Archive for the ‘Coaching’ Category

Why Leaders Fail – Part 2

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

In our last Leadersynth article, we raised the question, “Why do leaders fail?”  We discovered that the reasons for leader failure fall into three broad categories of dysfunction:

  • Poor relationships with people (not handling problems, too emotional, not considering needs of others, abrasive, blaming)
  • Inadequate results (problems with planning/organization/execution, not strategic enough)
  • Inappropriate guidance (over-controlling, failing to manage/nurture talent, not building/maintaining team)

In part, this dysfunction can occur because strengths that get managers promoted can become liabilities in more senior roles, weaknesses tolerated at lower levels can create obstacles at higher levels, and events outside a leader’s control can undermine results.  While no leader is strong in all the core competencies of effective leadership, our goal as organizations should be to pick the best talent for our culture, make sure that new leaders receive feedback early on, and address problematic behavior immediately. BEST PRACTICES.  What are the best practices other organizations use that can help you dramatically reduce the extent of leader failure in your organization?

  1. In the pre-hire process, screen candidates for potential derailing characteristics
  2. In the on-boarding process, help new hires acclimate, acculturate
  3. After six months on the job, conduct multi-rater feedback
  4. Confront any behaviors that appear to be dysfunctional when they arise
  5. Provide coaching/mentoring to mitigate any problematic behaviors

Pre-hire screening.  Create a process that screens candidates for negative characteristics like poor interpersonal skills, reactive behaviors, lack of organizational skills, inadequate team/talent management.  There are several screening mechanisms you can employ to accomplish this; keep in mind that no combination of screening tools will be completely fool-proof.

First, expose candidates to multiple interviews internally.  Keep them occupied with interviews, lunch, and other interactions over the course of a day to see how well they “wear” over time.  Make them come back for several interviews on different days with the same people, so that you can look for inconsistency in their behaviors.  Assign a “homework” assignment between interview days to generate an example of their critical/strategic thinking and organizational skills.

Employ an outside selection assessment service, such as that offered by Roselle Leadership (RLSI), to ensure the advantage of standardized tests and behavioral interview questions.  Using personality inventories, tests of critical thinking and numerical/verbal reasoning, and behavioral interview questions applied to thousands of candidates over the years, firms like RLSI provide a deeper perspective and a clearer picture of how candidates will likely behave six months down the road.

On-boarding processes.  Though the best strategy for minimizing leadership failures is to pick the perfect candidate every time, this does not typically happen.  Every candidate has flaws that do not show up in the pre-hire screening; the hope is that they will be minor flaws.  Even very good candidates, however, can get off on the wrong foot and end up cross-wise with their boss, their team, or others.

One way to minimize this is to develop a six-month on-boarding process that emphasizes the importance of the new hires getting to know their team members over a number of weeks, building relationships with their boss and peers, and becoming acculturated to your organization.  Too many leaders feel the pressure to deliver major results within the first 90 days, and that tends to generate dysfunctional behaviors and undermine their success in leading others.  A strong on boarding process will help new leaders acclimate to their new roles, even if they are internal candidates that have been promoted.  Using outside coaches who know your organization’s cultural expectations can also help.

Multi-rater feedback.  After new hires have been in their roles for six months, conduct a multi-rater feedback process.  Either use a strong internal mechanism, like an employee survey,  for accomplishing this, or employ an outside resource like RLSI’s FULLVIEW Feedback Inventory™.  The purpose is to provide early feedback to new leaders, whether hired from the outside or promoted from within, on how their direct reports, peers, boss, and others view their approach so far.  Six months gives coworkers enough time to formulate an informed impression, while still being early enough to make any changes recommended by the feedback.

Dysfunctional behavior.  Using the 360-degree feedback or other informal feedback on their behavior and its impact so far, sit down with the new leader and address potentially dysfunctional behavior.  Focus in particular on their success in establishing relationships, building a team, organizing and executing the work for which they are responsible, the quality of their results, and the capacity to manage their own emotions and respond to the needs of others.  Any behaviors that appear to be dysfunctional and could lead to derailment should be identified immediately and clearly.

In providing this feedback, watch for reactions that suggest they are not taking ownership and, instead, are blaming others, trying to create a smoke-screen, or becoming defensive.  These are serious warning signs typically associated with leaders who are on the path to failure.  Consider using an outside resource to provide this feedback and confront any defensive reaction to it.  Look for a genuine commitment to change potentially derailing behaviors and attitudes, before you invest in support.

Provide Coaching/Mentoring.  If the new leader responds positively to the feedback by taking ownership and asking for help turning the corner in this new role, provide a combination of internal mentoring and external coaching.  Most of the behaviors identified in this article as dysfunctional and leading to failure (being abrasive or emotional, not considering others’ needs, failing to organize/deliver or think strategically, managing and nurturing talent in overly-controlling and ineffective ways, not building a functional team) can be significantly improved through coaching.

As in most situations in life, however, the dysfunctional leader must be committed to the process for any real change to occur.  If you, or an outside coaching resource, are working harder than the new leader is to become more effective in your culture, it is probably time to sever the relationship.

Why Leaders Fail – Part 1

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

Why do leaders fail? This is a critical question, and the answer to it is important because, in most situations, as leaders go, so goes the organization. The good news is that empirical studies in the last several years have shed ample light on this question.

But, let’s begin with a brief look at why leaders succeed. An increasing body of research and practical experience suggests that highly effective leaders create motivated followers, and that these engaged employees make the difference between the organization that thrive, rather than just survive. At Roselle Leadership Strategies, our research and experience suggest that the most effective leaders exhibit strengths in three basic pillars of competence: building relationships, achieving results, and applying resourcefulness. These “Three-R’s” of leadership form the basis for our FULLVIEW Feedback Inventory™, and include such behaviors as driving for results, inspiring and motivating others, providing strategic perspective, coaching and developing, influencing decision makers, and collaborating across groups.

It is not necessary for leaders to possess strengths in all three of these buckets in order to be successful. In fact, most leaders do not have the perfect “trifecta” of strong relationships, results, and resourcefulness. However, it is imperative that their weaknesses are not so large that these overshadow their strengths. When dysfunctional, toxic behaviors dominate leaders’ behaviors, their strengths become almost unnoticeable.

Recent research from a consortium of executive coaches and talent management consultants shows that one in four externally hired executives and one in five internally promoted executives do not perform as expected, even after two years on the job. They concluded that in most of these underperforming executives, the most critical factors in their failure were lack of interpersonal and leadership skills. Other factors cited as contributing to these failures were: organizational structural problems, conflicting goals with more senior management, and poor fit with the new role.

These are important data, because the failure of leaders at multiple levels in organizations typically has as a component lack of interpersonal/relationship skills. Across a variety of studies using different methodologies in various organizations and cultures, unsuccessful leaders were found to display poor judgment, inability to build effective teams, difficulty building relationships, and little evidence of learning from their mistakes. They fail to address the gaps that others point out to them in feedback, do not thrive in changing situations, lack self-insight, and/or exhibit flaws in their moral character.

Other research over the last 30+ years shows an average rate of leader failure at about 50 percent, with a range across various studies from one third to two thirds. When top leaders fail, it is usually a very expensive problem to resolve. One cost is the actual financial impact. Various studies have estimated the range in cost from $500K to more than $2M, depending on the size of the organization and the level of the failed leader within it. These figures do not include the value of pre-negotiated severance packages, or missed business objectives.

Other costs, less tangible and measurable, include the stress and unhappiness that dysfunctional leaders cause in their team members and peers. Organizational climate surveys consistently show about 75 percent of working adults indicating that the most stressful aspect of their job is their immediate boss. In human resource exit interviews, the reason most frequent cited by those leaving is poor relationship with their manager. The costs in decreased productivity, negative acting-out behaviors at work, and employee turnover is considerable. Overall, the costs associated with toxic leaders may represent the greatest profitability opportunity for most organizations.

The initial studies of leader failure primarily focused on U.S. males. However, subsequent studies replicated the results in females and across various European and American samples. Three themes that consistently seem to rise to the top in their impact on leader failure are: problems with interpersonal relationships, difficulty adapting to changing dynamics, and poor business performance. Earlier in this paper, we described the three pillars represented in our 360-degree instrument, the FULLVIEW Feedback Inventory™, as reflecting the Three-R’s of relationships, results, and resourcefulness. The studies of leader failure clearly parallel the need for a degree of capability across these three.

Within the last five years, other researchers have identified nine categories of destructive leader behaviors and found no differences between males and females. The nine included issues like: persistent people problems, over-controlling with others, under-controlled in their own emotions, poor planning/organization/execution, inappropriate use of information/rumors, failure to manage/nurture talent, and failure to consider human needs. This last factor, failure to consider human needs, was found to have the most devastatingly toxic impact on staff morale. Within the last 10 years, research has identified specific behaviors that can potentially result in leader derailment. They include the following four major problem areas:

  • Building/maintaining team (micromanaging, autocratic, poor morale/motivation)
  • Non-strategic perspective (too detailed, reliant on technical skills, unable to prioritize)
  • Working relationships (insensitive, abusive, blames others, not politically astute)
  • Inappropriate behavior (over-reacting, poor integrity, easily stressed, gossip/rumor mongering)

If you reduce the types of problems identified across the various research studies into broad categories, you find that poor relationships with people (not handling problems, too emotional, not considering needs of others, abrasive, blaming), inadequate results (problems with planning/organization/execution, not strategic enough), and inappropriate guidance (over-controlling, failing to manage/nurture talent, not to building/maintaining team) are the three fundamental issues that stand out. Again, this set of recent findings parallels the Three-R’s of leadership from Roselle Leadership: relationships, results, and resourcefulness.

This first of two Leadersynth papers on the topic of Why Leaders Fail is designed to pull key finding from research and experience to identify behaviors most associated with derailment, dysfunction, and leader failure. In the next paper, we will explore what organizations like yours can do to minimize the likelihood of selecting dysfunctional leaders and mitigate the effects of the toxic leaders already employed there.

The Secret to Optimizing Classroom Training

Monday, August 8th, 2011

 Most organizations recognize that the key to developing their leaders is to implement a continuous learning framework.  In such an approach, leaders are exposed throughout their careers to a variety of challenging job assignments, cross functional task forces, mentoring/coaching, e-learning, and instructor led classroom training.  Though e-learning options have built momentum over the last 10 years, the most popular mode of learning new leadership skills and perspective remains the classroom setting.  There is something about being in the same physical space with the instructor and the other learners that makes the learning richer and more energetic.  But does it stick?

A recent article in the T&D Journal of the American Society for Training and Development addressed this question.  In a learning study, participants were assessed on a measure of emotional intelligence, given feedback and trained for half a day in emotional intelligence competencies, and then tested for what they had retained.  They were also given a coaching session in which they discussed a plan created at the conclusion of the classroom training.  The results showed significant improvement in competencies like assertiveness, emotional self-control, self-confidence, adaptability, and optimism. 

Why are these results important?  Because they confirm the impact of individual coaching in galvanizing the learning from instructor led training. 

At Roselle Leadership Strategies (RLSI), we have offered a public workshop version of our Good Managers to Great Leaders™ classroom training for several years.  We are offering it again starting in October of this year.  Over these several years, we also concluded that it is critical to augment classroom learning if you want to make sure the participants apply the new skills and perspective.

Best practices in learning with adults.  Based on our 25 years of experience in training and coaching leaders, we have developed a set of best practices that we employ.  We suggest that you employ them when developing your own internal training, or use them as a template when you hire consulting organizations like ours to help you develop materials and a training framework.  Research in the field of adult learning suggests that the following components, when used together, will optimize the classroom training or e-learning you provide for your leaders:

  • Pretesting to establish a baseline
  • Providing in-depth feedback on the participant pretesting
  • Delivering classroom or e-learning training by a subject matter expert (include practice with new skills learned)
  • Applying the new skills to real work situations
  • Coaching to help galvanize the learning, apply it
  • Involving the participants’ managers
  • Spreading the learning over time

Let’s look at each one of these in more detail.

Pretesting.  In the study cited, the participants were given a test of emotional intelligence.  This type of norm-based instrument works well as a pretest, as does an established 360-degree feedback instrument, or one you might create specifically to assess the new skills and perspective to be included in the training.  At RLSI, we tend to use our FULLVIEW Feedback Inventory™ to establish a baseline of competence.  (This year, we are offering the FULLVIEW as an option when you sign up managers for our Great Leaders public workshop).

In-depth feedback.  This can be provided at the beginning of the training session, or individually before the training begins.  Either way, the objective is to help participants understand their style and approach, how others might perceive them, and what new skills and perspective would help them become more effective as leaders.  This can provide the basis for their individual development plan that generates from the training.

Classroom or e-learning training.   From the adult learning research, there are several characteristics that help make this type of learning effective.  These include the following:

  • Brief (15-20 minute) lecturettes to provide perspective, teach new tools
  • Practice with new tools within 10-15 minutes of learning them
  • Short training sessions of one-four hours total to maintain energy, focus

Application of the new tools.   Assuming participants have learned some new tools and practiced them in class, the next step in learning is to apply them.  This is a two-phase process.  The first phase is for participants to teach the new tool(s) they have learned to someone else within the first 24 hours.  The second phase is for them to apply the new tool(s) to an actual situation at work or home within a couple of weeks.  This maximizes their retention and the likelihood of using the tools in the future.

Individual coaching.  Though classroom settings and e-learning approaches usually allow for discussion and questions, participants often do not think of questions until later.  Or, they try to apply new tools and experience frustration or resistance from others.  They need time to talk through their experiences in order to create a breakthrough in the way they lead or manage.  Often, their managers are not equipped or available to provide such perspective.  Brief individual coaching can help. (This year in our public Great Leaders workshop, we are offering individual coaching as an option for participants).

Involvement of participants’ managers.  One of the most effective ways to insure that new learning is being applied is to involve the participants’ managers from the beginning.  Give them a chance to provide feedback, either on a 360-degree instrument, or informal conversation to determine what they think their direct report needs to work on.  Include them in follow-up information that updates them on which tools were learned during the session, so they can give on-the-job, real time feedback as they see the new tools being employed.

Spreading the learning over time.  Giving small doses of learning and spacing the training sessions over several months maximizes the likelihood that new tools will be employed.  This is why our Great Leaders series meets once per month over six months.

Bottom Line.  Use these seven learning components in your leader training, and you will optimize the retention and application of new skills and perspective.  This will help you maximize your ROI on training costs and the value it brings to the organization.

Throw Away “The First 90 Days”!

Monday, December 13th, 2010

Since I have lived most of my life in the Midwest, I typically moderate strong feelings I might have on any topic. In fact, I usually just get so mad that I ALMOST SAY SOMETHING! However, in this case, it’s time someone stood up to The First 90 Days, by Michael Watkins. When I suggest that you throw away the book, what I really mean is that you either read and apply the whole thing, or throw it away. Since my experience tells me that most leaders who try to apply the concepts in the book do so selectively and with disastrous effects, I still think throwing it away is the best course of action. I will leave that to you to decide for yourself.

Let me explain by telling the story of Joe, a new VP of client services at a large advertising communications firm. As he entered this new role, the President of the firm informed Joe that there were productivity problems in the Account Services department, which was accustomed to a “country club” atmosphere. Joe was directed to “kick butt and take names later” as he established himself as the new sheriff in town. So, that’s exactly what he did, wanting to please his new boss and to have a large impact in his first 90 days. He had read the book, you see.

Joe had been applying this strategy for about two weeks when I received a phone call from the VP of Human Resources. She knew that many of the folks in Joe’s department already had their resumes on the street and were looking to bail as quickly as possible. I called Joe and set up a meeting within the next couple of days to discuss the situation.
When we met, Joe basically said he was just doing what he was told to do. He had accepted the President’s assessment of the situation without gathering his own data and had not made any attempt to get to know people before he started criticizing their work and making changes. In his mind, having read the The First 90 Days, he did not have much time to make a huge impact.

Fast forward to earlier this year when Diane, an individual I had coached in the past, accepted a new position at a competitor that offered a two‐level promotion. Before she began her new role, we sat down to discuss how she should approach her team as she came on board, and I suggested this strategy:

  • Gather as much information as possible about the team and the situation, the challenges and opportunities. You could do some of this in advance, but the bulk of it by meeting individually with team members and learning about them, establishing rapport.
  • Begin to develop relationships with team members and your boss, listen to them and how they perceive things. Learn what they want you to accomplish in the role, what they need from you and hope you can provide.
  • Then, work on building interconnections and coalitions with key stakeholders within the organization. Begin to create a vision and strategy, based on what you are hearing, and start to enroll others in the approach you intend to take.
  • Finally, after thoroughly listening and using others’ input and perspective to inform your strategy, begin to implement the plan and look for early wins. Continue to work at enrolling and actively involving key stakeholders as you roll it out.

I knew it was a great strategy. I had seen it work impeccably recently at another client organization when a new CEO took the reins, and I shared this success story with Diane. When we parted that day and she headed off to her new role, I was convinced that she would get off to a terrific start. I suggested that she take the first four to six months to work on the first three bullets, and then begin to look for early wins in the implementation.

Unfortunately, she also spent time talking with a few people from her previous employer. Having read The First 90 Days, to a person, they recommended that she dive in quickly, size up the situation in the first week or two, and then begin to implement large‐scale changes. She thought to herself, “Okay, I’ve got to do something big here in the first three months, but I’m not sure what that should be.” The weight of their suggestions obliterated my ideas, and she dove into the deep end—or perhaps, went off the deep end. After about three weeks of this approach, her new boss confronted her and asked pointblank what happened to the person he had seen during the interviewing process. She had so insulted people by ignoring what had been accomplished up to this point and pushing to affect changes with no input that her new boss was now second‐guessing his hiring decision.

In fairness to Watkins, his book does suggest things like “accelerate your learning,” “build your team,” “create coalitions,” and “match strategy to situation,” but these chapters do not focus enough on the importance of simply spending time with people and listening. In the mind of those who have used this book to affect change from a new position, the compelling chapters are those that prod you to “promote yourself,” “expedite everyone,” and “secure early wins.” It seems that most people, like Diane’s well‐intentioned friends and former coworkers, become fixated on the “early wins” chapter. Watkins’s recipe for success quickly becomes a concoction for disaster.

The answer. So, what should effective leaders do in situations where they step into a new role with a group that needs to quickly reach a higher level of performance? First, recognize that no matter how negative the perception is of a team’s functioning, they are trying to be successful and are proud of their accomplishments. The true story in any situation usually includes layers of complexity that you can only discover and appreciate by meeting with people and listening deeply to them. Withhold your judgment, ask insightful questions, and take good notes. Be encouraging as you observe them, keep your mind open, and do not share your early conjectures. Appreciate the obstacles they have overcome to get to their present level of effectiveness. Do not say anything negative about their former bosses or the decisions that led them to where they are.

As much as possible, follow the four bulleted suggestions I gave Diane. If you start telling yourself what a waste of time all this listening is, keep in mind that you will need an engaged team behind you when you roll out your changes. The best way to do that is to ask their perspective, use their ideas in developing the new direction, bring in a healthy dose of your own thoughts to shape the strategy, and give each team member an important role in implementation. Ignore your inner voice, and perhaps your boss’s voice, about driving change quickly.

The good news is that it is never too late to do the right thing. After rough beginnings, both Joe and Diane circled back to their teams, asked good questions, listened deeply to the answers, and used the information to build a new strategy. This time, they had the team on board, and they took the right amount of time, about 180 days, to do it.
I think they both decided to throw away their copy of Watkins’s book.

To Coach or Not to Coach?

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Earlier today, I talked with a manager in a financial institution who was struggling with a particular direct
report. She wanted to know if coaching would be beneficial for this person. After we talked and I
answered her questions and gave her my perspective, it occurred to me that others might have the same
questions as her. This Leadersynth edition focuses on how to determine whether or not an individual is
appropriate for executive coaching.

It is important to note on the front end that most of our client companies at Roselle Leadership use
executive coaching as a development tool for high potential individuals and key leadership roles. Most of
the time companies refer leaders to us for coaching, it is something the individuals have requested for
their own development and there are no “derailing” issues involved. This was true for the situation
described here, as well.

The most important questions. In deciding if coaching is the right choice for an organizational leader,
there are four key questions that I always ask, even before I meet the individual. These are the four questions I
asked this particular manager, and the order in which I posed them:

1. “Is this person a valuable contributor, someone worth the investment?” That is, if the coaching
resulted in positive change on those dimensions that seem to get in the individual’s way, would it be
worth the effort in time and money? She indicated that he was a solid leader on many dimensions,
and that his contributions were very strong. However, he approached situations in a way that was too
focused on day-to-day issues, like he was fighting fires. Also, his interpersonal style was rather
aggressive with others on the team.

2. “Is the individual likely to value from coaching?” This is a more complicated question, which takes
a good deal more probing. For example, I asked her what she, as his manager, thought he needed to
work on to become more effective. She quickly identified these needs:

  • Be more visionary and big picture, more strategic
  • Prioritize more effectively, with greater emphasis on achieving results before moving on
  • Be less combative, competitive, quick to debate with team members
  • Exhibit more patience, emotional control

We talked through each of the identified needs, and I used them to give her a framework to better
understand which issues were coachable and which were not. Becoming more visionary, for example, is
typically not something amenable to coaching. I indicated that I would help him address this need by
asking better, big picture questions and identifying others on the team who could help raise strategic
questions. However, I noted that he would probably never be strong at this if she had not seen it so far.

As for prioritizing, we talked about how his personality characteristics, like on a Myers-Briggs, might be
more P than J, more open-ended than planful. This would mean that he was not naturally inclined to plan
the work and work the plan, push for closure, or start early on tasks. However, he could learn more
effective strategies and techniques to keep himself and his team organized. I could help him do that in
coaching, and it would likely shore up this weak area enough that it was no longer problematic.

I told her that my approach would be similar for the issue of his combative, competitive style. She had
already indicated to me that his StrengthFinders results showed highest scores in Command, Significance,
Competition, Achiever, and Focus. With such a profile, it was unlikely he would ever fade into the
background in a discussion. However, if I helped him develop insight about how extreme his style was
and probed to find some faulty beliefs that might drive his extreme behaviors, I might be able to move the
needle enough that he would just come across as “assertive.”

The patience issue, I informed her, takes a different depth of coaching. People who are impatient are
usually perfectionistic and driven by beliefs like, “If I don’t get things done very quickly, others will not
think I am competent,” or “If I don’t deliver at the highest level of quality, my job is in jeopardy.” I
indicated that, for this issue, I would probe his underlying irrational fears and faulty beliefs about what it
means to be successful and competent, and help him develop a more realistic, healthy perspective. From
past experiences, I know that such an approach would help reduce the “edge” that others experience with
him. (For complete perspective on this topic, see my 2006 book, Fearless Leadership).

3. “Does the person take responsibility for what’s getting in the way?” I asked his manager if she had
sat down with him and communicated clearly how his style and approach created obstacles to his
success. She said that she had done so, but had probably not given a direct, hard message in most of
her past communication. When she recently had a “these things need to change” conversation with
him, he seemed to take it in and listen. She was not sure if he actually took full, personal
responsibility yet, but he at least did not react defensively and blame others. This was a positive sign
to me that he would take personal responsibility and be amenable to coaching.

4. “Is the individual committed to becoming more effective?” This is the final question I like to pose,
and often it cannot be answered until I actually meet with the individual to discuss the possibility of
coaching. Of course, I asked the manager what her opinion was, and she said she knew he wanted to
be promoted and was probably motivated to improve in his weakness areas. My perspective is that,
even though I primarily focus on leveraging core strengths and personality characteristics in
coaching, it is important to minimize the impact of weaknesses. Once an individual recognizes how
his or her attitude, beliefs, techniques, and approaches become obstacles, the weaknesses typically are
mitigated enough to let the strengths shine through. As this happens, the commitment to become
more effective gets reinforced.

The decision. To coach, or not to coach? It’s an expensive question either way. If you decide NOT to
coach an individual and that person becomes more toxic and problematic, you risk others on the team
leaving. People who stay despite the toxic behaviors often do “work arounds” and try to avoid the
individual. The loss of productivity and motivation on the team can be quite costly, but hard to measure.
If you choose to provide coaching, either internally or from an external source, you could invest
thousands of dollars in the hope of affecting change in a leader, with no tangible success at the end. You
can minimize the likelihood of this by making sure the coach sets clear, mutually agreeable objectives on
the front end and includes regular feedback to the organization during the engagement.

The bottom line is that you should chose to provide coaching to leaders who are worth the investment,
who take responsibility for the behaviors that get in their way and are committed to improving, and who
would value from a coaching engagement. Choose a coach who is experienced, well-educated, and who
either knows your organization, or can get up to speed quickly about the important nuances. Then, build
in feedback points to help create a successful outcome.

Create Sustainable Growth in Leaders by Rattling their Core

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Growing and sustaining leadership competence is a critical need for your organization.  A recent survey by ASTD indicated that leadership/executive level skills were the most critical gap across 10 categories of potential gaps organizations anticipate in the near future.  Identifying and nurturing high potential individuals who can move into leadership roles is a core strategy for meeting this need, along with providing development opportunities for your current group of key leaders.  But, how do you create leader growth in a way that it is sustainable?

In The Leadership Pipeline (2001), the authors suggest that at least six major transitions occur in the leadership progression from individual contributor to CEO level, and that each stage requires qualitatively different approaches.  They suggest that, to build effective leaders at all levels, organizations must identify high potential leaders early on, provide them with growth assignments, give them constructive and frequent feedback, and support them with coaching and mentoring. 

We agree.  However, we believe that sustainable growth occurs through an important paradox.  The lasting changes in leader effectiveness at various stages in the leadership pipeline are those that rattle or reorganize leaders to their very core, and at the same time, remain consistent with that core. 

Allow me to explain.  At the foundation of every leader is a unique pattern of personality characteristics and abilities.  We can assess these using standard personality inventories, as well as tests for strengths, motivated abilities, cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence, etc.  At RLSI, we do this all the time on the front end of coaching engagements to help individual leaders and ourselves understand who they are at the core.  Moreover, we ask what energizes them and assess how their thinking patterns either support or get in the way of effective leadership.  We use all this information to help us determine who they are at the core. 

To be sustainable, growth must occur within the context of this core for each leader in your organization.  At the same time, true growth seldom occurs unless events rattle the basis upon which leaders think and respond, or circumstances force them to reorganize internally with each new stage in the leadership pipeline.  Psychologist Jean Piaget called this “accommodation” and contrasted it with “assimilation,” in which we simply incorporate new thoughts, ideas, perspectives, etc. into the mental framework we already have. 

In accommodation, however, we recognize the need to reorganize our internal framework in order to take into account our new experiences.  For most people, heading off to college for the first time is a clear example of needing to accommodate to a whole new existence that we had not imagined previously.  Other major life events like marriage, death of a close loved one, or the birth of children similarly cause most people to accomodate in order to take into account dramatically different circumstances.

Joe Folkman (The Power of Feedback, 2006) makes the case that genuine change in behavior requires changing core beliefs.  Not who we are at the core, but how we think about things and make sense of circumstances.  Folkman emphasizes that lasting behavioral changes are those that feel natural and consistent with our core character and personal style.  These two principles form the basis for this seeming paradox:

  • To shift our approach and show evidence of true growth, we must accommodate to new circumstances and demands by changing some of our core beliefs, which then shifts our behaviors; however,
  • To sustain this growth, we must stay within the boundaries of our core personality, abilities, and motivations.

At RLSI, we see this most clearly in our executive coaching.  Using a framework from my book, Fearless Leadership (2006), we help leaders recognize how irrational fears and faulty beliefs can become obstacles to high performance behaviors.  We coach leaders to recognize the symptoms when they begin to react poorly to situations, and we teach them how to create a set of healthy beliefs to shift their core thinking.  In the words of the paradox, above, we provide tools for shifting some of their core beliefs.  The beliefs we typically focus on are those they have held for many years, but have not examined closely.  For example, a leader might have operated for decades on the belief that she must always be correct and show no faults, or that he must avoid conflict situations and make sure that people do not become upset.  These kinds of faulty beliefs can undermine a leader’s success, especially when paired with irrational fears about looking incompetent or being rejected by senior management. 

You can use the two components of this paradox when growing leaders in your organization.  Find challenging tasks or problems, new reporting relationships, or different team assignments that will stretch the competence and confidence of your high potential and key leaders.  Use the experiences to identify faulty beliefs and approaches that limit their effectiveness, and help them accommodate to become more effective as a result.  However, as you put them in situations and provide support to help them change their faulty beliefs, make sure you affirm who they are at the core (their strengths, unique personality/style, motivators, etc.).  To sustain the growth, it is critical that they do not conclude that they must change who they are in order to be successful at the next level.

Leverage Your PAST to Lead Your Future

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

David and I had met a couple of times in our coaching engagement before he was comfortable enough to confide in me that he felt he needed to be someone totally different than himself to be successful in his role. His peer, Edgar, was in a similar business development role, and David began to believe that he needed to fashion his approach after Edgar’s personality and style.

I still remember the pained look in David’s eyes as he described how much better his peer was suited to their Director, Business Development role, and how much David felt out of Edgar’s league. As I listened to him, I recognized that he desperately needed an alternative perspective to help him take a stand and become highly successful in his new role.

Many leaders at all levels in your organization probably struggle with the same sense of inadequacy, particularly when they take on new roles or report to a different manager.

In working with others as a coach since my initial work with David, I began to talk with them more intentionally about leading from the center of who they are. The concept resonated with them, and they recognized more clearly how often they got in their own way by straying from the core of their effectiveness. 

From these conversations with organizational leaders, it has become very clear to me how important it is to lead from the core. In fact, my experience makes me conclude that trying to lead from someplace other than the core is the primary reason leaders derail. Attempting to lead others with an approach that is not grounded on who you are at the center of your being is a guaranteed recipe for failure. 

Why do organizational leaders think they must lead from someplace other than their core? Some, like David in the first example, start a new position and convince themselves—falsely—that they must approach things very differently than they have in the past in order to be successful. Others have deeply-rooted, fear-based doubts about themselves and lack of self-assurance at the core. Consequently, they struggle when they must take on a new role and they unwittingly undermine their ability to lead. Still others get the strong message from their manager or other senior leaders that they must function in a completely dissimilar way in order to be successful in a new situation. 

While it is often true that changes in position, manager, or organization require individual leaders to make some adjustments in their approach to the work, this almost never means that they must alter themselves at the core in order to be successful. In those very rare situations where individuals are not likely to ever thrive with what they bring to the table, the best resolution is for them to leave the position or the organization and look for a better fit. Changing who you are at the core is never the most desirable way to handle a set of circumstances or personalities in your work. 

To put it in simple terms, every leader at the core is the product of his or her PAST:

  •  Personality 
  • Ability
  •  Spirit
  •  Thinking 

You are a product of your PAST, as well, and it is the key to your future. At your core is a combination of personality characteristics, feelings, intellectual, emotional, and physical abilities, and a responsive spirit. At the center of who you are, there are also thoughts, beliefs, and opinions that you hold to be true, and that you have developed since early childhood. It is not feasible to leave your PAST behind. Wherever you go, your core personality traits, abilities, spirit, and thinking go with you. We will address each of these four components individually.

Personality (P). For the purposes of your own self-analysis, think about the aspects of your personality that uniquely define you. What are your signature leadership traits and
characteristics, the ones most central to your personality?

This includes characteristics like:

  • style and approach across various situations  
  • intensity of observable energy, degree of drive  
  • self-discipline, accountability, preference for structure  
  • emotions, feelings, degree of compassion 

Abilities (A). Included in the term abilities are your innate talents, gifts, motivated strengths, cognitive intelligence, and emotional intelligence. Abilities are innate capacities, not learned ones. Certainly, people develop their abilities over time, and those that receive the most focus tend to be their strongest and most recognizable. However, there is a clear line between knowledge and skills you develop, and abilities, talents, or gifts you possess from an early age.

Words like communicator, linguist, wise counselor, visionary, interpersonal facilitator, healer, educator/guide, motivator, or initiator reflect underlying capacities that can be expressed in outward behaviors and actions. Using this partial list of fundamental abilities as a starting point, what are your most motivated abilities as a leader? What do you do easily, that comes naturally to you, and that energizes you? What abilities do others most appreciate about you; what strengths do they leverage most often when involving you on team projects? 

Spirit (S). Your spirit develops from a very early age—perhaps at birth or even in the womb—and grows to become an integral aspect of your core being. In popular theological terms, the human spirit is a deeply situated, core aspect of the individual, subject to spiritual growth. In many ways, it is the very center of your capacity for joy and desire. 

Spiritual refreshment is one way you can think about the Spirit component of your core. What gives you the greatest sense of calm, relaxation, or inner peace? Which activities in your life resonate within you in a way that leaves you composed or serene? Alternatively, when are you most energized and excited in your work and life? What tasks or activities bring out the most intense feelings of joy, elation, and well-being? Or, when do you most have the sense that your life has meaning, or that it matters? What in your work seems most central to your life purpose? 

Thinking (T). This component includes your beliefs, values, and opinions based on your learning and experience. It includes your attitudes toward things, the way you make sense of the world, and the primary basis upon which you make decisions. Thinking includes logic and intuition, creativity and originality, common sense, and the recognition and understanding of others’ feelings and needs. In short, thinking includes any function within your core that involves thought processes.

Some thinking is healthy and leads to confident, competent performance as a leader. Other thinking based on faulty beliefs can undermine high performance behavior. For example, believing that you must prove you are right, avoid conflict situations, speak up first in a debate, convince others that their perspective is wrong, are all examples of faulty beliefs. 

Each of these four components of your leader core—personality, abilities, spirit, and thinking—are important for you and other leaders in your organization to understand and leverage. Trying to lead from someplace other than your core is an ultimately fruitless exercise. Helping others around you recognize and apply their PAST is an important aspect of you as a mentor or coach.