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…..

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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….

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…..Whose Values Is It Anyway?

“I was reading a biography of Gandhi the other day and I was struck by a thought that is really puzzling me” commented one of my graduate mentees in a recent coaching session. ”I can see why people who knew him and shared the experiences of his time would want to be led by him but what is it about Gandhi or any of the other great leaders that draw each and every one of us to them? ”

“An interesting question” I responded as I pondered the underlying complexity of this seemingly simple assessment of how we are prone to evaluate leadership. “What thoughts have you come up with so far?” I asked.

“Well, it’s pretty clear to me that whenever we describe great leaders we talk about their vision, their sense of purpose and their seemingly indefatigable commitment often in the face of overwhelming adversity. This was certainly true in Gandhi’s case” she continued “so much so that he was able to galvanise a whole nation.”

“Very true, a remarkable leader in anybody’s language” I concurred. “So you can describe the qualities that great leaders possess and how they related to their immediate followers; this is pretty standard stuff but how would you describe how this relates to you or anybody else for that matter?”

“I’m not sure I understand what you mean” she looked puzzled.

“Well it would seem to me that the sphere of influence of these great leaders extended way beyond their immediate group of followers. Their leadership (and indeed any leadership) can be viewed as extending to more than one context and provide the opportunity for additional groups of followers to exist” I continued by way of explanation.

“Ah, so you’re saying that when I think of a great leader it is in the context of a leader/follower relationship.” she enquired.

“Yes precisely” I confirmed “but in a different context. Whilst you may relate to the leaders vision that so inspired the original group of followers; you, I and numerous others are embracing the leadership activity itself. And we are doing this this through the expression of our own values not those of the leaders.”

“Ok, so you’re saying that the relationship that a leader has with his followers has no boundaries and that a leader can have groups of followers that he is completely unaware of!”

“Of course” I agreed. “Provokes some interesting thoughts about communication, doesn’t it?”

Leadership Behaviours….. (Part 3)

“So tell me, if you think back through your career who were the leaders who really made an impression on you?” I asked my colleague as we headed towards the local diner.

“That’s really difficult for me to answer – there have been so many. My first boss made a real impression on me; nothing fazed him, he approached every situation in the same way. It didn’t matter to him whether we were facing the biggest crisis in the company’s history or thinking about developing a new opportunity he just seemed to respond in just the right way.”

“Hmmm that’s an interesting observation” I responded “so, what was he like as a person?”

“The first thing that struck me about him was his depth of experience. Sure he was nearing retirement but even so you could not be anything other than impressed by the range of his knowledge; he just seemed to know a lot about everything” responded my colleague enthusiastically “but I think the most impressive thing about him was the degree to which he influenced the entire organisation – way beyond his remit and certainly well above his pay grade.”

“You know it’s funny but you meet an awful lot of similar individuals within many organisations; the whole of the organisation just seems to depend on them. Tell me some more about your man” I continued.

“He was really positive and totally confident not only in himself but in all of us too. It just rubbed off on you; it seemed that we could achieve anything – and we did. But he was also probably the strongest person mentally that I have ever met.”

I smiled inwardly.

“I remember the speech his boss made at his retirement presentation. His list of achievements was endless. He’d played a key role in every major development within the company in the last 25 years and was highly respected for his ability to beat the odds and bring the job home.” he continued. “And yet I also learnt that he’d experienced more than his fair share of setbacks in his personal life. I just cannot work out how somebody who had gone through so much could remain so positive and upbeat.”

“Well I think that may depend upon your perspective on these things “  I concluded.

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.

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 Authentic?

The other evening I was discussing leadership with a group of students from my local Business School. One of the students voiced his opinion that the interaction between the leader and the group of followers was fundamental to the success of the undertaking.

“Sure the relationship is important,” responded one of the group. ”but it’s only one aspect of a complexity of issues which arise in any situation. I tend to think that the relationship is the result of other factors that give rise to a scenario in which the team can flourish.”

“Such as?” came the instantaneous response.

“Well there’s all sorts of factors which influence the relationship most of which I believe are associated with the leader. For instance, if the leader doesn’t have a good understanding of who he is and what he stands for the how can he operate with integrity? The team will see straight through him”

“That’s right,” added another from within the group. “I’ve worked in several teams where this was the case. The leaders lose all credibility with their teams because their actions are not based on their core values. There is no legitimacy in their leadership position and the team understandably do not follow because there’s no trust.”

The discussion continued in a similar vain for some time. The concept of value-based action attracted wide support from within the group. Similarly strong ethics and a supportive moral perspective also achieved wide recognition from within the group. The question of the degree to which a leader should adapt his message to accommodate the needs of the group was much more contentious.

“Surely if the leader does not adapt his message to match the beliefs and values of the team he will fail to get the buy-in he needs to see the change through” protested a younger member of the group.

“But if he does that won’t he compromise his own values? Surely it would be better if he had the courage of his convictions and did what he felt was right” responded another. “At least if he took this approach he would have integrity outside his team as well”

“Hmm, good point” replied the younger member.

“Well, what do you think? “ he asked turning to me.

“Like most of you I think that leaders who don’t understand their purpose are doomed to failure. I’m also passionate that leaders should always try to do what’s right; I know this can be difficult in an organisational context but in the long run I believe it to be the best strategy. In  my book trust is the cornerstone for building the relationship with the team but remember it has to be both ways – you in them and them in you and lastly if the leader is not passionate about what he is doing then it’s time for him to move on and make way for someone who is. That just about covers it…….”

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……”