During the past decade, a number of highly popular books and thinking regarding leadership have centered on strengths. While strengths are great, becoming a modern leader requires versatility.
Modern leaders never stop learning. They knows that the skills they have depended on in the past are not necessarily going to be the ones that take them into the future. Modern leaders rise to the challenge of a dynamic and ever-changing landscape, which requires looking ahead and consistently reflecting on how and what they need to do to stay on top of their game and avoid becoming a dinosaur.
There are significant risks for leaders if they assume what they are doing well today will still work tomorrow. Research by Robert Eichinger and Michael Lombardo concluded that aspiring leaders who were eager for continual development were more likely to be promoted than those who had overly high esteem of their current abilities.
Becoming a modern leader comes from tapping into and realizing latent skills — the majority of skills that you possess outside your default strengths that with focus and practice become new pillars of success. Optimizing the right latent skills at the right time and continually developing them leads to ongoing leadership growth.
A Modern Leader Is a Evolving Leader
A 360-degree assessment incorporates feedback from the important people in a leader’s professional life, including boss, peers, direct reports and customers, and ranks specific skills, competencies or behaviors. The top scoring items (i.e., the top 15 to 20 percent) are considered a person’s strengths, or default skills. These are skills leaders tend to be good at naturally and default to using because they come easy.
The lower scoring items (i.e., the bottom 15 to 20 percent) are deficient skills. These skills are often mistakenly identified as key development opportunities. At first pass, it makes sense that the lowest scoring items are assumed to be glaring opportunities for change.
The middle-scoring items (60 to 70 percent) present the greatest opportunity for continual leadership development. Quickly transforming latent skills into new strengths does not require as big an investment compared to developing deficient skills. Though they may not be natural talents or gifts, they can quickly become learned skills that serve to make the leader even more successful.
The Concept in Action
When I was first introduced to John by his human resources business partner, I was told that he was a very senior leader in the organization. He had five direct reports and 150 engineers under those five leaders. John had very strong technical skills as a hardware engineer, but he was very quiet in meetings and no one knew where he stood on various issues.
In talking with John I came to find out that he didn’t want to say things for the sake of posturing or positioning himself. The unintentional consequence of his behavior was that he was being perceived as disengaged, and his lack of communication was undermining his credibility as a leader.
Our assessment revealed that execution was one of his highest scoring default skills. John naturally got things done and did them thoroughly with an eye for details. However, continuing to leverage this default strength was becoming a detriment to his longer-term success. He could not be considered a successor to his manager unless his peers would be willing to report to him.
At the bottom of his assessment was a cluster of skills related to delegation and his hands-on management style. Increased delegation and more hands-off management would be important to John longer term as he took on more responsibility.
His assessment results revealed a cluster of latent skills including partnering, relationship building and assertiveness. If John was more assertive about his ideas and opinions in meetings, this would demonstrate to others that he was engaged. This would help others know where he stood, thus giving them a better sense of him as a leader and increasing their trust in him.
John focused time and energy to find his voice and position on issues and getting over the concern he had about saying things just for the sake of speaking. During the course of three months people noticed a marked difference. His manager reported that he noticed more engagement in meetings and more unsolicited contribution. His peers knew where he stood instead of having to guess. They realized that if he could stand up for his ideas and those of the people on his team, he would stand up for his peers as well. When it came time to promote him, there were no questions. People knew who he was and what he contributed.
Focusing on default skills leads to leaders resting on their laurels, lopsided behaviors, leadership blind spots and career detriment. It’s like finessing 10 additional horsepower out of a 1,000 horsepower engine in a race car while ignoring that the car has mediocre brakes. Focusing on the continual development of your latent skills is what it takes to truly become a great and modern leader.