You’re an anomaly if you have never encountered a “stall” — an inflection point where you suddenly seem unable to get the stellar results you strive for. When executives hit a stall, they tend to redouble their efforts to engineer a revival through reorganizing, bringing in outside experts, hiring new executives who have “been there before,” building organizational infrastructure, running more analytics or transforming business processes. In other words, they do the things that have worked for them in the past, addressing complex problems with proven solutions.
However, the more senior one gets in an organization, the more likely it is that those tried and true tools won’t be sufficient to pull through the stall. In these situations, executives must realize that what is required is a more sophisticated approach to the challenges they face. Fundamentally, this means leaders should focus less on trying to fix the organization and more on reinventing themselves.
A leader’s failure to develop the people below and around them is one of the most dangerous and damaging of all the stalls, a fact that you, as a learning and development leader, are keenly aware of. Feedback for senior executives, be it via 360s, executive assessments or anecdotal, has shown time and again that most executives significantly underinvest in developing their people. The consequence is poor talent pipelines, weak benches and leaders who are unable to fulfill what is perhaps the single most important job of every leader: to create other leaders.
It Starts With Self-Awareness
Many leaders get failing grades in developing the people below them, but they often have little self-awareness of it. This malady afflicts leaders of all levels, but it’s especially pernicious at the more senior levels of any organization, since it’s the behaviors of senior leaders, for better or worse, that determines the organization’s culture. If the senior team is not committed to developing people, the organization won’t value it, no matter the quality of your L&D programs.
As consultants, we often hear from executives who say, “We need to create a leadership development program.” But leaders don’t create other leaders just by financing a program. They also have to fix themselves. They must recognize that their own leadership effectiveness depends on their willingness to personally and passionately own the leadership development of others. Traditional management and leadership programs are necessary but not sufficient. They can tempt executives into ignoring the harder role of reinventing themselves to become a sophisticated leader of leaders.
Leadership development programs can create a basic understanding of required leadership skills and competencies, but alone, they rarely spur the mindset and behavioral change people need. If leadership development efforts are grounded only in programs run by the leadership development function, you risk building a training edifice but never entering into it to take charge of the transformation of the people within. A strong development team can indeed help to frame a philosophy of leadership for the organization, but the company’s leaders must help breathe essential life into it.
Are the leaders in your organization driving the company’s values and culture? Are they equipping their teams for the strategic and operational ambitions of your enterprise? Do those teams understand how to lead change and to link vision and strategy to real execution?
Only you can coach your most important leaders in these capabilities and help them make it part of their personal syllabus on leadership growth as soon as they assume a supervisory role. Few executives are natural leaders of leaders. Fewer still feel inclined or equipped to coach or teach leaders. But you can help them develop in this role.
The Leadership Triangle: Goals, Others and Self
Over the course of our work with executives and organizations, we have come to see three elements that are most essential in developing leaders: helping leaders clarify and prioritize goals; deepening their understanding of the others whom they must engage and influence to achieve results; and developing a keener knowledge and awareness of themselves. We call this model the leadership triangle. Leading executives must help their top leaders focus on all three of these dimensions.
The leadership triangle can be used as one way to convey the mindset that self-knowledge and self-awareness are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. Bringing one’s best self to the fore as a leader is how they will engage others to achieve the organization’s goals.
But how specifically can you help your organization’s senior executives start developing their leaders?
Championing the Effort
The most pragmatic way to begin to change a senior executive’s mindset and behavior is to engage them in spearheading the creation of a structured program for leadership development in the organization. Involve the leader with your talent development team to develop the strategy and approach, and help position them as the champion of the effort rather than a passive sponsor.
The creation of this program should integrate the company’s strategic and business challenges, what the organization needs from its leaders to excel, how each individual can get better and how people will be held accountable for changing.
Another powerful way to help move senior executives through a leadership development stall is to encourage them to make a commitment to delivering quality feedback to their leaders. Time and again, we find that leaders may intend to give feedback to their followers but don’t. For one reason or another they never get around to it — or they give a lot less feedback than they think they do. “Provide me with more feedback and coaching” is usually the most common request from followers to bosses on performance or 360-degree appraisals.
Help senior executives distinguish between feedback and criticism. At its best, feedback is specific, descriptive, tough on issues and future-oriented. It should be directed toward pragmatic solutions and productive behavioral change. Criticism, on the other hand, generally comes across as telling people how they should be. It is critical, generalized, judgmental, tough on the person, mostly about the past and appears to place blame.
Help leaders understand that feedback is about creating a dialogue. In other words, it’s not about filling out elaborate multipage appraisal forms; it’s about employing a personal touch. Aspiring leaders need to hear from their superiors, and vice versa. And that interchange should happen frequently and be disassociated from any formal performance management process that affects compensation or career path.
Create a process or system for senior leaders to give more feedback — and keep it simple so they can do it easily. They must then exercise the discipline to actually do it. When conducting one-on-ones like these, the direct report should go first, and the senior leader should listen and take notes. They should inquire to see whether the report’s self-assessment aligns with theirs, and respond with perspectives and suggestions.
The leader should ask the report what kind of feedback they are getting from others and whether they are soliciting it. They should ask what they are worried about and share pragmatic ideas on behavioral changes that could improve the report’s leadership right away. Discussing blind spots is particularly important.
Agreeing on specific changes and asking the report to create an action plan — as simple as books to read, specific changes to make, a top-three list of improvements — is a great final step. The senior leader is likely to spark a marked turnaround in the aspiring leader’s performance and potential. Meanwhile, they will have demonstrated that they are truly committed to their team members’ development.
Discovering Their Inner Coach
To become a genuine leader of leaders, one must make a distinction. Sometimes they are the manager, the boss; other times they’re the coach or mentor.
As a manager, they set goals, monitor and measure, hold people accountable and reward them. They tend to focus on transactional questions: How are we allocating resources? What’s getting in the way? What do you need me to know or to help you figure out? What should you be escalating? How can I tell you if you’re not doing a good enough job? The manager role is a critical one for execution, but it cannot be one’s sole role if they aim to develop their leaders.
The other role they need to play is coach, and that’s when they can focus on how people lead rather than on what they themselves seek to accomplish. When they focus on the “how,” they engage in nontransactional questions. Their purpose is to help people learn and grow via dialogue to bring out their best and to show that they care about their team members as people and about their careers.
Help senior executives to think of these roles as conducted side by side, not head to head. They are “porch swing” roles and conversations. They don’t happen over spreadsheets. The executive will be less successful if they flip-flop between these two modes in the same meeting: the carrot-and-stick of the boss alternating with the ear and empathy of the coach. The fact is the honest boss role, which is more urgent and tactical, will usually dominate most meetings. So executives must be deliberate about when to engage in “manager meetings” versus “coach meetings” — and don’t let “urgent matters” drive coach meetings off the calendar.
Beyond the Stall
The essential factor to help senior executives recover from a stall in leadership development is to get them to commit to being personally involved. Encourage them to spread their philosophy and influence across all formal and informal efforts and programs to develop their people. A leader’s investment sends a powerful message that will align and engage their followers. Doing so will also help each of those followers develop into leaders themselves. Help them strive to reinvent themselves so they are known and recognized as leaders who are intent on and committed to creating other leaders.