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”

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Does Authenticity in Leadership Get The Job Done?

“I’m really fascinated by your views on leadership but in my world I need something that I can take away and apply in the here and now.”

My coach expressed a view that is commonplace in many of the organisations I interact with on a day to day basis. The intuitive belief that authenticity in leadership is both good and valuable to the organisation somehow needs to be underpinned by tools and techniques that validate this assertion.

The problem as I see it is that in many of today’s organisation the dependence  on process compliance and efficiency as the drivers of organisational performance leads to a culture whereby everything has to be measured and if it cannot be then it instantaneously loses credibility in the eyes of much of the organisation.  In many respects it is a further example of the short-termism so prevalent in many of today’s organisations.

“So tell me, what sort of measures would you be looking for?” I enquired of my coach.

“Something that I can relate to my customer deliverables would be preferable. We need to show how we are adding value and impacting the bottom line. The problem is that I need to be able to show the organisation how being more authentic in our leadership approach delivers better overall performance.” My coach had a clear grasp of the issues facing her and indeed many of us in today’s corporate and non-corporate worlds. “If I can’t do this I will have real difficulty securing the resources that I need to develop the capability” she continued.

I could only empathise with her dilemma as I juggled the paradox in my mind that these very same organisations expressed the need to develop more empowered employees as a cornerstone of their future strategy.

“Interestingly the underlying principles of authentic leadership are focussed on the behavioural aspects of the leader that enables the organisation to deliver the best overall performance. Yes I agree that it is difficult to demonstrate the interaction between leadership style and performance but the underlying premiss is totally congruent with the organisational aspiration of delivering the optimised balance of deliverables to a broad church of stakeholders.” I responded.

“Sure authenticity in leadership is not the be all and end all” I continued “but combined with organisational capability and a modicum of technical competence it forms a pretty impressive armoury in any situation.”

Leadership Behaviours….. (Part 2)

“You know, I’ve been thinking about our discussions over the last couple of weeks and there’s something troubling me” my colleague opened with as we sat down for what was becoming our regular discussion over coffee. “You seemed to be saying that it was really important that a leader shouldn’t be overly influenced by the thoughts and views of others but surely it’s important that these other views are considered”

“Well yes of course it is” I countered. “What I meant was that as a leader it is really important to be seen as operating in a way that is true to your own values and that your actions and decisions are a consistent reflection of them. I think what you’re talking about is something subtly different.”

“Hmmm, I’m not sure I understand the point you are making” responded my colleague with a somewhat puzzled expression.

“I think that what you are talking about is what I would call objectivity” I continued by way of explanation. “Others call it by all sorts of different terms such as taking a balanced view or remaining independent but we’re all pretty much in the same area. It’s about recognising that in any situation as a leader you need to able to embrace the views of others including most importantly those that you disagree with.”

“That sounds to me like you are advocating compromise” responded my still somewhat confused colleague.

“No – definitely not. What I am saying it that, as a leader, you need to recognise that all viewpoints have their strengths and weaknesses including your own. It’s really important that in deciding on a course of action you consider and evaluate everybody’s views and opinions and then make a balanced judgement based upon the full picture. In my opinion it’s probably the surest way of developing trust and respect between you, your team and your organisation.” I enthused. “It shows that you are open about your own perspectives but are also objective in considering those of others.”

“I think I’m beginning to understand what you mean but it still seems somewhat paradoxical. I think I need a little time to think this through” responded my colleague as he put down his coffee cup.

Leadership And Self-Awareness

In common with most leadership coaches I’m often inundated with surveys along the lines of “which of these attributes do you consider to be most important in a leader” that then go on to list a series of skills all of which could be considered the most important in a given scenario but as a respondent you are allowed to choose only one. The other day a colleague of mine raised the latest survey request with me over coffee.

“So which one did you choose” he asked “I bet you went for communication”

“Well actually no I didn’t. In fact I never respond to those sorts of questionnaires. Sure, I suppose that they prompt debate which in itself is no bad thing but I’m not convinced that they take things forward very much.”

“Ok I take your point on the simplicity of this approach – so if I were to give you free rein what would you say?” he responded.

“That’s a pretty big question” I replied. “but I think I’d start by talking about self-awareness.”

“In my book anybody aspiring to a position of leadership must be acutely aware of who they are, what they stand for and how they impact on the people they interact with on a day to day basis. Good leaders are reflective by nature and their re-evaluation process is second nature to them.

In essence a good leader will have a deep rooted understanding of their core values, be emotionally aware, understand their motives and goals and will know and trust their feelings. I believe that self-awareness provides the anchor that enables a leader to make decisions and take action.” I concluded.

“So that’s your starting point – where next?” inquired my colleague.

“I think that’s the subject of next week’s coffee break…..”

Do You Grow or Acquire Your Leaders?

Every now and then I receive an email that really makes me stop and think – today was one such occasion.

A little background…… last week I had the pleasure of talking to a group of undergraduates from my Business School as part of their Alumni week. My role was to share with them my career experiences along with what I hope they found were some interesting insights of how they might expect their careers to develop in the future.

It was a conversation that I’d had with numerous groups over the years but an element that was different in this case was the subsequent discussion about my role at the Business School as Chair of the Alumni Executive which in turn led on to the topic of my leadership blog. Over the subsequent days there was the normal flow of follow up emails requesting further information and requests for coaching but one had a different take that I would like to share with you.

In essence the young man in question had some difficulty reconciling the fact that I have spent the best part of forty years in one company (albeit a great one!) yet could write with such diversity and understanding on the subject of leadership that he felt was commensurate with somebody with  a much wider background.

To quote him “…. I had naiively assumed that the key to gaining exceptional business sense and developing good leadership skills was to work in a variety of different companies, sectors and cultures…”

Once I got past the “Why not” response that immediately triggered in my head I began to think about the essence of his assumption and how, in turn, organisations might address this issue when looking for their next generation of leaders – should they grow their leaders from within or should they acquire fresh blood from elsewhere as the opportunity arose. I also began to think about some of the companies that I’d worked with over the years and how they had approached the issue.

As I mulled these questions over in my mind it soon became evident to me that the strategies employed by a significant number of these companies could best be described as ad-hoc being more an expression of preference rather than the result of strategic intent. Of those that had considered the question at some length it did not appear to me that too much consideration had been given to the impact of their policy on the existing team – how would the acquisition of new talent from outside be viewed by the existing aspirational leaders within?

As I considered the consequences for these organisations of this apparent lack of policy in this vitally important area a thought struck me – one thing I do know is for certain is that I’m really looking forward to meeting that young man again next week….should be an interesting conversation for both of us.

Are Your Leaders Born or Made?

I would not like to estimate the number of times I have been asked my opinion on whether leadership can truly be developed in an individual or does leadership stem from a combination of personal characteristics and attributes that some of us are fortunate to be born with. One such occasion arose recently when I was talking to a group of students at my local university.

“Well, let’s take a look at the evidence or lack of it” I suggested.

“First of all there is no generally accepted definition of Leadership. Indeed the last time I looked there were in the region of two hundred alternatives available to choose from! So the reality is that all of us carry around in our heads our own definition drawn from a combination of our experiences of both leading and being led and probably some sort of vision of the leader that we aspire to be.”

“Just think about that for a moment. Let’s say I asked you all to write down on a piece of paper a definition of leadership and what constitutes a good leader in the context of your definition. The range of answers would exceed the number of people in the group because some of you wouldn’t be able to make up your mind and would qualify your responses”

“To some of you Leadership is an expression of activity – creating a vision, communicating and the like – to others leadership is behavioural; it’s about values and characteristics and to some of you it’s about performance – how well something is done. Also, any measures that you have will be, almost without exception subjective – your own opinion”

“Let’s take an example” I continued. “A common premise within academic literature and has general support amongst practitioners is that leaders should be ‘self-aware’. Interestingly I cannot find anywhere an example of a model of self-awareness let alone one that is generally accepted and supported by documented evidence of applicability. This is just one example but it is fairly typical of the whole range and depth of leadership theory and research.”

“So what is the implication of this for both us and our organisations?” asked an individual from within the group.

“Well, if we assume that the objective of your organisation is to enhance its performance across a broad church of stakeholders and concurrently develop it future leadership potential which seems a reasonable assertion – do you think it has sufficient knowledge or the necessary tools and techniques to deliver on that?”

“Hmm, probably not. I suppose that’s why we always tend to choose the same type of individual for our leadership development programmes. You know the keen ones who make it pretty clear that they want to be leaders. The trouble is that most of them are only in it for themselves not to develop the rest of the organisation” he responded.

“Well that’s as maybe but the fact of the matter is that over time some of them do develop into the leaders your organisations want. The really interesting thing would be to find out why……”

Leadership Coaching…….

Like many experienced leaders I spend a considerable amount of my time coaching teams and individuals in various aspects of either personal or organisational development. I consider myself extremely fortunate that over the years my career has enabled me to develop a broad network of business and institutional leaders spanning a wide range of industries and sectors along with numerous world class academics that enables me to bring a rich diversity to this particular aspect of my work.

One of the most popular personal development topics, especially amongst those in the early stages of their development, is that of career management. Recently, during one such session, a thought struck me as I was discussing an individual’s potential options….

“I’m looking to use my current and next role as stepping stones into a management position prior to achieving executive status in the next 5 to 7 years” my mentee explained. “I’m looking to complete my professional qualification over the next two years and follow this up with an MBA; I’d appreciate your advice on which Business School would be most appropriate.” He added.

There was no hiding the individual’s ambition and desire to reach the upper levels within the organisation. As our conversation developed over the next hour or so his focus remained on the development of his technical skills and how he would develop his profile within the organisation.

“I want to run bigger and bigger projects and have responsibility for managing a large number of people. I want what I do to be really visible to the seniors” he concluded.

“OK it’s pretty clear you have a handle on how you are going to develop technically” I commented.  “So tell me how do you intend to develop your leadership skills? If I were to ask you what you will be like in 7 years’ time what would you say? What will you bring to the organisation? What will be your defining qualities?”

It was clear from his reaction to this line of questioning that he had applied very little thinking to this particular aspect of his development. His responses quickly reverted to an expression of his technical skills and what he could do. I explained to him that whilst be able to deliver projects was a very important attribute his success and progression within the organisation would be heavily dependent on the development of his leadership capability and that he would need to devote as much energy if not more to this than to his technical skills.

The polarity of this conversation caused me to reflect back on similar discussions that I’d had with other early career high potential people in the past. Whilst there was no doubting that this was an extreme example of one of those conversations it was evident that the underlying bias was present in many of the other conversations.

So when did we learn to value ourselves, especially in the eyes of others, by what we do rather than who we are? Which of our other evaluation criteria are similarly flawed? How should our contribution be measured and rewarded that reflects our real contribution to the organisation through our interaction with those within it?

More worryingly when was the last time that any of us, irrespective of the stage of our career, sat down and evaluated whether our chosen path was truly reflective of our sense of purpose and meaning giving rise to fulfilment of our expression of achievement and well-being?

Hmmm… in my case it’s been quite some time…