Leadership In the RanksI've been talking with a colleague about updating assessment surveys that he has been using for many years. One of the changes we're planning is to jettison the old-fashioned habit of assessing leadership skills only when dealing with someone at the executive level.
In recent years, in conjunction with the trend towards getting work done through teams, there has been a pronounced move toward developing leadership skills at all levels of an organization.
On March 3, the Wall Street Journal published an article that reflects this trend.1 The article's authors, James Kelly, a director at ERM, and Scott Nadler, ERM's client services director, have concluded from seven years of research2 that
... at most companies, senior managers are increasingly hamstrung by the demand from investors and analysts for immediate results. If change is going to come about at these companies, it will be because managers below the CEO (and below the whole "C suite" of CEO, COO, CFO) take the initiative and risks to drive the company in a different direction. Change will have to come from those leading from below, rather than relying on leadership from the top.Kelly and Nadler cite five principles that their research indicates should guide people below the executive level who are bent on expanding their influence in order to:
- help their companies
- improve the impact their companies have on the world
- improve their own career prospects
- Make the decision to be a leader. "In every case of successful leadership from below that we have studied, the manager made a conscious decision to move beyond the service and governance roles, without waiting to be told to do so."
- Focus on influence, not control. "People simply react more enthusiastically to being enlisted in a common cause than they do to being ordered around. And getting people to act on their own to achieve the goals you have in mind is far more effective than having them only react to your direction."
- Make your mental organizational chart horizontal. And think in terms of networking in order to maximize effectiveness.
- Work on your "trusted advisor" skills. "You have to earn the right to influence people. People have to want to talk with you, and value what they hear from you. This requires more than being seen as a technical expert."
- Don't wait for the perfect time, just find a good time. "There is never a perfect time to take the risks of leading from below. When times are good, everyone is too busy and no one seems bothered by the need to do things differently. When times are bad, everyone is too busy (or too scared) and there are too many other demands."
- Integrate a broader range of risks and potential impacts into your business decisions. Ask subordinates to help in assessing a full range of possible short-term and long-term impacts of actions under consideration financial impacts, environmental impacts, community impacts, impacts up and down the supply chain.
- Expose yourself to a broader range of perspectives. Reach out to people inside and outside your organization in order to gather and explore new ideas and suggestions.
- Create vacuums rather than imposing solutions. In other words, senior management can point to an issue that needs attention, but refrain from "dictating the source or nature of answers. ... Aspiring leaders can move more easily into such a vacuum. They still have to provide answers, but they don't have to sell or legitimize the question by themselves first."
- Encourage questions without answers. This is the flip side of the previous item. In contrast to the common admonition that subordinates should not raise an issue with senior management until they have developed a proposed solution, Kelly and Nadler encourage putting a question on the table promptly in order to get discussion going.
- Ask "what if" questions. When a subordinate proposes a solution to a problem, a senior manager can help the person refine his/her thinking by asking, "If we do what you suggest, how do you think the situation will play out?"
- Openly discuss values as well as value. Encourage subordinates to think not only in terms of creating financial value, but also about "right and wrong, what we believe, what we should do." Set an example "by asking questions about value and values together, probing whether there are trade-offs beween them or whether they can be complementary."
- Refresh your radar screen periodically. "Periodically review the range of risks and impacts that your company should consider, always looking outward and forward. What are the future requirements, expectations and demands coming at you from a wide range of stakeholders?"
1 The Kelly-Nadler article was also published online by the Sloan Management Review.
2 "We focused our studies on managers in two overlapping fields that usually aren't high on the agendas of top management and therefore serve as a laboratory for leadership from below: environment, health and safety; and corporate social responsibility. The clear majority of the managers we studied found themselves stuck in predominantly service and/or governance roles performing tasks like setting and enforcing company standards, and providing the resources for people in the company to meet those standards. Many expressed a desire to take on more of a leadership role, but didn't see a clear way to do so."