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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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?”

Coping With Organisational Turbulence….

“As a leader I’m often faced with leading cross-functional teams where it’s difficult to establish the link to the team’s goal and maintain the relationship with the individual functions. Have you any thoughts on how I could increase my influence in this situation?” This question arose recently during an informal gathering with a group of MBA students.

“Well first of all you need to recognise that’s the situation where all of us operate. Most organisations depend on their ability to work cross functionally to deliver their objectives. The problem really stems from how we think about leadership and the teams that we all lead.” I proposed.

“Sure” he responded swiftly “but instead of leading my team I seem to spend most of my time dealing with the ensuing bureaucracy to secure the buy-in from other functions that I need to get the job done!” I sensed from the knowing smiles of the rest of the group that it was a situation that was all too familiar.

“Ok let’s get back to some basics here. Firstly, let’s think about what leadership is; a simple definition would be that Leadership is the influence of a group to achieve a common goal. The problem with this view is its simplicity; Leadership must also embrace the influence of the relationship between the team and, its goals and objectives along with those of the rest of the organisation and the individual’s themselves.” I suggested.

“Each of your group members will belong to functions that have both goals and objectives around developing capability covering individual and functional requirements. Those functions will develop processes and standards to ensure their capability and will develop the skills of the individuals by accreditation and training. These skills and processes are the primary reason why you want the individual on your team” I continued.

“That’s true but it seems I have to continuously justify why I want the amount of resource that I need to deliver my team’s objectives”

“And so you should” I interrupted. “Your team members are probably also members of several other teams within your organisation as well as their home team. It’s the job of their leadership to ensure that their resource is being wisely used on the highest priority task. Your role is to help them by providing the necessary justification to secure the on-going allocation to your team.”

I could see from his reaction that he was having some difficulty with this concept.

“I imagine organisations as turbulent places where there is a continuous ebb and flow of tension between the constituent functions and groups. Whilst there may be overall clarity in terms of objectives there will inevitably be misalignment as these individual groups and functions respond to changes in the business environment.  A leader needs to recognise this and be ready to influence not only his team but also the organisation. It is the leader’s ability to cope with this turbulence that will deliver his team’s success.”

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 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 1)

“Last week you shared with me how central you felt a leader’s self-awareness is in relation to his overall success but I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than just self-awareness” my colleague was nothing if not persistent.

“Okay, okay. Let’s meet up later on and I will explain how it fits in with a number of other things that enable good leaders to perform irrespective of the challenges they and their organisations face”

And so later that day we met once again in our in-house coffee shop.

“So” I started as we sat down at one of the tables with our cappuccinos “as we discussed last week I believe that self-awareness in a leader is fundamental to establishing how he or she operates on a day to day basis. It’s primary to the determination of how the leader will behave and more importantly how they are perceived to behave by everybody else.”

“Let’s think about an everyday situation to help me explain how it works.“ I continued “How do you react and feel when your leadership team slavishly recite the corporate mantra as the justification for a proposed course of action?”

“Well, I tend not to respond very well quite frankly“ he replied. “Everybody in the organisation knows that the leaders aren’t really doing their job. They’re not adding value; they’re not thinking and they don’t appear to be committed – the message is that it’s somebody else doing the leading not them”

“Precisely” I continued. “They are allowing the organisation to influence their behaviour instead of behaving in a way that is true to their own values and beliefs. You get the impression that when the chips are down they will toe the line rather than stand up for what they believe to be right”

“Too true” responded my colleague. I could tell by his faraway look he was recalling times from his past where this sort of leadership behaviour had occurred and how he had felt about it. Clearly these were not good memories.

“What people look for in a leader is consistency.” I continued. “By being true to their own morals and values they will both behave with consistency but also be seen to behave with consistency by everybody and won’t be seen as being overly influenced by the thoughts and behaviour of others. Sure a leader needs to be aware of and responsive to the views of others but he should not be seen to be overly influenced by them. In short he needs to be seen as being his own man.”

“But in today’s corporate environment it can be really difficult to behave in the way that you suggest” he correctly concluded.

“Yes but in the long run both the organisation and the team will benefit as the leader takes action that is in line with his expressed beliefs and morals.”

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 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…….”