Distance does not separate people; silence does
Distance does not separate people; silence does
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…..
A discussion developed during a recent Working Group review with a client leadership team that centred on the degree to which they should seek to influence the organisation’s culture as part of the proposed organisational change arising from the implementation of a new process. As usual in these situations there were as many views on the topic as there were participants in the conversation; each being argued with a greater or lesser degree of passion seemingly irrespective of the need to evaluate whether the need to change the culture was either required, supportive of the process change or even the degree to which they felt collectively or even individually able to assert such influence.
As the conversation continued to evolve it became evident that there was a general consensus that developing and sustaining a positive culture within the organisation was ‘a good thing’. What was abundantly less clear within the group was the reason why this was so or indeed how this was to be achieved. The meeting concluded with the general assertion that the group would continue to develop a positive organisation culture although no attempt was made to evaluate how this would either be defined or evaluated in the context of the organisational change.
As with many business attributes a positive organisation culture is largely invisible, or rather taken for granted, whilst the impact of a negative culture on the organisation’s performance is altogether too obvious. In this instance what was also of concern was the team’s inability to understand its role in developing a culture that was supportive of the change process.
Several days later I met with the Chief Executive over dinner.
“Have you had any further thoughts on the cultural aspects of this change following the team’s discussion the other afternoon” I enquired. “ I thought they raised some interesting issues but seemed a little unclear about their role”
“Yes, I would have to agree and yet we have spent a lot of time as a team working on this change but we don’t seem to have nailed down how to bring the organisation with us” she responded.
“I’m actually quite positive.” I continued. “The team appreciate that developing a positive culture will determine the outcome of the change process. What we need to help them with is how to influence the organisation’s culture as the change takes place.”
“Agreed” responded the CEO. “So any thoughts on where we should begin?”
“Well, we can start by emphasising with the team how important it is that everybody’s behaviours match the process change intent. It has to be clear how this change and the organisations strategy meet which gives us the route in to driving the correct behaviours.” I suggested.
“Yes, I can see that” she continued “but how can we use this to open up the dialogue with the extended team?”
“Just now we have the perfect opportunity. As we launch the change there will inevitably be a significant level of ambiguity in the organisation as everybody tries to understand what is required and what they need to do. “ I continued. “The organisation will open up as it seeks to deal with this ambiguity and it is this openness that is the route in”
“Ok, I can see that but I’m still not clear on the first step, where to begin?”
“Well how about starting with the ambiguity in the Leadership team…..”
A colleague of mine recently extolled “Anybody can be a leader – all you need is an idea and the ability to influence people” (1)
“Hmmm that rules out about 95% of us.“ I responded jokingly.
My colleague’s comment was delivered during a hugely successful Leadership Development programme and was supported by a lucid case in support of her assertion. I was initially drawn by the simplicity of the statement but over the last week or so I have returned to it repeatedly as I mulled over the skills that are required to fulfil the needs that underpin this apparently simple statement.
In essence the statement embraces both the internal and external attributes of a leader that are fundamental to the execution of good leadership by any individual.
The creation of an idea that is pertinent to a given situation requires intelligence that is both cognitive and experiential. Cognitive intelligence that draws on the ability to reason, analyse and embrace divergent thinking is combined with the experiential intelligence that delivers engagement through effective communication and relationship building. Whilst it can be reasonably argued that we all possess these attributes to a greater or lesser extent (and indeed we do) it is the combination of a highly developed capability across both perspectives that enables effective leadership to ensue.
The ability to influence on either an individual or collective basis can be viewed as being underpinned to a large degree by the leader’s level of motivation. This motivation provides two independent imperatives.
Firstly, the leader’s motivation delivers a consistency of purpose that yields a focal point for the team of followers; it serves to bring the vision to life. The second facet of the leader’s motivation is to provide the drive to deliver and most importantly also address the many issues that the team will face along the way.
The leader’s ability to influence a positive outcome will also depend on many other attributes including openness, integrity, tolerance, curiosity and a large dose of confidence to boot.
So the ensuing question for many of us is not whether we can be a leader or not it’s more about do we really want to be……
(1) – Dr Sue Bridgewater – Teach First Programme July 2012
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….
“You know it never fails to amaze me how difficult managing change can be. Even when everybody’s up for it it’s just a struggle from beginning to end.” My partner was clearly suffering after a difficult week with our client. It seemed that everything that could go wrong had done so along with a few more things that hadn’t been foreseen by either us or the management team with whom we had been working for several months.
“I can’t see why you are so surprised” I responded somewhat unsympathetically as we sat down at a table to enjoy a well-earned beer. “You know that managing major change is amongst the most difficult of challenges that any leadership team can face.”
“Yes I know but whatever approach I take I cannot get them to buy into the need for them to change along with the rest of the organisation. It seems as if they are blind to the fact that the change impacts them as much as the rest of the organisation” my colleague’s frustration was all too evident. “They just don’t seem to accept that they need to change both individually and as a group as much as the rest of the organisation.”
It was a situation that we had faced many times before. The Leadership team’s focus was on the rest of the organisation. The imperative was to help the organisation to face up to the changes that needed to be made not to face up to the challenge that confronted them as a leadership team. The impact of change on the leadership team is often under-estimated primarily on the basis that they are more change oriented. This was certainly the case here.
“So, have you any thoughts on how we might change our approach?” I asked somewhat apprehensively given his mood. “It’s pretty clear that they are blocked as a team and almost certainly on an individual basis too. We need to find a way to stimulate some creativity to enable them to engage with more options”
My colleague nodded in agreement; his eyes drifting into the distance as he pondered the dilemma before us.
“The really interesting thing” he began after a few minutes “is that they are pursuing a really aggressive timescale when what they really need to do is to take some time out and create some space. I know that the Ops Director is concerned; his team is really creaking and I suspect that the Finance guy has similar concerns.”
“Well ok let’s use their concern as the way in. We can build on it and use it as the way to create some space. It will give everybody the chance to take stock and really think about the implications that the change has for them. Hopefully they will begin to sense the emotional and behavioural changes they need to take on.” I suggested.
“You know, if this were a systems modification we’d recommend using a sand-pit environment to really evaluate the change in a set of safe and secure circumstances – no damage to anybody but a massive learning opportunity for the whole organisation” he continued.
“So why don’t we do something similar” I suggested “call it Transition Space……”
“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?”