Literal Thinking

Real stories of workplace follies

Posts Tagged ‘leadership development’

12 early signs of leadership potential

Posted by A Friend on 30 March 2009

Potential Early this month, in our post about good performers failing as leaders, we alluded to a view that not all good followers, performers, and managers can become good leaders. In fact, some people – and some are very good performers – dread becoming “the boss” (see “The Boss Trap” for a good and concise case study).

Good performance in an existing role should not mean an automatic promotion into a new role, especially if the new role requires someone who does not want to become a boss to be the boss. In our experience, the selection process for leadership promotion continues to be wrongly heavily weighted against current performance.

While current performance should continue to be part of the criteria, we believe the identification of leadership attributes should have a heavier weighting. Provided below is a list of early signs of leadership potential that we believe should figure prominently in any leadership consideration.

    1. Future leaders have initiative. They are quick to identify things that need to be done, and proceed to just do these, with minimal prompting and supervision. Should they be stuck with not a lot of productive things to do, they ask for more work. They do not wait around and are not contented to just be fed work and instructions.

    2. Future leaders take ownership. They run with the tasks given to them and take responsibility for their completion. They do not go around asking how things should be done every five minutes, they just do. They are not afraid of making mistakes.

    3. Future leaders listen to others and seek advice. This should not be confused with the pest asking questions every five minutes because they are afraid of making mistakes and taking ownership, and wants to be guided every step of the way in completing their tasks. Future leaders understand that there is so much that they need to learn, and they act like sponges to new insights and ideas. Future leaders seek role models and mentors; they are thirsty and hungry for knowledge.

    4. Future leaders have an independent mind. They may not know everything and may ask around for people’s insights, but they have their own mind and draw their own conclusions. When mentoring a future leader, a good sign that you are in the right track is when you have regular “agree to disagree” sessions.

    5. Future leaders are passionate and opinionated. They have views and causes that they feel strongly about, and they do not shy away from sharing these (bonus points if these are contrary to a mentor’s); these do not even have to be work related. This shows that they are not fence sitters or brown nosers; and they are strong decision makers.

    6. Future leaders share their knowledge. They understand that the more they share, the more they get back, and the better it is for everyone. Knowledge hoarders are generally the types who are insecure of themselves or their position in organizations; they should not be leading.

    7. Future leaders recognize their limitations. They know that they cannot possibly know and do everything. They are not loath to revealing their weaknesses, and even strive to ensure that these are addressed by surrounding themselves with people who have strengths in their problem areas.

    8. Future leaders seek help. This is very closely related to the previous two items. Future leaders seek help because they lack the skills and competency, because there are others who can perform better, or because it is an opportunity to share knowledge around. Future leaders do not seek help to palm off tasks they do not want.

    9. Future leaders accept mistakes. People who take task ownership will invariably make mistakes – lots, even. Future leaders readily admit the mistakes they make, learn from these, and move on. They do not make excuses.

    10. Future leaders avoid putting blame on others. While future leaders readily admit mistakes that are theirs, they are often protective of others. What this means is while a mistake is acknowledged, finger-pointing is generally avoided. Future leaders are quick to claim the mistake as “ours” or “the team’s” rather than singling an individual out.

    11. Future leaders assume informal leadership roles. They do not need to be formally assigned a leadership role or title; they just naturally assume the role. We should stress naturally: they do not do it to score extra points or gain an advantage over their peers. They assume the role for its own sake, not because of some implied reward.

    12. Future leaders inspire performance. A future leader’s passion, drive, and commitment are contagious. They inspire others around them to perform, and they often bring out the best in everyone included in their sphere of influence.

If you are managing someone who exhibits more than half of the above traits, you have under your wing a potential leader. Nurture them, keep them, challenge them.

And if there are other potential leadership attributes you know about or look for in a candidate, please leave a comment and let us know.

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Posted in Leadership & Management | Tagged: , | 9 Comments »

Personal leadership development framework applied

Posted by A Friend on 25 March 2009

Journey Over the last few weeks, a lot of the search traffic leading to this site has been around personal leadership development. We suspect this is mainly related to the personal leadership development framework we posted early this month, and we think it might be a good idea to provide our readers with an example of how this framework can be applied in real life.

A very important consideration to make is the framework is most useful for the individual leadership aspirant, and should thus be applied out of their own initiative. The individual should ideally try to get this framework to fit in the formal development models their organization may have for them (if any), but this is not a requirement (and the lack of one should not be made an excuse).

Ethan is a programmer in his late 20s who aspires to take on more leadership and management roles in his company, a boutique IT services provider. Ethan’s concern is he believes he lacks the soft skills required for a management or leadership position, even as he is readily recognized as a technical expert. Adding to Ethan’s worry is, as is typical of small firms, his company lacks a formal development plan for its employees.

Rather than wait for his company to provide the management and leadership exposure and training that might not eventuate, Ethan decided to be more proactive about his situation and sought his own learning avenues using our personal leadership development framework. Provided below are some of the main points that Ethan took out of this process (applied during a one year period).

Know and understand yourself

Ethan knew that he is a very good programmer and can continue to develop further technical expertise if he so wanted. This was the easiest pursuit for him as the development requirements would be closely related to his job description. However, Ethan wanted to slowly move into a management or leadership role. He understood that he is still lacking in both soft skills and business nous, so he determined that this is the main area of development that he was going to pursue.

On a personal level, Ethan recognized that, perhaps typical of a lot of programmers, he is not the most social of people. Ethan decided that it was time for him to go out of his comfort zone and try to be more social. Ethan thought that whatever social skills he can develop can also be good for him professionally.

Study leadership

Ethan was only starting out in his leadership and management journey, so he did not really know how and where to start in this area. As a starting point, Ethan decided that he was going to buy a leadership or personal development book that provides a good balance of theoretical and practical advice. After consulting some friends and colleagues, Ethan decided on Primal Leadership.

Ethan further decided that he was going to include the study of leadership and management as one of his major objectives for the year.

Find mentors and role models

Ethan had always wanted to have someone mentor him, but he had not really found anyone suitable. Ethan decided that it was going to be hard for him to find one in his workplace as for starters, they did not have a formal mentoring or development program. Ethan does recognize the importance of having a mentor or role model, and he made the conscious decision of finding one, even if it was going to be outside work.

Map out a personal development plan

Considering what Ethan felt were his immediate development needs (i.e. learning leadership and management theory and skills; and finding mentors and role models), he decided on the following three objectives for the year:

    Pursue a postgraduate management degree – the most logical development initiative given his goals; the timing was also good, as he anticipated business to slow down as a natural result of current economic conditions

    Become an active member of business related professional association – to help him both develop additional social skills and expand his professional network

    Join a local tennis club – mainly for development of interpersonal skills

Involve others

Ethan had to involve his manager in the decision to pursue further studies as he needed to make sure that this does not conflict with his work commitments. To his surprise, his manager offered partial subsidy; it turned out that the company had a budget for employees who wish to pursue further studies.

In school, Ethan was required to do a lot of group work. He found this exciting, especially because of the great diversity of his classmates. One of his group mates with whom he quickly developed a strong relationship with recommended him for membership to a professional management association.

Objectively assess outcomes

By the end of the year, Ethan saw that while he continued to do more of the same at work, he had grown tremendously from his out of work activities. He especially enjoyed the progressive interaction he had with his schoolmates, and his newfound acquaintances from both the management association and the tennis club that he joined. Ethan did not learn anything new from a technical perspective, but this is adequately compensated by the “soft skills” and the management and leadership knowledge he is starting to develop.

Critically analyze outcomes

Looking at the results of the year, it was clear to Ethan that, sooner or later, he will have to choose a particular path: technical competence, or leadership and management development. He could not have it both ways.

Reassess yourself

The year’s experience showed Ethan that while he has the established reputation for technical competence and can “safely” pursue this as a career, he is more interested in pursuing leadership and management roles. He is not sure if it is just a passing fancy, but he certainly wants to give it a shot.

– o –

The above is just a very high level view of how our proposed model can be applied. We would like to note two things: as per our example, the framework is not very difficult to implement; and it is best for this application to be an ongoing process.

In Ethan’s case for example, immediately continuing from the above, he slowly moved into a pre-sales and business development role in his company; and also became more involved as a volunteer in the professional organization that he joined. Directly related to this, he found a couple of good mentors: the managing director of his company with whom he is now working more closely with, and the president of the above mentioned professional organization.

Posted in Career Management, Case Studies, Leadership & Management | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

A personal leadership development framework

Posted by A Friend on 7 March 2009

In our previous post, we suggested that one reason why some good performers thrust into leadership positions fail is because they did not have the adequate preparation for their new roles. Unfortunately, a lot of organizations take leadership training and development for granted and often assume that promotion to leadership positions are a natural progression for good performers. As we illustrated in our post, this is not necessarily the case.

It thus often falls on individuals to ensure that they adequately prepare themselves for the challenge of leadership. But then, some may ask: if organizations still struggle with leadership development as a practice, what hope do individuals have of getting it right? We asked the same question ourselves and surprisingly, we found that it is easier for individuals than for organizations to get it right.

The reason is quite simple. The most mature and well-run organizational leadership development programs will never meet the leadership development requirements of every aspiring leader in the organization. These programs are designed to be generic enough for maximum applicability, so it has to be assumed that there will always be the odd and eccentric aspiring organizational leader that the program will fail; imagine if this odd person out is a CEO of the future. Individuals, on the other hand, can tailor fit their own leadership development program to well, themselves.

Below is a diagram of a framework we’ve developed for our own personal leadership development. The framework is designed to suit any individual circumstance, although we generally find it more useful if aligned with organizational objectives.

Personal Leadership Development Framework

The framework is divided into four main components (illustrated by the different color schemes of the eight general task items): lay the groundwork for leadership development, leadership development planning, implementation of the leadership development plan, and self reassessment. Below are brief descriptions of the eight task items.

Know and understand yourself

It is essential for any aspiring leader to have a good personal understanding of him or her self. This includes knowing areas of strength and weakness, and desires and aspirations. The aspiring leader should also try to understand their management, leadership, and communication style; and environments and situations when and where they are most effective.

It is an accepted but often neglected no-brainer that aspiring leaders who have a good understanding of themselves are more effective in mapping out their personal leadership development plans.

Study leadership

Aspiring leaders must at least be familiar with various leadership concepts and their application. Ideally, aspiring leaders should be up-to-date with leadership theory (e.g. they should know that save for few and far between specific cases, strong-arm or autocratic leadership styles are now generally accepted as ineffective).

This does not mean that aspiring leaders should blindly believe and follow every leadership trend that comes about, of course. Leadership theory is continuously evolving, and no model can be applied to all situations. The aspiring leader should study leadership theory and use it as a guide and starting point, not as an absolute prescription.

Find mentors and role models

It is important for aspiring leaders’ personal development to have mentors and role models that they can use as guides, motivators, and real life examples. One difficulty we have had in our own practice is finding mentors. Mentors may not necessarily be available in the workplace, and unless it is part of an organizational initiative, a formal mentorship program is very difficult to implement.

The aspiring leader should try to find alternative means, including informal mentorship. This can, for example, be done by forming personal relationships and actively networking (e.g. informal lunch or coffee every month) with leaders they look up to. Good leaders are generally generous with their time, and all that is often required is for the aspiring leader to ask.

Another alternative, or a complement, to mentorship is looking out for role models, especially those that the aspiring leader can most relate to. What is most important to note is, like leadership theory, aspiring leaders should mainly use mentors and role models for practical learning. It is dangerous for the aspiring leader to blindly pattern their own leadership development to their mentors and role models, and it is wise to remember that what works for the goose does not necessarily work for the gander.

Map out a personal development plan

Effective personal leadership development planning can only be done after the groundwork for leadership development had been properly laid. Personal development planning covers a range of topics and there are blogs out there that are almost exclusively devoted to this. The only points we want to focus on are the key personal development plan essentials, based on the framework we are suggesting. The aspiring leader should ensure that their plan is aimed to: further enhance key strengths, be aligned with personal desires and aspirations, address critical areas of weakness, and explore opportunities to apply learned leadership principles.

The plan, if at all possible, should also be aligned with organizational plan and objectives. Doing so makes it more convenient to implement, and has a higher likelihood of getting key organizational resources involved.

Involve others

Involving others in the execution of personal leadership development plans is an important cog of our proposed model, and what was left unsaid in the previous section is that aspiring leaders should strive to ensure that some, if not all, of the most important activities in their plans include the involvement of others.

Getting others involved is a less risky way of testing the often murky waters of relationship management. The only risk if things don’t go according to plan is some of the aspiring leader’s personal objectives are not met. That risk is worth taking if they are able to take away some key learning about how they work with others.

Another important consideration is the aspirants are the de facto leaders tasked to complete the plan, merely because the plan is theirs. Thus, if they ensure others are involved, they are in fact “practicing” leading them. And again, regardless of the result, they should be able to take away some key learning about how they lead others.

Objectively assess outcomes

The objective assessment of outcomes requires the aspiring leader to take a step back after tasks are completed and make an assessment of outcomes from the point of view of a third party observer. Objectifying the experience is essential to ensure that the succeeding analysis is as free from bias as possible.

To attempt to be objective while at the same time being intimately involved in the experience is a difficult task to do, but also a great regular exercise routine, for aspiring leaders. This is the kind of activity we do in a lot of the cases that we present here, so it might be a good idea to look at some of these cases.

Critically analyze outcomes

This goes hand in hand with the previous point: a critical analysis can only be done against an objectively assessed outcome. Critical analysis is needed for genuine learning to take place. This is when all of the takeaways are taken stock of and categorized as good, bad, or really ugly (the aspiring leader can, of course, use a less brutal assessment measure).

The really ugly results will almost require immediate remediation, as these will often be highlighted as unacceptable; the good and bad ones can be banked as part of experiential learning and often form the basis of self assessments and succeeding personal development plans.

Reassess yourself

Finally, this model requires continuous self reassessment. The end of each development cycle gives the aspiring leader the opportunity to review what was accomplished and what was not, measure their development plan against outcomes, and reflect on key learning.

The self reassessment might reveal some individual strengths further enhanced, key leadership traits discovered and developed, and conceptual understanding of leadership theory validated. It might also show more personal weaknesses not highlighted previously, some leadership models that are not compatible with the leadership aspirant’s own personality and style, and some relationship management shortcomings. In short, the reassessment should serve as platform for the next personal leadership development cycle and for the aspiring leader’s continued growth.

Posted in Career Management, Leadership & Management | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »

When good performers fail as leaders

Posted by A Friend on 3 March 2009

Power Failure How often do we see some good performers in our organizations being rewarded with promotion into leadership positions only to see them struggle, even fail, in the performance of their new duties?

We find that there are generally two reasons for such failures. First of these is the often accepted view that not all good followers, performers, and managers can become great leaders. Good performance and management of tasks and people require a different skill and competency set to good leadership; some people just don’t have leadership in them.

Second, and perhaps a more subtle but fairly common reason, is a lot of our good performers are not being adequately prepared to take on future leadership roles. They are often thrust into leadership positions without undergoing the preparatory or molding process required to successfully take on such roles, and often because it is taken for granted that taking on the new roles are a natural progression. It is not.

Adrian, who had built a solid reputation as a consulting account manager with his strong ability to establish rapport with clients and continuously create repeat business, is a good example. He was recruited by an old colleague to join his startup consulting company to be its long-term account manager. It was projected that the startup was going to grow quickly as it already had a growing list of clients and projects in the pipeline.

Unfortunately, most of the projects in the pipeline, for various reasons, did not push through, and Adrian suddenly found himself with no accounts to manage. However, because of his long-established account management reputation, his new boss felt confident that he could be transitioned into becoming the company’s new national consulting manager, in charge of project delivery. Meantime, in the short term at least, Adrian could lead the company’s first few consulting projects.

Adrian’s first engagement as a project leader was disastrous. Adrian had very little experience as a consultant and had no experience at all as a project leader. He used a generic project plan to start with, and not only did he struggle to follow it, he found it impossible to adjust when the plan very clearly did not suit the project. His account management background made it very hard for him to decline customer requests, and this led scope creeping to uncontrollable levels. Most gallingly, he found it very difficult to manage his consultants. Having had little experience managing direct reports before, he had no idea what needed to be done, what his consultants were doing, and what they were capable of doing.

Adrian’s team resented his inability to produce a plan, set directions, and lead. The project struggled because of his shortcomings, and a lot of unhappy and extremely overworked consultants left after project completion. The project also ended up becoming Adrian’s first and only attempt at project leadership, and he was slowly eased back into account management, where he had always been very good at.

Debra’s case is a little different, but the end result is similar. Debra had been a career employee with a leading company in a highly regulated industry. She had worked for 15 years in the company’s purchasing and inventory management department before she was seconded into a project that implemented a large enterprise application. She became part of the retained support team post project implementation.

Most of Debra’s work in the retained support team was to address and manage change requests raised by the business. The support team was divided into various functional areas, and Debra continued to work in purchasing and inventory management. This was not a difficult task for her, as she had long been familiar with the business processes in this area. Furthermore, the company typically brought in external consultants when more complex requirements came up. In short, Debra’s work was not particularly challenging and she had a lot of time on her hands. For want of better things to do, Debra expressed her interest when the company made its annual call for employees who are interested in attending a company sponsored postgraduate scholarship.

Management mistook Debra’s boredom for ambition, and they decided to fast-track her into a prime leadership role. She was first given tasks to manage small internal projects, and she passed these with flying colors (thanks, in most cases, to the external consultants the company brought in to do the real work). She was then promoted to functional team manager. Debra is a very strong coordinator and organizer, so she handled this new role with aplomb as well.

Finally, less than two years removed from merely being a support officer, Debra was promoted to manager, enterprise applications. This was a group of more than 30 employees and five functional teams. And more than just handling support work, she suddenly became responsible for budgets, succession planning, and most especially setting the strategic direction for the group.

Debra struggled with her new responsibilities. She never had a budget to worry about before, and she had absolutely no idea where to start with the budgeting process. Her people management experience was limited to work coordination and managing expectations of her internal customers, so she struggled when she was suddenly required to look after and plan people’s careers. But most dreadful was her inability to think strategically. She had always relied upon people guiding her and had been great at performing the tasks assigned to her; but she had never been one who could provide guidance and direction.

Both Adrian and Debra are examples of great performers who suddenly struggled when they were thrust into leadership roles they did not have adequate preparation for. Unfortunately, there are a lot of organizations that assume leadership as a natural progression for good performers and take leadership development and training for granted. It thus often falls on employees to ensure that they prepare themselves for the challenge of leadership.

We will present a personal leadership development framework, which we have used in our own practice and hope others can also use in their own, in our next post.

Posted in Case Studies, Leadership & Management, Team Leadership | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »