Leaders may be subject matter experts and organizations often pay a premium for this kind of expertise. We do know that despite the high price tag, most individuals who are not necessarily domain geniuses can either acquire the knowledge and expertise or more appropriately surround themselves with technical experts.
A key variable outside of expertise is the notion that it is actually talent that drives results. Such a seemingly parsimonious equation, yet many organizations do not get this right. Companies that are profitable focus on 3 key levers. These levers are the secret sauce of top tier companies. First off, they aggressively identify talent and challenge their high potentials with stretch assignments. The goal is to accelerate talent. Organizations are often guilty of creating lists of high potentials and somehow miraculously expect these future leaders to just automatically morph into next generation leaders. Advancement of one’s skill set will not occur by osmosis nor necessarily by the number of years in a senior seat. Rather, stretch goals with accompanying supervisory stewardship will act as a catalyst and support the growth of a more robust skill set.
Another important consideration is the extent to which we must “take care” of our employees. There is no room for benevolence in an enterprise. Harsh as this may sound, organizations must remove subpar performers. Why would a company ignore this questionable level of performance? It breeds an unhealthy culture, dumbing down those who aspire for great opportunities. An absence of fostering a culture of greatness also creates risks around retention and most importantly innovation. The best and brightest will leave. They will seek out companies that reflect a sense of urgency and develop successors who cannot only lead today but also can anticipate the future direction and adjust to market demands. This is no surprise, who wouldn’t want to be part of a winning organization? The second critical lever is the requirement for companies to respond decisively to sub-optimal talent. These marginal players are blockers to advancing and maintaining a competitive advantage.
The third variable is to ensure the right talent is in the right role. This is not as straightforward as it sounds. In fact I would argue that there is a science to this process and organizations should not just automatically promote or reward bright employees into step up roles. A rigorous understanding of the key skills along with key capabilities is crucial. The question organizations need to ask is not what this senior leader can do today but rather can they perform the next level job? This means the organization is hiring for tomorrow rather than the current position. Leadership assessments play a critical role in the hiring and succession planning process.
Variables such as strategic thinking, problem solving, agility, as well as a whole host of interpersonal attributes factor into one’s ability to lead. It is rather short sighted for a leader to assume that just because they have painted the vision and provided
their team with a set of goals that they will attract followers. The ability to excite and instill passion requires neither a charismatic leader who is railing on in front of their team nor a leader who demands performance. In both these styles of leadership short quick wins are possible but true loyalty will not be fostered. It is no doubt a huge investment of time and energy on the leader’s part to understand what is required from their employees and work towards the cultivation of these attributes. I recall a senior leader I coached who believed that histrionics would mobilize his team. He often lost his cool and was prone to hyperbole. In fact he was right, they were mobilized, but for the wrong reasons. Either a sense of fear or compliance did prompt execution, but the ability to trust and view their leader as capable was eroded. We must understand that emotional resilience is not just the ability to manage stressful scenarios but to understand that leaders must bring people along.
How can leaders do that? They must seek to understand rather than believing that they own all the subject matter expertise. Their team has key intelligence that can valuably shape their point of view and direction. In addition to critical viewpoints, this style acts as a vehicle for inclusion. Leaders often confuse inclusion for their own need to be included as though they are the most prized individual in the room. Smart leaders hire even smarter direct reports. Direct reports do aspire to be their manager’s next successor. Is that leader cultivating an environment that fosters a spirit of pride and ownership. This will never happen with a command style or an absent leadership. Senior leaders must never underestimate that direct reports continually evaluate their bosses by asking the question “Why would I work for you?” How many bosses either care or have this self awareness? If they don’t, this is a primary concern. Here lies the heart of the challenge around employee engagement.
We often say there is a war on talent. What does this actually mean? It is amusing to understand that it is senior executives who suggest that this is a rampant problem in the subordinate ranks. I beg to differ. Who is responsible for the next level down? Do senior leaders actually believe their team should just show up and perform like trained seals? Executives play a key role, but how often do we hear that they just don’t have time and that’s why they are paying the big bucks. Like somehow big bucks are necessarily equated with inspired, innovative, execution oriented employees. These direct reports might in fact have the necessary ingredients but without true leadership there is no glue to propel the team forward.
Organizations that apply the 3 key levers of identifying top talent, removing sub optimal performers, and placing the right people in the right roles have the core basics. Having said that, once this is in place the groundwork is set for senior leaders to do their job. This means that they must stay close to their team through facilitation of good questions, being approachable and available, challenging the team to take good risks and rewarding them not just through financial compensation but by being valued. Providing increased scope, having a voice at the table, cultivating an environment where team members truly feel emotionally
recognized for their contributions will foster a sense of collective. So in answer to the question “Why would I work for you?” employees are attracted to leaders who can articulate a vision in a manner that allows them to be partners in the process. In any relationship true partnership must be equated with feeling valued as an individual with motivations and unique needs. The second question always follows which is “to what extent does my boss know what is important to me and works to create that culture and career progression?” If all employees including high potentials cannot answer this question then they will be guaranteed to vote with their feet by either leaving the organization or worse becoming disengaged observers. We must ask who owns this challenge. We are always much too quick to blame the disenfranchised employee. Senior leaders hold this accountability. Great leaders get this and have employees lining up to work not for them, but rather with them. The payoff can be huge. And guess what? Senior executives who embody these attributes are no less busy then ones who choose not to take the time or don’t ask the right questions of their team regarding what it means to be a great leader.
By, Cindy Wahler, Ph.D., C.Psych. is a leadership consultant specializing in succession planning and talent management.