The New Leader Development Dilemma
There is a problem in your firm that is jeopardizing performance, reducing morale and potentially sending your top talent running for the doors. You are likely a contributor to this issue, and for the most part, neither you nor your peers are doing much about it. Ironically, this problem is easily cured through focus, time and attention, and once cured, promises to help you and your organization for years to come.
The problem—we promote our most valued performers into leadership roles without effectively educating them on the challenges of leadership and then we leave them alone to sink or swim in this most difficult of tasks. Time and again, well-intentioned managers look around at the talent available to strengthen their management ranks and they tap a high-performing individual contributor, a superstar soloist, on the shoulder for promotion to the promised land of management.
And, why not promote our best and brightest to lead? After all, these individuals proved themselves as individual contributors, managing projects or products, or serving customers. Their high level of performance in the past bodes well for their potential as a manager. Or does it?
The answer is, “maybe,” or “it depends.” Smart people that perform at high levels should be challenged and their career development supported. It is core to the leader’s role to seek out talented individuals and provide them with opportunities to grow their experience and increase their contribution to the organization. The first stop on the fast track development process is usually a stint in people management, something the superstar soloist is eager to tackle as part of their development. The intentions are noble all of the way around, so what’s wrong with this situation?
Like so many plans in business and in life, it is not the intentions that are flawed, but rather the execution. In our combined fifty plus years of leading and advising leaders, we have observed a common scenario play out hundreds of times across many companies and industries. Talented early-career professionals are thrust into the minefield of leadership without much more than a pat on the back and a hearty, “go get ‘em tiger.”
Otherwise competent, experienced leaders facilitate this process, perhaps losing track of the fact that leading is hard work and doubly so for the newly minted manager. They send their most valuable players out into the world to wander blindly through the difficult and awkward leadership start-up process, and then wonder when things go awry.
Instead of establishing a solid mentoring and monitoring program, the interaction between the two quickly reduces to task orientation or fire fighting, with “quality time” reserved for the annual performance review.The fact that this scenario is so clearly wrong, does not keep well-intentioned and capable executives from perpetuating this vicious cycle over and over again. The irony is, that the cure is low cost, easy to implement, and all parties from the new leader to the promoting manager and the broader organization stand to gain considerably from improving this process.
Leading effectively is hard work
Core to our theme is that leading effectively is hardwork, and becoming a great leader requires time, experience and tremendous personal commitment. Rare is the person that steps out of an independent contributor role and is immediately competent at the task of leading.
The challenges of motivating, guiding, developing and supporting others are very different than the challenges that the soloist faces in managing their own work or even collaborating with others. The approaches to creating an effective working environment, building a culture of innovation or developing an operationally excellent team are generally learned over time and through considerable trial and error.
Given the complexities of moving through start-up to competence as a leader, we believe that a process that includes thoroughly educating the prospective new manager on the realities and challenges of leadership, and a focused program of mentoring and monitoring post-promotion with the promoting manager, will dramatically improve the success rate and performance of new leaders.
Leadership development is a two-person process
Given the frequency that we have observed really smart people (leaders and aspiring leaders) end up in this “new leader development dilemma,” it would be easy to focus fault on the promoting manager for failing to properly screen and educate candidates pre-promotion, as well as for failure to provide the proper mentoring and guidance so critical to the effective start-up of the new manager. And while this blame is partially deserved by the promoting manager, the superstar soloist cum new manager is not without culpability in creating this dilemma.
The decision to pursue a leadership role is a significant choice and often made for all of the wrong reasons and in ignorance of the real role of a leader. Many early career professionals view “management” as the fast track, and the best way to quickly improve compensation, get a nice title on the business card and maybe even land an office with a door.
The combination of the aspiring manager focusing on the “allure of the visible,” and the promoting manager not effectively pre-educating the candidate or providing the appropriate structure support post-promotion, is the double whammy that almost guarantees less than optimal results. This dilemma is only resolved through the focus and combined efforts of both parties.
The costs of perpetuating poor leadership development practices
Organizations and leaders that lack the rigor to pre-educate and then mentor and monitor their new management talent, incur-significant and recurring costs, both opportunity and real. The true impact of mismanaging this process is only partially visible on the expense line through recruiting and training costs, while the most serious effects are as a result of the loss of experienced, high-potential knowledge workers and the resultant impact of these losses on long-term business performance.
Consider the following four stress points from mismanaging the new-leadership development process:
- Your high-potential talent is almost assured to flounder or fail, potentially risking their long-term involvement with the firm.
- The morale and performance of the broader team is adversely affected as the new leader operates unguided and makes frequent rookie mistakes.
- Teams under-perform as a result of mismanagement, jeopardizing the achievement of key objectives. Missed milestones, project misfires or quality problems are material issues to organizations, and poor management practices are always at the center of these problems.
- The future of the organization is jeopardized if a talent drain becomes epidemic. Your best people are the least likely to put up with shoddy management practices, and will most definitely seek greener pastures.
It is difficult to fathom many other scenarios that are more damaging to an organization’s short and long-term success than mismanaging the talent pool. The costs of the above issues are well documented in the annals of business schools and writings, and the impact of missing deadlines, mistreating clients and generally operating with a disgruntled work force are obvious.
Ironically, the first steps to eradicating these problems are easily implemented, low cost and guaranteed to provide improved results.Once institutionalized, these positive new leader development practices promise to pay dividends far into the future!
Part of your job is to ensure that the candidate does their homework.
We have all seen the disastrous results of a high-performing individual contributor moving into a leadership role only to fail. The sports world is rife with examples of former all stars moving into coaching positions and then falling flat on their faces. The skills that helped them electrify crowds as an individual performer are very different than the skills required for successful coaching. The gut wrenching part is that the failure is not from lack of effort or desire, but rather an issue of fit.
As a manager, you must be keenly aware of the need for professionals to make thoughtful and informed career decisions. While it is never your role to make career path decisions for others, you can work to ensure that the aspiring leader understands the role they are considering and the demands that this role will place on them.
Our experience has sold us on the value of applying basic, grass roots practices in developing team members. While we all read about well-healed corporations with vast training and development programs, the fact is that most managers do not find themselves in those settings. In the absence of vast resources, good old-fashioned common sense can carry the day. A great way to help an associate considering a career in leadership is to challenge them to research and think through the answers to three fundamental questions:
- Are you familiar with the skills necessary to lead?
- Do you understand what it’s like to live in a leader’s shoes?
- Do you personally own the decision to pursue a leadership role?
The first two questions are really asking the individual to understand that the skills that electrified crowds in the past are different than the skills that will mold and motivate a team as a leader. A helpful starting place is to provide the aspiring manager the following two tables, which contrast the roles of individual contributor as well as the skills required for each role.
The tables and questions are what we refer to as “Dialogue Helper,” useful for kicking off difficult discussions and driving focus to the right issues. It is essential for both parties: the aspiring leader and the promoting manager to talk with candor and open minds regarding the realities, challenges and rewards of leadership, and comparing and contrasting the roles is a useful starting point.
Another valuable discussion tool is The Leader’s Charter™reproduced below, which describes in general terms, the scope and responsibilities of a leader.
Like to cross problems off your list. Focus on solution and task completion. Tendency toward convergent thinking to identify solution sets.
Excited by problems and see them as opportunities. Divergent thinking prevails as a means to evaluate the possible “what ifs” which could provide quantum leaps.
Comfort with Ambiguity
Routines and procedures are generally structured, escalation process and rules of engagement predetermined.
Responsible for determining appropriate next steps in uncharted areas. What is or isn’t allowed is significantly broader and often unclear.
Largely accountable for your own work, and to a lesser degree collaborating with others. You will be largely responsible for assuring your own skills stay applicable, competitive.
Emphasis on deliverables executed by others, emphasis on collaboration within your team and across teams. Ultimately, you are judged by how much you get out of others, and characteristics beyond pure output are also critical. Establishing an environment that is creative, collaborative and results-oriented is important. Developing others will also be a key requirement.
Work-related issues are more likely left at work. Infrequent demands on your time beyond 9-5. Stress is often centered on tangible things such as deliverables, deadlines and sometimes problem-solving.
Expect to take work home, to ball games, on vacation, etc. Stress often comes from less tangible, “what if” aspects of this role. Plan to have constant “contact capability” with your peers, manager and perhaps customers. The higher the level, the less likely the work is to revolve around the clock or calendar.
The Leader’s Charter
Your primary role as a leader is to create an environment that facilitates high individual and team performance against company and industry standards, innovation in process, programs and approaches, collaboration where necessary for objective achievement and the development of your associates in roles that leverage their talents and interests and that challenge them to pursue new and greater accomplishments.
With apologies for the run-on sentence, this powerful description of a leader’s role can serve as an education tool as well as the outline for a detailed discussion over what it means to lead and the mind-set and commitment that it takes to be successful. Additionally, the Charter goes beyond the contrasts of the two sides of the career ladder (solo performer or leader) and sheds lights on expectations for performance.
Who owns the decision to pursue a leadership role?
There is a bit more art to managing the process around the third leadership screening question and the “ownership” of the decision to pursue a leadership role. As an experienced leader, much like a parent, knowing when, where, and how much to push is a judgment call that varies from person to person and situation to situation. You want to encourage people who exhibit potential for leadership but you want to avoid imposing your desires or values on them.
As a leader or a parent, you understand how easy it is to influence the people around you. If you have encouraged your daughter to play tennis but she really prefers golf, you shouldn’t force her to step on the court. Pushing her to be the number one singles player against her will, or promoting a highly competent and happy individual contributor to a management role for the wrong reasons are costly leadership mistakes. Ultimately, it is the leader’s role to provide opportunities and insights on career options for their associates, leaving the decision of what choices to pursue to the individual.
Don’t forget to leverage your Human Resources team
Finally, in order to help others with their career plans, you need to be aware of what opportunities are available in your firm. You should have comprehensive knowledge of career alternatives and likely development plans in your organization, and if you do not, schedule some quality time with your Human Resources executive. If your organization is young or has not formalized their philosophy and approach to developing their people, then take the initiative to work with some other managers and create a frame work for this important topic. Not having a good answer on career path options for the talented professional sitting across the desk from you is simply not acceptable.
Your commitments to helping your charges understand their career choices as well as the implications of these choices (for example, the very different lives of leaders and individual contributors) are foundation alto helping everyone make informed and effective decisions. The pre-promotion discussions are learning experiences for all parties, and essential to helping you and your talented associates avoid the new leadership development dilemma.
The work of building a leader begins after the promotion
Once all the parties have conducted their due diligence and decided to proceed with the promotion of a soloist to a first-time manager, the real work of leadership development begins. The promoting manager’s close involvement at this stage is essential to the effective development of the new leader. An important first step for the promoting manager is to establish a “Leadership Development To-Do” list that includes the following:
- Provide the new manager with a clear picture of the organization’s strategies and objectives.
The new manager must have context for their role, and this can only be gained through a solid understanding of the organization’s strategies, key objectives and the role that the new manager is expected to play in strategy execution.
The objective for all managers should be to have their charges on the same page, and this discussion starts with what is going on in the market and how the firm sees themselves growing, innovating and beating the competition. Additionally, the new manager will quickly need to ensure that their team’s activities are aligned with the firm’s objectives, and an understanding of the strategies, objectives and market forces is essential to realizing this alignment.
- Clarify the primary mission of the new manager
The grounding in strategy and objectives is fundamental knowledge required by the new manager, and a detailed understanding of their role in executing against these objectives is key to garnering quick results. The new manager needs to understand where they fit on the continuum of caretaker to change agent, and what autonomy they have for prosecuting their mission. The promoting and new managers must be on the same page for all parties to succeed, and this important context around mission is the responsibility of the promoting manager to describe and then to support.
- Collaborate with the new manager on a 100-day start-up plan
While the context suggested in the first two items is critical knowledge for the new manager, what to do with it is equally important. We advise promoting managers to work with their newly minted leaders and formalize a 100-day start-up plan that includes issues ranging from introductions and getting to know the team to evaluating key staff members, adjusting priorities and introducing new processes or approaches. Inherent in this plan development is that the promoting manager understands clearly what they want from the function and where they want their new manager to invest their time.
The 100-day action plan is essential to help the new leader understand what they should be doing and serves as a great opportunity for alignment between the two managers. At a minimum, progress against the plan as well as the relevance of the objectives and tasks on the plan should be reviewed every two weeks by both parties and updated accordingly.
- Establish a detailed communications plan with the new manager
To ensure that the proper amount (and type) of guidance is provided the new leader, we encourage promoting managers to establish a communications plan that encompasses four types of interactions: operational, developmental, emergency and ad hoc.
Regular weekly operations discussions provide the opportunity to review priorities (the 100-day plan), milestone achievement, problems and potential countermeasures. Developmental discussions should occur monthly and focus on the new leader’s performance, lessons-learned, staff development and complex people/team issues.
Emergency discussions are hopefully rare, and we simply recommend that there is an established protocol for the two on how to handle 911 topics. Implicit in a good 911 plan is the understanding of what an emergency is, and the agreement of the promoting manager that they will shift gears immediately and pay attention if the alarm rings.
And finally, the promoting manager should seek out ample opportunities for “no agenda” or ad hoc discussions to “touch base” and casually see how things are going. Taken together, the discipline established through formal discussions on operations and development, access for emergencies and frequent unscheduled conversation, combine to ensure that the two managers stay in lock step with each other during the crucial start-up phase. Of course this communications structure works great for leaders and their experienced managers as well.
Tying it all together
Creating a culture of effective leadership development doesn’t require expensive consultants and large training budgets. It starts with recognition by the senior leadership that successful identification and development of their next generation of leaders is a priority objective in line with the firm’s overall strategy.
The simple steps of educating prospective new managers on the realities and challenges of leading will work to minimize costly, mistaken promotions. Honest and open dialogue about the different skills required for success as an individual contributor or a leader, and discussing the expectations of a leader as described in the Leader’s Charter, are powerful pre-promotion tools.
Once a decision has been made to proceed, the promoting manager must establish and commit to a discipline of education and communication to help the new leader through the start-up phase. The costs from failing at the development of new leaders are astronomical and the benefits from succeeding remarkable.
It is within your power to transform your organization’s leadership development effectiveness, and your only investment will be your time. After all, you are a leader and time and attention are your most valuable currencies.
If you take away one high-level observation from this article let it be this: practices are more powerful than programs. You may have internal or external programs at your disposal, but they are not a substitute for your active involvement in developing new leaders.
We have presented an outline for solving this profound and costly dilemma that requires just one known resource (yourself), no out-of-pocket expenses, and can be implemented immediately. Now it’s up to you to do your part in breaking the back of the new leadership development dilemma in your firm!
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