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…..

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 Coaching…….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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