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Leadership vs. management


[This posting appeared on the UKHRD digest on Thursday, 3 February:]

In response to the question on "leadership vs. management", you may be interested in some of the conclusions from a study on executive development sponsored by six major American corporations - Aetna, Bank of America, EDS, Lockheed Martin, Sun Microsystems and US West. Participants included such organizations as Apple, Arthur Andersen, the BBC, BP Amoco, British Airways, Chase Manhattan Bank, Eli Lilly, HP, HSBC, IBM, KPMG Peat Marwick, Kraft, Lloyds TSB, the University of Warwick, the US Army and the US Government.

Here is an extract from the summary report:

In a world where "earning a living" is beginning to mean "learning a living," organizations need a universal commitment to learning by the executive team, with the resources and expertise available to determine, design, deliver and evaluate developmental initiatives which meet strategic, organizational and individual needs. Executive development initiatives should provide the organization with a plan for developing individuals who are, or will be, ready to move into key leadership positions. The identification and development of individuals with senior management potential is critical to the success of the company. Especially in periods of downturn, reorganization and changes in business direction, the people identified must be given opportunities for development so that they will be ready when needed.

Experience has shown that developmental initiatives, led by the CEO, can cause a major turnaround in the skill and behavior of the executive team, and are far more successful than bringing in outside talent. This is largely due to the inability of the outsider to fit in and work with the old culture. Companies need to engage all their existing talent, all the teamwork and team spirit, all the energy and drive, all the initiative and all the commitment of everyone. Any performance improvement plan must be dedicated to this end.

It is not just a question of increasing performance. A fundamental philosophy of many executive initiatives is not only to improve the individual's strengths, but also to teach them how to manage their weaknesses and fears. It is comfortable for many executives to point to the past and fight to stay with "what got us here." There is a reluctance to accept that the world has changed and what worked before will not work any more. Since the "new way" is not as clear or as easily understood as the "old way," many people cling to the old. Most of us would like to hold on to the times when things were simple and the answers (at least from where we sit now) seemed within reach.

In order to change this attitude, organizations need to create an executive culture that is willing to track and promote key competencies, and install them before times of crisis. What is really important is anticipating skills that will be needed to compete and creating an organization built around those skills, well in advance of the competition. The process of identifying and installing competencies quickly and efficiently within the organization is itself an organizational competency.

For executives to gain these skills, executive education groups have to break the belief that learning occurs as a part of fixed, scheduled programs. People are too caught up in their own learning traps, based on personal childhood experiences. The modern business environment is informal, fast-paced, constantly changing, relationship-based, highly creative and results-focused. Executive development must mirror this environment.

So - keep it simple, keep it flexible, keep it as an "event" or series of events rather than a long term "program." A little of something meaningful is far better than a lot of something mediocre. Use the participants' real situations rather than role-plays or elaborate simulations. Get the support of senior executive management in sending out communications about the initiatives and in being "sponsors." Continually refine and re-evaluate the initiatives.

To be successful, any initiative must come from identifying how the business needs to be improved and developed. Focus the learning so that people can immediately apply what they learn to achieving business objectives. Forge a solid link in the thinking of executives between corporate performance, organizational development, and individual competence. The long-term success of any executive development initiative will ultimately depend on the extent to which the learning is seen as connected to the achievement of business goals.

There needs to be more open and honest conversation around what executive performance is and is not, how it is affected by culture, how the organization as a system inhibits or enhances it, and what is individual versus organizational performance. Too many past exercises around executive performance have involved "financials only" thinking. They have not looked beneath those results to dissect the host of variables which impact them, "peeling the onion" to get at a better understanding of the interdependence of so many different variables which interact to produce business results.

For example, research indicates that executive "derailment" almost always occurs as a result of a failure to manage the myriad of human relationships that are the life-blood of today's complex organizations. The literature is replete with such phrases as "simply made too many enemies" or "couldn't adjust to the style of the new boss."

The point to emphasize is that those executives who have aggressively learned how to transform an organization to achieve high performance results have undoubtedly been the most successful. These are the ones who are interested in what is happening on the leading edge of organizational management, have brought these concepts into their company, have internalized them, and are now seen to be "walking the talk." They are willing to be "different." Paradigm change is important, and paradigm changers are "outsiders" in some way. They are also the ones who recognize that learning is the new form of labour in today's economy; it is what they do to keep their jobs.

Getting the rest of the executive team to self-identify in the same way, and to become actively involved with the development process, is the challenge. Admitting to skill deficiencies is not easy for persons of this stature. Admitting weakness may be seen as unhealthy for one's future. Even admitting learning took place during a session may be tough because of a concern of being labeled "inadequate" or "deficient."

In the words of Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has." This change, however, must first occur at the individual level. Learning to be an authentic leader is ultimately a personal process. It emerges "from the inside." It involves exploring one's life experience in search of one's character, beliefs and assumptions. This internal journey is required for any fundamental transformation. But the stakes are high. In the final analysis, successful organizational change may hinge on each executive assuming responsibility for their own personal growth.


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