Build Leadership Like Infrastructure… Cuz It IS Infrastructure.

At a recent dinner w/some execs from my co we got into a discussion about leadership development.   The most senior guy at the table said that leadership development should be allowed to happen organically within the company, without any structured approach.  As he told his story, we learned that he happened to get a good mentor early in his career who taught him how to be very effective.  Based on his experience, he concluded that it should happen that way for everyone else.

I violently disagreed: Assuming you believe that leadership capability is the single most critical priority for your company, then why rely on an anomaly that coincidentally aligns high-potential leaders with seasoned, effective coaches?  Rather than rely on luck or coincidence, I believe that great companies proactively align high potential leaders with the people who can accelerate their development – deliberately, repeatedly, and consistently.     Why not systematically build your leadership infrastructure the same way you plan & build your IT infrastructure?

At a minimum, you should be doing these things if you want to build a sustainable leadership infrastructure:

  • Don’t rely on anyone else to do this for you!   Many people have great HR organizations that connect your teams to quality leadership training.  This is good and you should partner with them.   But you should not wait on them.  You own the development of leadership within your team, not HR.
  • Conduct a recurring talent assessment: 1-2 times per year, conduct a formal evaluation of the performance and “promotability” of your top leadership level.  Then tell them where they stand v. their peers, and the specific areas you need them to develop.
  • Codify your own leadership processes, methods, & competencies.  Put what you know in writing so that you can effectively teach it to your teams.  By doing this, you will set clear expectations about their leadership “how.”
  • Develop your top leaders: Periodically you must take your teams away from the day-to-day operations, shut off the laptops, and actually teach your own team the leadership capabilities that you expect out of them.  (If you are reading this & thinking “but what would I teach them”… then you have a different problem.)

Bottom line: Approach “leadership development” systematically just like you do with every other part of your infrastructure.  

Is There A Shark In Your Boat?

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Just read the fascinating story of a great white shark jumping into Mossel Bay Research Lab’s research boat.   Read it here, it’s short and amazing.

Ever had a shark in your boat?  Sometimes it’s obvious: they are thrashing around (lots of unproductive activity), snapping their teeth, severing critical relationships and impairing your team.  Act immediately, no question.  But what about the more subtle yet equally dangerous behaviors you may be missing?  Here are a few signs you might have a shark-in-hiding.  Do you have someone on your team who:

  • Always waits to be told what to do?
  • Believes they are irreplaceable because of their knowledge?
  • Talks about courage but doesn’t demonstrate it?
  • Is consistently influenced by others… but rarely exerts influence themselves?
  • Doesn’t have strong convictions, is too easy going ( “whatever works for the team is cool with me.”)?
  • Has an “I’ll believe it when I see it” mentality?

Then you may have a shark in your boat.  Learn from the Mossel Bay’s Ocean Research team:

Protect your own team & boat.  Their first action was to isolate the shark from the rest of the team so that it wouldn’t injure anyone while thrashing around on the boat.  In your case, you may need to re-assign some duties, or otherwise de-scope the role of your shark.

Get help if you need it.   The shark cut the Ocean Research boat’s fuel lines, rendering them immobile.  And they lacked the water supply to keep the shark alive while they tried to help it.  In your case, you may need to get assistance from your boss, HR, or other coaching resources who are skilled to help your shark.

Teach him new skills.  Mossel Bay’s shark was so confused that when they put it back in the shallow water it didn’t know how to swim or where to go.  One of the researchers “walked the shark” in the shallows to help it re-orient and get moving in the right direction.  In most situations it’s appropriate to try to help coach the person up before you consider any other paths.

Set your shark free.  “Walking the shark” didn’t work for Mossel Bay…  so ultimately they devised a different way to take him back out to deep waters, eventually releasing him to go on his way.  In your case, this shouldn’t be your first step, but it’s one you cannot shy away from when it is required.

Bottom line:  Not all sharks are obvious.  You need to candidly assess your team, and deal with any lurking sharks before they do irreparable damage to your team, your area of responsibility, or your company!

The Things We Think & Do Not Say

No, I am not about to have a Jerry Maguire moment. But the title of Jerry’s infamous “memo” has always stuck with me and it seems to fit here.

This is simply a call for constructive honesty.  And it absolutely applies in your personal as well as professional life… Why do we sometimes avoid saying what we’re really thinking?  Because many people don’t care for conflict… And… many times we believe that “saying what we’re thinking” will lead to conflict… So… we consciously or subconsciously avoid conflict by not speaking our mind

So then, why do we sometimes avoid conflict?  Perhaps we lack the skills to successfully navigate conflict (maybe we don’t know how to voice disagreement in a constructive manner… or maybe we’ve never seen positive conflict resolution role-modeled!).  Maybe we think we’ll “get in trouble” for speaking our minds… with a boss, with a spouse??  Or, perhaps we have just given up the fight … we’re too “worn out” to stand up for what we believe?

If we don’t constructively state what we’re thinking, we sub-optimize the decision at hand because we withhold a critical input that might change the result/decision.  Also, these unexpressed opinions we have bottled up tend to create cynicism that can lead to toxicity (oh by the way your Doctor will tell you the same is true in your personal life – tons of medical research backs this up).  And usually, we end up saying it later anyway… in the wrong place at the wrong time… as negative “water cooler talk” or as an unproductive explosions that add no value at all.

Are you ready to try a different way?  Have confidence that your voice is valued:  the people who depend on you absolutely want to know what’s on your mind.  Make a choice to speak up even if it leads to disagreement… that’s actually healthy.  And practice doing it “the right way…” for example:

  • Don’t just shoot down what you think is a “bad idea”… suggest a better idea instead.  (If you are consistently negative with no positive suggestions, you will wear people out!);
  • Don’t “go in hot”… when possible allow yourself a bit of time to decompress before trying to work through a really difficult topic with someone;
  • Ask yourself if you are presenting your ideas in a way that will improve your relationship with the other person!
  • Deliberately pick a time, place, & setting that make sense to have a thoughtful discussion.

By the end of the movie, Jerry Maguire has stumbled onto something bigger than he could have imagined… and it all started because he spoke his mind.  Being honest with himself and with others led him down an unexpected path but ultimately to a richer life: he found love, a family, a successful business he actually liked working in, and the admiration of an industry. Hmm, maybe there’s something here for each of us…

Bottom line: as leaders we have to learn how to speak the truth as we see it, in a manner that leaves our relationship with the other person even stronger than it was before.

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