Helping people realize their potential as leaders means clearing a path for them to grow, but it also means identifying what they need to work on in the current job. This is where leadership gets very personal. There’s no substitute for ongoing face-to-face dialogue with people about what’s going well and what isn’t. You can’t let fear of their response undermine your know-how in helping leaders grow and improve.
Stuart, the CEO of a global manufacturing and services company, found a simple way to save Kate, who had the potential to be a great CFO but was having trouble adapting to the company’s Midwestern culture. Kate was hired for her tremendous talent in finance, and she made contributions in her first year by surfacing important issues and having the tenacity to keep them on the table. But others on the executive team complained regularly that she was too gruff with her peers and too intimidating to the people below her. She just didn’t seem to fit in. Stuart recognized the talent and contribution and decided to be frank with her about what she had to change. He even got her a coach, but he was careful in choosing one. He didn’t want Kate to lose her edge; he wanted her to continue to raise tough issues and set a high standard, just to do so more constructively. Her coach was frank about what was at stake and made some specific suggestions. One of them was to emphasize the positives as well as the negatives in her subordinates’ presentations. Instead of cutting people down in front others, signal what was good, then make specific suggestions about what to improve. And stop using four-letter words — that was an absolute. Within a couple of weeks, people noticed the difference. The company retained a high-caliber individual, and Kate herself is working hard to improve with encouragement from her colleagues, who see the change in behavior.
The 360 evaluations many companies use can be helpful, but you have to be thoughtful about how you use them. Don’t try to cover everything; zero in on one or two things the person has to work on. For one leader, the 360 showed a low rating (less than 3 on a 5-point scale) in every item having to do with peer relationships. He was one of four internal candidates to succeed the CEO, and the low rating puzzled his boss. The CEO knew him to be a great performer who regularly delivered 70 percent of company profits, and he was a born learner who stayed at the top of his game. He was also a good conceptualizer. But obviously there was something going on when it came to working with colleagues. By persistently digging and asking pointed questions, his boss got to the nub of the problem. When he respected the other person, the guy was great. When he didn’t, his disdain was very visible. This type of behavior was keeping him from reaching his potential. The CEO brought this pattern to the leader’s attention, and he instantly agreed that it was true and promised to try to curb that behavior. This kind of reflection, whether you do it on your own or with the help of a mentor or coach, improves your judgment and is essential to mastering each of the know-hows.
Confront Behaviors That Harm the Team’s Effectiveness
Leaders often avoid conflict, hoping that a problem with one of their direct reports’ behavior will somehow resolve itself. They seldom do. When I observed George he was two years into his tenure as CEO of a company in a fast-paced industry heavily dependent upon technology. He was having a lot of trouble molding his team of direct reports. He was searching for a new CFO after firing the previous one for failure to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley and his HR director was new. But his real problem lay with his vice president of sales, who had been with the company just six months.
Doug, the vice president of sales, had come with great credentials and very positive reference checks. But none of his references had talked about his tendency to throw temper tantrums at high-level meetings, lecturing his peers about what he perceived as their many failings. They also hadn’t mentioned his lack of analytical abilities. Already the director of R&D had warned George that he and his team were tired of Doug’s abuse and simply couldn’t work with him. With a new product on target to launch in just six months, R&D desperately needed strong input from sales but couldn’t get Doug to cooperate. And after the company had missed its sales targets for three consecutive months, the only explanation George could get out of Doug was that “external factors” were to blame. Doug’s presentation to the board the month before had been very slick, but when it was over George still couldn’t pinpoint the cause and effect of the missed sales targets. He was afraid that he might be in for a hard time from some of the directors at the next board meeting.
George had resolved more than once to bring Doug to task for these problems, but each time the two met in George’s office he had decided to back off, instead urging Doug to get a coach or take other steps to improve his relationships with other departments and to look more deeply into the sales misses. Doug readily agreed, but nothing ever happened as a result of those meetings. George’s dilemma — either to confront Doug or to simply fire him — is a common one for leaders who are uncomfortable with conflict. The hard truth is that if you want to mold a team of leaders you must have the inner courage when an individual’s behavior is destroying the team to confront that person head on and say it isn’t acceptable and has to change.
Copyright © 2007 by Ram Charan from the book Know-How Published by Crown Business; January 2007;$27.50US/$36.50CAN; 978-0-307-34151-8