more change oriented. This was certainly the case here.

“So, have you any thoughts on how we might change our approach?” I asked somewhat apprehensively given his mood. “It’s pretty clear that they are blocked as a team and almost certainly on an individual basis too. We need to find a way to stimulate some creativity to enable them to engage with more options”

My colleague nodded in agreement; his eyes drifting into the distance as he pondered the dilemma before us.

“The really interesting thing” he began after a few minutes “is that they are pursuing a really aggressive timescale when what they really need to do is to take some time out and create some space. I know that the Ops Director is concerned; his team is really creaking and I suspect that the Finance guy has similar concerns.”

“Well ok let’s use their concern as the way in. We can build on it and use it as the way to create some space. It will give everybody the chance to take stock and really think about the implications that the change has for them. Hopefully they will begin to sense the emotional and behavioural changes they need to take on.” I suggested.

“You know, if this were a systems modification we’d recommend using a sand-pit environment to really evaluate the change in a set of safe and secure circumstances – no damage to anybody but a massive learning opportunity for the whole organisation” he continued.

“So why don’t we do something similar” I suggested “call it Transition Space……”