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Alan Garvey

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Closing the ‘reality gap’ to build stronger leaders


Alan Garvey looks at how organistions can close the gap between perceived and real leadership ability.
Leadership requires more than technical know-how. Yet many leaders find themselves in positions of authority having worked up the ranks due to their technical abilities and not necessarily due to their business skills. The misperception that many managers have about their own ability to lead shows how large the gap has become.
According to a recent study from the CIPD, three out of four employers in the UK report a lack of leadership and management skills while eight out of ten managers have an inflated opinion of their ability to manage people.
Some 80% of managers say they think their staff are satisfied or very satisfied with them as managers while only 58% of employees report this to be true. This 'reality gap' is of great import as research has shown a very strong correlation between employees that are satisfied with their managers and worker engagement. Strong leaders impact productivity. It's as simple as that.
"Different environments require different types of thinking. Leaders must be able to think about their thinking, if you will, and to differentiate among different approaches."
How can organistions close the reality gap to build stronger leaders? It starts with identifying the manager's strengths and weaknesses. Conducting a pre-assessment in the following six areas will establish a baseline to determine which skills need to be sharpened.

Business mindset

A manager's early career skill balance is approximately 95% technical and 5% 'business skills', such as communicating, presenting and leading small teams. As careers progress, this skill balance must shift to a 50-50 balance. Business acumen is a skill that is in high demand. Business acumen means to have the ability to link concepts to the larger organisational strategy, which, in turn requires a flexible business mindset. Determining whether your manager possesses a flexible 'business mindset' is made up of four interconnected perspectives: personal, operational, interpersonal and strategic.


Look at how strong the person's communication skills are. Can he or she speak to senior management as well as employees lower down in the chain of command? High-impact communication is directed at a specific audience which then produces a desired outcome. The ingredients required for great communication include:
  • A clear intent – determining the purpose of the message, the right target audience and which message needs to be conveyed.
  • Definitive actions – how is the communication delivered (written, oral, visual or a combination), the structure of message, and the time and tone of its delivery.
  • Clarity of message – the objective and the desired outcomes you want to have.

Critical thinking

Different environments require different types of thinking. Leaders must be able to think about their thinking, if you will, and to differentiate among different approaches, determine which type is appropriate and how best to approach thinking about various situations:
  • Strategic thinking (What is the overarching goal and objective and how will my decisions achieve it?)
  • Tactical thinking (What is my next step towards that goal?)
  • Analytical thinking (Why are we where we are? What is the root cause?)
  • Creative thinking (Is there a different way of looking at this problem or opportunity? What innovative approach could we take?)
  • Implications thinking (also known as systems thinking - What would happen if we went with option X, Y or Z?)

Financial management

Leaders are required to not only lead their teams, but they also need to have the ability to focus on financial outcomes by setting realistic and measurable goals and objectives, and by learning methods for tracking progress and reporting. They must be aware of organisational metrics used to track progress and performance and how those metrics are applied throughout the organisation. This applies in particular to the training programmes themselves. A significant part of being business savvy is understanding basic financial principles and applying sound metrics to track and report performance.

Coaching and mentoring

The trend to adopt coaching and mentoring programs is on an upward swing. According to research conducted by the CIPD, 90% of learning and development practitioners in 2009 used some type of coaching within their organisations. At an organisational level, succession planning, the cornerstone for organisational health, ensures corporate knowledge is retained and transferred to those that need it. Coaching and mentoring is one of the most common practices for learning sustainment as found in a recent ESI International study on the global state of project management.

Change management

Change management itself involves a three-step process. First, leaders must identify the current ('as is') state and match it against the desired ('to be') state. In this phase, the key business skills above such as critical thinking and problem solving are imperative. Leaders need to view the big picture to determine where the organisation is versus where it needs to be.
The next step involves engaging both the executive suite and the ground-level workers to ensure everyone is on board. In this phase, high-impact communication is required. Successive levels of the organisation must be included in a dialogue to help design an implementation plan. People within an organisation must be allowed an opportunity to react to the desired change. Providing this opportunity enables people to become accustomed to the idea of change and to align their thinking in ways that will help both identify potential problem areas and contribute substantively to process improvement. Leadership skills such as persuasion and influence are also required for a smooth change management process.
The third and final step involves implementation: agreement on and delivery of the processes and technology to realise the desired future state. During implementation, employees throughout the organisation need to remember why they are working so hard on implementing a change. Therefore, change leaders should continually remind people, using multiple media (formal emails, milestone celebrations, informal conversations) what the change is and why it is so important.
Building stronger leaders requires training them in key areas of expertise to prepare them for the challenges they will inevitably face. Establishing a business mindset, improving communication, honing critical thinking, fostering financial management skills, implementing coaching and mentoring and developing change management skills will ensure leaders are equipped to meet those challenges head on.
Alan Garvey is managing director, EMEA and Asia of ESI International. He leads a regional team of professionals who are responsible for all aspects of ESI learning programme development and delivery. ESI helps people around the world improve the way they manage projects, contracts, requirements and vendors through innovative project management training, business analysis training and contract management training


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