Becoming better at leadership development

In a previous post , we explored why organizations do not do well in leadership development. The sum total of the argument is as follows : The very context that is created for leadership development harms the effort. Five aspects of this context are 1)Predictable hierarchy 2) Internal competition 3) Sure wins 4) Hi-po retention, and 5) Organization as an ossifying shell. A predictable hierarchy poorly correlates with the work-positions where success is being achieved. Internal competition for the race to the top is further preventing authentic collaboration. Sure wins are scripted to reinforce leadership development as a self-fulfilling prophecy. These sure-wins discourage real risk-taking. The result is that high performers ( Hi-po) are retained in a manner that does not result in cutting-edge self-development. All this while, the organization serves as the protective shell against external impact. The leaders-to-be stagnate under this shell.

What can be done?

Leadership development efforts need to be structured for

1) risking failure, especially on the outside.

2) receiving every stage, ongoing feedback from an external environment.

We begin with the organization.

1) Stop being a protective shell and push them outside.

Doctors know how to hone their skills. Private doctors attached to plush hospitals do not need to work elsewhere. Yet, enterprising doctors seek empanelment in government-run bodies too. Why do they do it? This is a way to deny the comfort of context and challenge themselves. Can I work under constraints and set-ups I am not familiar with – is the question they ask. In government-run set-ups, these doctors also get access to risky cases that never filter down to them in privliged set-ups. The learning is immense. They become flexible, better doctors by operating in multiple scenarios.

Foreign Universities in the technology domain do something similar for their faculty. Let us say, a faculty earns 1 crore as annual package. As a part of the employment contract, the university pays the faculty 75 lakhs. The faculty is expected to land contractual consulting assignments in his or her specialty for himself and earn the remainder of the sum, 25 lakhs. Anything earned above that belongs to the faculty, of course. The University provides him all the infrastructural support and time-flexibility needed. What is happening here? The organization, far from letting its employee stagnate, is pushing for ‘external’ performance standards.

Both the doctor and the faculty are risking failure on the outside. And becoming better at what they do.

Organizations need to pay heed to the examples cited above. Can we create multiple operating scenarios and foster external performance standards? The thing to accept is that the leader is not working upon the organization as such. Yes, the leader is working upon something else. But look at what the leader is becoming! If the leader is becoming versatile and effective by being outside, let him be outside. Do you have the boldness, courage, and confidence to let that happen? An example could be, letting a leader take a limited duration, full-time commitment at an industry association while still being on the company payroll. Or letting the leader work at a social sector enterprise for a few months.

Company leaders have a rigid view of the boundary between the organization and the external environment. Make the boundary porous to begin with, and irrelevant later on. Your organization will acquire the capacity to create its own future.

2) De-link career-progression from the idea of a hierarchical rise.

This truly begins at the mind-level, both for the organizational decision-makers and their employees.  But the idea is known and practised by effective people down the ages. Hierarchy attracts because bigger fruits of more hang high – be it salary, perks, titles etc. Can you walk the talk of disruptive innovation and let the edifice collapse like a pack of cards?! So that you create something new. The software programmer or the accounting executive may be content doing their core thing and not become team leaders provided that their only chance to rise is not contingent upon the same.

The way forward is to not think about more, but think about different. Think people as unique in the true sense of the term and standards become difficult to apply. That is the area to explore. Marcus Buckingham’s book, ‘First, break all the rules’ is a great resource on executing this idea.

3) Stop treating retention as an end in itself

The more I think of it, the more I feel that organizations which emphasize retention to no end are fundamentally insecure. Of course, you desire that the best and good people stay with you. But, why not work towards becoming an irresistible workplace that offers an unbeatable growth experience?

Let the leadership development transparently convey a) what you as an organization are becoming and b) what they as employees are developing into. We can plan on the two processes of becoming and developing achieving a congruence. But we must acknowledge that they are not totally in our control. An organization might find that the employee has outgrown the organization. Or it may find that the employee has evolved along an unanticipated trajectory that does not match the organizational orbit. Either way, it is great that there is clarity as regards the mutual fit.

4) Replace sure wins with calibrated risks of failure. 

Sure wins is this :  You set the bar so low that nobody can fail to jump over it. People want to show after all that things are working as per the plan. Creating a performance context over which nobody has total control is the best way to offset facetious sure wins. This is where you bring in the external environment. You can never control the external environment. The best you can do is be open to the feedback you receive and adapt by doing different things that are in your control.You become more realistic and grounded. You acknowledge a stale-mate when things don’t seem to be moving forward. You encourage abandonment. The organization accepts how fallible the whole process is and how unfailingly obsolete it inevitably becomes. There is an acceptance of ambiguity, of complexity,of failure.

5) Lead with integrity and vulnerability.

Finally, what can lead to authentic collaboration? Leading with integrity does. There are multiple ways for an individual to stay connected with an organization. An abundance mindset creates the time and space for connection. If an organization thinks, says and does the same thing, people respond by trusting the organization and the leadership. They give their best and make everything transparent from their efforts to their feedback and their performance. The best organizations also stay a wee bit vulnerable – this vulnerability is the glue that binds; it is the magnet that attracts.

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