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.