As the year comes to a close, we’re looking back and reflecting on a learning-filled 2018. One of the ways that I pursue my own personal development is through reading, and this year I read several books that anyone looking to build leadership skills, or support others in doing so, should put on their (ever-growing) Must Read List.
These are the books I find myself recommending again and again to clients, that I’ve dog-eared and marked up such that I can never share my copy, and have resulted in notebooks filled with quotes from their pages.
You may notice a general theme across the content of these books: they’re all about how we can better understand ourselves and one another in order to deepen our relationships, better connect with our colleagues, and drive results through collaboration and teaming.
While results and getting things done are critical, it’s the people we develop and engage with that help drive our success in the long-term – and when we have great, people-focused leaders at the helm, organizations thrive.
Being vulnerable, giving to others, and putting relationships first isn’t a cakewalk, but they’re competencies that serve as a foundation for effective leadership, both now and in the future.
Ready to challenge your thinking and expand your leadership toolkit? Check out these four books:
Brene Brown calls this book “the ultimate playbook for developing brave leaders and courageous cultures.” Dare to Lead offers insight into topics such as shame, vulnerability, and what leading with courage truly means (hint: it’s not about oversharing or simply being direct with everyone). Along with sharing her research and personal anecdotes, Brene provides actionable advice and suggestions that you put to immediate use as you step up, put yourself out there, and lean into courage.
Why should you read it?
Read this if you’re looking to ramp up your leadership skills, create a braver, more courageous workplace culture, learn to engage in tougher conversations, and show up as your whole self at work and at home.
“Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage effective and unproductive behavior.”
Bonus: Check out the Dare to Lead Hub which has 9 ways to engage with the work (quizzes, downloads, and exploratory resources).
I first heard about this book after I recommended What Got You Here Won’t Get You There to a coachee during an alignment call with her boss, and her boss suggested this instead. I’m so glad she did! Realizing that men and women may face different roadblocks as they fulfill their ambitions, Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith combined their leadership expertise and experience to describe 12 habits that helped women early in their careers – but can hinder them as they move up. They share specific examples and case studies to bring the habits to life and offer actionable advice to scale roadblocks and get over feeling “stuck.”
Why should you read it?
This book is for anyone who wants to better understand the unique challenges women may face and be an ally in helping bridge the leadership gap. Are you a leader looking to support and elevate your team? This book is for you. Looking to be promoted but struggling with a desire to please people? This book is for you too. An early career professional who wants to understand what your colleagues may be experiencing? Yep, it’s for you as well.
“Research shows that loyalty is a primary reason women tend to stay in their jobs longer than men. It’s a virtue that can easily become a trap. The desire to be loyal can lead you to neglect your future, sacrifice your ambitions, and sell your talent and potential short. Others may benefit, but you do not.”
Bonus: This is a great book to read with a leadership circle or a group of friends – check out their discussion guide here.
I was exposed to Edgar Schein early on in my grad school years. He’s well-known for his ground-breaking work with organizational culture. Unsurprisingly, he hits another home run with this topic. It’s a guide for learning about the importance of open communication, relationships, and trust in an increasingly complex and collaborative working world. The authors implore us to focus on relational (versus positional) power and reimagine leadership in a way that views empathy and vulnerability as strengths.
Why should you read it?
This is a great book for professionals at any stage in their career – it’s academic and theory-driven, with practical guidance and stories woven in to illustrate the key takeaways. The authors ask: “What if we proposed that you can reframe the personal challenge of improving your leadership skills into a collective challenge of helping to improve how your group performs?” Sound compelling? Then this book is for you.
“An individualistic, competitive, destiny-is-in-your-hands-alone mindset limits a leader’s ability to handle uncertainty and volatility, since no individual will be able to process the volume of data nor assimilate all the dynamic inputs that are vital to effective strategy.”
Bonus: Check out some additional insights and ways to engage with the content on the authors’ website.
Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and professor at the Wharton School, uses his research to help us understand how our interaction style can drive or hinder our success. He defines three styles – givers, matchers, and takers – and explains that most have a dominant style, even if it’s rare to be purely one. Our style, he argues, has a “surprising impact on success,” and interestingly, givers are both the LEAST and MOST successful. How? Grab the book to find out. It’s fascinating and incredibly useful.
Why should you read it?
This book offers a simple means of categorization to help us figure out how to better engage with others, network, influence, and collaborate. Understanding your and others’ style can improve your chances of success both now and into the future.
“This is what I find most magnetic about successful givers: they get to the top without cutting others down, finding ways of expanding the pie that benefit themselves and the people around them. Whereas success is zero-sum in a group of takers, in groups of givers, it may be true that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
Bonus: Interested in your dominant style? Take Adam’s quick quiz to find out here (you will be asked to provide some personal details to access the test).
We’re already looking forward to some great reading in 2019. Here are a handful of books on my (ever-growing) Must Read List:
As research and media has repeatedly suggested, our bosses have a profound impact on how much we like our jobs – and often, on our desire to leave our jobs. As the saying goes: “People don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses.”
Yet in coaching leaders, we find many bosses have not put much thought into their leadership brand. That is, they haven’t thought about what it means to be a leader or articulated why someone would want to follow them. When we asked why they haven’t done this, lots of reasons come up:
Too busy and results-focused at work; it’s difficult to take the time to really think about what kind of leader you want to be
Have been successful without it; you’ve progressed through the leadership ranks and people choose to follow you without defining your brand
No one has complained or given negative feedback; you must be doing everything right
Why Your Leadership Brand Matters
Even if everything seems to be moving in a positive direction for your leadership now, without defining your leadership brand, you could be limiting both your potential and others’ potential to make an impact on a larger scale.
Moreover, in our Best Boss research, we found that one of the key characteristics of a Best Boss experience is “Leading from a Higher Purpose” (i.e., demonstrating a purpose beyond personal self-interest and self-profit). As such, if you are unclear what your higher purpose is as a leader, or how important it is to who you are as a leader, it will be harder to mobilize and motivate others toward that vision and higher purpose, and be seen as a “Best Boss.”
As we head into the New Year, there’s no better time to identify your leadership brand in preparation for the year ahead. So: why would someone want to follow you?
How to Craft Your Leadership Brand
Here are a few prompts to help you reflect on your leadership brand and identify HOW you want to be seen by others so you can continue creating value for yourself, your team, and your organization.
Think about your worst boss experience. What characteristics describe this person’s leadership style? How did they treat you? How did that make you feel? Write down these qualities and behaviors you DO NOT want to exhibit in your leadership style. Then, think through your own interactions with others (e.g., staff, broader team, peers) and consider whether any of these behaviors emerge in your interactions. If they do, make a plan and commitment to curb them.
Next, think through your best boss experience (or a mentor, if you have not had a best boss in your career). What characteristics come to mind when you consider this person’s values and behaviors? How did they make you feel?
Based on those two opposite experiences, write down the values that are important to you as a leader.
How do you want others to describe you?
What do you want your legacy to be?
What results do you want to deliver in the next 6 months, one year, etc.?
How do you want to contribute to your organization, industry, etc.?
Identify what is stopping you from living out these values. Is there resistance that you are facing toward certain characteristics?
After identifying your values, create a leadership brand statement. Write this down and practice it like you would an elevator speech. Examples include:
“I want to be known as a strong developer of talent so that I can motivate others to high performance.”
“I want to be known as a driver of change so that I can positively impact our customer experience.”
“I want to be seen as genuine and present in my interactions with others so that I can build strong followership.”
To keep your leadership brand top-of-mind, ask yourself every morning as you review your day ahead: “How do I want others to view me in this situation?”
Putting your Leadership Brand into Action
After completing this exercise, spend a minute answering the following questions to solidify your plan for action:
What is your leadership brand?
Is there anything stopping you from living this out?
How does this impact your decisions on a day-to-day basis?
As you continue to implement this, remember to ask for feedback on a regular basis. Don’t wait for constructive feedback, but rather create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing feedback with one another as an everyday occurrence. This feedback can be gathered in various forms (e.g., through trusted colleagues and advisors or a survey-based 360 to offer others anonymity), and will help you to gauge progress on exhibiting your leadership brand.
Do you have a leadership brand statement? How has articulating it made a difference in your ability to create value?
Every few months, we bring together HR leaders from a range of organizations to discuss hot topics in the HR world and share their struggles and successes with each other in a roundtable forum. At our most recent roundtable, 15 HR leaders had a fascinating conversation on how to best define, identify and cultivate leadership potential.
To start the conversation, we shared a graphic of an Organizational Maturity Continuum of Potential and invited each leader around the table to rate where they would place their organization. The rating scale started at 1 (“There is a lack of understanding and standard for measuring potential”) and went up to 4 (“Measurement & development of potential is integrated into strategies and consistently applied”). The responses varied from “1 moving to 2” to “close to a 4”.
For some, their organization was just starting the culture shift necessary to understand and execute on a process for managing potential. Others had a process, but it lacked objectivity, or their definitions were murky, creating a lack of confidence that the process was achieving its aims. And yet others placed themselves on the high end, feeling that they’d “demystified potential” and had integrated it successfully into their strategy.
The 9-Box Struggle
Throughout the conversation, a theme emerged around the need for clear definitions and tools that translate directly into action. The ubiquitous 9-box tool, with its high degree of differentiation, was both “loved by our leaders” because it put a process and framework around the conversation but was also the source of some ire for the HR professionals in the room. Assigning talent to the boxes was the primary action leaders took to manage potential. There was little or no process in place to objectively assign 9-box placement. Performance easily became over-weighted. Potential lacked a clear definition. While next steps were assigned to each box, leaders weren’t taking them. Unfortunately, the filling out the 9-box became the end goal, rather than a tool to inform high-potential development and succession planning.
Several participants indicated a recent move to simpler frameworks – a 4-box or a 5-box – that led more directly to action and focused their internal discussions. Rather than force categorization of employees across a number of boxes whose distinctions weren’t always clear, the simpler frameworks helped focus on employees who truly need attention. To fill their grids, leaders were educated on how to assess their talent – what questions to ask, what leadership behaviors to focus on – and prepared for talent reviews by gathering specific examples to back their opinions.
For some, the word “potential” itself was being questioned or replaced with other, less ambiguous terms that were easier for their executives to evaluate against. For example, one organization used the term “scalability” because it forced the question, “Scale to what?” This was also helpful in terms of discussing career paths in a more objective way with all employees – and not marginalizing mid-range performers. Another organization used the term “top talent” instead of “high potential” to better encapsulate the variety of ways potential and performance might show up (such as lower performers with high potential).
Very few participants were using an objective assessment tool to identify potential. Decisions were made primarily through calibration with varying levels of subjective/objective data to back up the conversations. When assessments were used, they were administered after a leader was identified as a HiPo and used to help inform developmental planning and coaching.
The Mobility Issue
In making decisions on talent, a key component was the top talent’s own desires to be considered for bigger roles, and other personal considerations of the leader in question. Whether the leader was able to be mobile at the time was a prevalent issue and was handled in various ways. For one organization, “not mobile” had meant “no potential” for a long time, but that hard line was starting to shift. Other organizations were flexing to the needs of their talent – if a high potential was “not mobile” and also successor for a role in a different location, the organization would consider whether the role could be mobile and change location instead of the talent. Others only felt the mobility issue when it came to preparing a leader for a new role – if global experience was necessary for readiness, being “not mobile” might mean that next role wasn’t a good one for that leader.
The amount of travel required for leaders in global organizations meant where leaders spent their weekends was becoming less and less of an issue, but the need to be able to lead like they weren’t virtual (when in fact they were) was a key consideration. While the discussion did acknowledge more flexibility in the area of mobility, our leaders admitted that mobility expectations driven by cultural pressures still widely exist.
While factors related to relocation (and any other personal considerations) can of course change over time, they can have an impact in the moment, as some cultures will question an individual’s commitment to their personal development – and ultimately, to the organization.
Once potential has been identified, taking timely action to unlock it is crucial. One leader suggested that whether a decision was based on subjective or objective data was less important because the organization’s bias towards action meant they’d quickly learn whether they’d made the right call.
The group found that the following actions returned the highest ROI:
Providing experience managing a turn-around
Any job that stretches the leader
Providing a senior business mentor
Cross-functional teams solving a real business problem
Building a community of HiPos to share and learn from each other
Providing a safety net for any activities that require risk is important for top talent, so that failure at a stretch opportunity doesn’t mean they’ve failed at advancing their career. One organization tracks metrics closely so they’re able to swoop in with support should things appear to be going off-track.
Managing Potential Involves the Whole Organization
Throughout our conversation, the degree to which this process involved the whole organization was reflected in various ways.
We talked about the intersection of Potential and Diversity & Inclusion goals. To make sure they have visibility on the widest range of talent, one organization brings every single manager into the talent review conversations. Another brings the team below into the executive team’s discussions.
Others talked about the importance of providing mentors (even going outside the organization to find appropriate mentors that match on important variables), as well as sponsors who will advocate for top talent and open doors for them. While for some it can be a struggle to create a mentoring relationship that properly adds value, getting asked to be a mentor in one organization has become an honor – it’s seen as an opportunity to expand their legacy beyond their own domain.
Providing a team of supporters for top talent was a common approach. Executive coaches, managers, skip-level bosses, senior business mentors, and sponsors were all used to create a group of stakeholders that took responsibility for accelerating the development of HiPos.
Bottom line: the more support and mechanisms for accountability you build around your high potential, the better.
Most organizations are still at the beginning of their journey toward fully integrating potential into their leadership identification and development processes. We will continue hosting roundtables on this and other areas to create a forum to share learnings on important topics that impact organization’s quest for top leadership talent.
I worked recently with a CEO (let’s call her Elaine) who was deeply confounded by a sudden change in her effectiveness. Her niche organization had found solid business footing with steady margins, but available-now resources and the ability to scale with a parent organization had made acquisition enticing. After much deliberation, she agreed to join a strong brand with deep pockets that would allow for greater integration across a number of adjacent businesses. Once the dust settled, despite a shining entrepreneurial career, Elaine found that her leadership skills were not getting traction in this new context.
As the new operating relationship unfolded, Elaine found herself in a dicey situation. She was getting edged out of strategy meetings that involved her organization, she was encouraged to play support roles in sales meetings, and prospectus information was increasingly siloed out of her reach. The results she was so accustomed to earning felt as if they were slipping away. Without doing anything wrong – and while pouring every ounce of results-focus she had into being successful – Elaine had entered what we call the ‘grey zone.’
There are few experiences quite as exasperating as applying all the rigor, intellect and energy you can muster to achieving an outcome…and finding the results fall short. It’s even worse when you give everything you have, and your efforts barely create a ripple of impact. Those empty times when the tire has fully lost contact with the pavement can be heartbreaking and disempowering. But these moments are also great opportunities for learning. The most challenging leadership experiences are almost always excellent vehicles for growth, if effectively translated into applicable learning and then successfully integrated into one’s leadership.
What is the ‘grey zone’?
Leaders fall into the ‘grey zone’ when they employ an approach that was effective in another context to a new challenge – and it doesn’t work. This often leaves executives vexed by their lack of effectiveness, and struggling to figure out why their efforts fell short. In these moments, it’s hard for them to navigate the way back into their sweet spot. Common entry points to the grey zone include ‘playing a game’ that was successful in the past, over-leveraging a strength, or misperceiving others’ intent, rather than reading the current context and adapting accordingly.
Falling into the ‘grey zone’
Through partnerships with leaders like Elaine, we see clear patterns around how leaders get in their own way, restrict their impact, and make inaccurate assumptions about the landscape being navigated – all which result in being in the grey zone putting in maximum effort with negligible impact. Commonly, these assumptions are based on miscalibrations of ‘IQ’ and ‘EQ,’ or how we integrate our analytical acumen with our emotional intelligence to arrive at wise insights. Consistently doing this well is akin to catching lighting in a bottle; less than 1 percent of leaders effectively maintain high levels of both results-focus and relationship-focus. Thus, the grey zone is an easy trap to fall into, and identifying the right pivots to get out of it is an important skill to sharpen.
Are you playing the right game?
If you find yourself in the grey zone, the first step to navigating a path out (and re-calibrating IQ and EQ) is to identify ways of better integrating yourself into the challenges you face. Keep in mind that the goal in these moments is to bring more of your humanity into your leadership, not change who you are as a human. Doing so requires a deeper examination of the leadership approach: what actions are reflexive in the current circumstances; where are your blind spots; and what biases are in play? Rather than looking for silver bullets and aspirational goals, the work is often about better understanding the new landscape, and the interpersonal and strategic adaptations necessary to succeed in this new environment.
Getting out of the grey zone by asking better questions
Our work with senior leaders and teams focuses on identifying the right adaptations at the right moments to gain control of the environment and translate leadership into results. In these moments, I have found that answering three fundamental questions will help any leader develop a clear headspace to see their way out of the grey zone:
Who are you?
What are your innermost motivations in the face of the current circumstances? What level of focus and energy do you want to give, now and going forward? What is your preferred risk/reward ratio? What actions can you take when your balance of ‘IQ’ and ‘EQ’ has become miscalibrated? What level of control do you prefer to have over your organization? What organizational responsibilities do you prefer not to own?
Why are you here?
How does this moment play into your career and aspirations? What’s negotiable and what isn’t? What will you ask for, what will you take, and what will be done if these actions are ineffective? How is this a pivot point towards broader opportunities?
What gifts are embedded in this moment?
What undeveloped elements of your leadership is this situation exposing? What lessons and opportunities are embedded in the experience that present an opportunity to promote both professional and personal growth? Where could you channel more empathy, support, and collaboration in your working relationships? What can you take away from the current experiences and translate into your broader leadership approach?
Answering those challenging questions doesn’t always yield immediate results, but it does lead to a clearer sense of what adaptations you can make to bring your leadership out of the grey zone. Addressing these questions did not magically snap Elaine back into achieving results the very next day; however, it did clarify her context, sharpen her focus on the key actions she needed to take, and give her greater resolve to work her plan. She began to adapt in new ways and carve a line through the ambiguity she was facing.
Have you ever found yourself in the ‘grey zone’? What did you do to navigate your way out of the ambiguity? What did you achieve? Tell us in the comments below!
Navigating the road to success – or staying on it – requires managing a lot of different factors. One that can be easily overlooked is the importance of ego. A healthy sense of ego results in a projection of confidence and capability. But when our ego becomes inflated, we run the risk of being seen as arrogant (or worse). While confidence is necessary to staying on track, crossing that line into arrogance can have dire consequences.
For some leaders with an abundance of ego, their failure starts when they don’t consider relationships as part of their equation for success. For others, it begins with having an unrealistic view of their power and abilities, which in turn leads to faulty decision-making.
It’s a fine line between a well-adjusted ego (necessary for success) and an inflated one (which is a derailer). Let’s face it, inflated egos are relatively wide-spread in many companies, and it’s easy enough to turn a blind eye to the deleterious impact that they can have. But being commonplace doesn’t mean the consequences aren’t staggering. A research study by PDI Ninth House found that derailment was 629% more likely in leaders who fail to see their limitations and are out-of-touch with their teams than leaders who were willing to see and address their limitations.
The good news is that each of us has a choice – we don’t need to let our ego get the best of us. Increasing our awareness – by means of leveraging our emotional intelligence – can help us avoid crossing the line and hindering our ability to get (or stay) on the road to success.
Here are a few of the common ego ‘potholes’ we see in our coaching, as well as some tips on how to get out of them if you get tripped up.
1. Thinking the Business You Support Revolves Around You
Think the purpose of your team is to simply execute your orders? Well, then you may run the risk of falling victim to this ego pothole.
One major sign is using terms such as “I want” or “I need” versus “What we need to achieve is…” Although serving our own needs may seem like it’s producing results in the short-term, it can create some strong dependencies on the leader that will ultimately limit your success.
For example, I once supported a director (we’ll call him Rob) who was launching a new business location. He controlled every decision from the machinery layout to what janitorial service would be used. His direct reports referred to the site as the “Robiverse,” and Rob was definitely the sun in this solar system — everything revolved around his decisions! The site launch was a success, but when Rob left to pursue bigger and better things in the company, the team was left completely frozen and unable to make decisions without him. Within weeks the site began to fail. Rob was then forced to return to the site to help properly transition responsibility and coach leaders to lead in a way that didn’t revolve around him.
To avoid this pothole, we can evaluate how we see our role. Ask yourself: “Are there times I create a bottleneck because people are waiting for my decisions that they are capable of making themselves?” “Do I tend to use the word ‘I’ much more than ‘we’?” Falling into this trap is almost inevitable if we think our employees are there to serve the leader instead of realizing the leader is there to enable and support employees to achieve results. Our research, as well as others, has proven that the latter leads to better results long-term.
2. Becoming Disconnected From the Operation You Lead
You don’t need to literally have an office at the top floor of a high-rise to be perceived as “leading from an ivory tower.” As your available time decreases, it’s important to stay connected to your team and not fall victim to thinking that position alone will result in quality decisions – especially if they will have organization-wide impact. Even worse is making decisions in a vacuum, without concern for potential negative effects on the front-line operation.
While this might not seem like you’re acting with an inflated ego, the perception you create as you become disconnected may very well be one of arrogance – that you don’t need to see what’s going on outside your office because you have such immense insight you know without even looking. To steer clear of this pothole, look for opportunities to spend a couple of minutes with front-line employees whenever possible and actively seek out moments of connection with your business. For example, are there locations you have not been to in a long time? Schedule a short trip. While there are other data points that can be useful – such as town hall discussions and employee engagement surveys – the insights gained from face-to-face interaction are hard to beat.
3. A Lack of Openness to Feedback
This pothole appears in different forms – from dismissing feedback to not admitting our mistakes – and is one of the biggest ones to avoid in navigating that road to success.
We may say to ourselves “No feedback is good feedback!” or “They have no idea what they are talking about – I don’t do that!” But avoiding, dismissing, or ignoring feedback means we’re actively steering clear of the chance to improve and remaining complacent with our limitations.
Sure, it’s possible that no feedback means everything is going well, but it would be a mistake to assume this is true. No matter how far we’ve come in our careers, there is always room for further growth. Ensuring we obtain consistent feedback and remain aware of how others perceive us is a core component to continuous improvement, and central to avoiding all the ego potholes. Tools such as a 360 feedback survey and coaching can aid in this process – or just asking your colleagues. All can result in some useful insights, not to mention the added benefit of leading by example to promote development in others.
By increasing our awareness and taking action to prevent relapsing into old habits, we can stay on the right side of our ego and make the impact we need to as confident, credible leaders.
Was there a time your ego got the better of you? How did you navigate the situation, and what did you learn? Tell us in the comments below!
A few years ago, I was having lunch with a friend whom I hadn’t seen since he landed his new position two years earlier. While we munched on our salads, I asked him how he liked his job. Half expecting him to share some level of unhappiness, I was pleasantly surprised when he told me how much he loved his new gig. I have found, after years in the human resources profession, that rare is the time when someone has told me how much they love their job. It turns out the reason for his satisfaction was his immediate manager, whom my friend described as the ‘best boss’ of his 20-year career. Intrigued, I asked him to tell me more. His response:
“I am given autonomy and freedom to do my job. I have decision-making authority for virtually all matters that affect me and my team. My boss keeps me informed on organizational happenings that could impact me. He sets high expectations. He gives me timely, constructive feedback when necessary and recognition when warranted. He always ‘has my back’ in a company that is very political, especially to a newcomer like myself. And, maybe most importantly, it is clear that he cares about me as a person, not just as an employee.”
Wow, who wouldn’t want to work for someone like that? It made me wonder if others had a best boss in their lives.
The Best Boss Study
Fueled by this curiosity, I and my Lead Well LLC partners, Dr. Toni Pristo and Dr. John Furcon, decided to study the Best Boss experience. We invited individuals to answer seven open ended questions intended to tell us how their Best Boss had impacted their performance, career and life. While many of our nearly 60 participants worked in a corporate setting, we also received feedback from people with public sector, healthcare, education and small business backgrounds. Many people so enjoyed recounting their Best Boss experience they forwarded the survey to their friends. More than a few people were inspired to reach out personally to say thanks to their own best boss. Cleary we were on to something. (If you want take the survey yourself, click here.)
Once the survey concluded we analyzed each response. Our first discovery was a set of ‘Best Boss characteristics’ which served as the catalyst for a strong relationship between the individual and their manager. This relationship could be one dimensional or multi-dimensional (e.g. collegial, personal, mentoring, etc.) and was always built on a solid foundation of personal characteristics such as humility, integrity, humor, trust, thoughtfulness, fairness, intelligence and optimism. While these characteristics would vary from boss to boss, the one consistent trait among all Best Bosses was, perhaps not surprisingly, respect.
Our analysis then identified five behavioral traits that that were repeatedly highlighted by our survey respondents. These traits are described below:
Leads From a Higher Purpose – The Best Boss has a purpose beyond self-interest / self-profit that is put into action on behalf of the individual.
Activates Potential – The Best Boss observes, values and takes steps to activate the present capability and future potential of the individual.
Grants Autonomy – The Best Boss imparts knowledge, business acumen, big picture thinking and establishes an autonomous space for the individual to perform.
Continual and Pervasive Feedback – The Best Boss seamlessly uses frequent and diverse feedback to constructively shape, reinforce and / or modify behavior.
Encourages Risk Taking to Drive Learning – The Best Boss fuels reasonable risk taking to assure learning while realizing that mistakes are a natural part of the growth process.
The Best Boss System
While these themes were interesting, they were hardly groundbreaking findings in unlocking the secrets of great people leadership. But when we looked deeper at our data we saw a couple of things that really caught our attention. First, it was evident that our five behavioral traits did not operate independently but were actually part of an integrated ‘Best Boss System’ that worked holistically together to motivate others. It was clear that Best Bosses make it their mission in life to help individuals realize their potential. But they also understood that this leadership approach was just the starting point. They instinctively knew that potential cannot be fully activated without simultaneously developing skills, setting clear expectations, providing constructive feedback, creating an autonomous space to operate, and encouraging risk taking without the fear of retribution. This system created a powerful organizational impact by building employee engagement, retaining top talent and driving superior performance.
The other compelling part of our Best Boss study was quite simply the personal tales that people shared with us. These were powerful and emotional stories that transcended well beyond work. It was obvious that our Best Bosses leave an indelibly positive impact on us, not only as employees but as people. Take a look at some of these quotes from our survey respondents and I am sure you will feel the same energy we did as we read their stories:
“(My Best Boss) made me believe that you could lead with your heart as well as your wisdom, that competence and firmness need not be at odds with compassion and integrity.”
“He would do all sorts of things to get me out of my comfort zone – push me, and even sometimes provoke me. He saw potential but also saw that I was holding something back and wouldn’t accept that I was giving everything I had to give.”
“I felt like I could take risks and push myself. I was never afraid of making mistakes and could work outside the box and try new things.”
“When faced with a difficult decision, her first question was always ‘What’s the right thing to do?’”
“The greatest boss EVER … he cared about everyone in his department. He had extreme competence and was trusted by most important people above him. But really it all came down to giving you a clear direction and, within that, complete autonomy. He didn’t allow ‘run-arounds’ by his direct reports, stuck up for you with your peers and other departments and if he didn’t agree with you, he dealt with you in private and let you sort things out. He had an open door and always made you feel welcome when you came in to talk with a hi”
“Thank you!! You made me a better person… not just a better leader. You made me learn how much more people can do when they feel supported and appreciated. Far more importantly, you made me a better wife, mother, daughter, and friend by sharing your contagious love of life. You taught me to take chances, celebrate success, and appreciate that if I don’t make mistakes, I’m not challenging myself enough!”
Logically this is where I should conclude by sharing insights on Best Boss traits and how they impact leadership and organizational performance. After all, that’s what you expect from in an article about leadership, isn’t it? And from enhancing individual performance, engagement and retention, there are plenty of things that Best Bosses do to drive organizational success. 93% of our respondents said that their individual performance excelled. 82% made statements that indicated a high level of engagement. 77% said that their Best Boss had a positive impact on both their development and career. If you are a leader yourself or have accountability for driving leadership behavior in your company, these numbers should at least give you pause for consideration. At most, they should inspire you to bring these traits more into your personal leadership style and your organization’s leadership capability.
But just focusing on the organization impact would leave out perhaps the most compelling element of the Best Boss experience, which is the spark that is created between two people and how lives change as a result. To reinforce this point I want to share a remarkable story from Courtney, a friend and former colleague, who was one of the first people I had asked to complete the Best Boss survey. Courtney decided to write about Bob, a manager from early in her career. Here is how she described him:
“Bob was a mentor, friend and one of my greatest advocates and supporters. He played a tremendous role in instilling many values that I bring to work each day. I am incredibly grateful, appreciative and privileged to have known and worked with Bob. I have taken everything he taught me into all of my future roles in work and life as a colleague, friend, wife and mother”.
Shortly after Courtney completed the survey she found out that Bob was terminally ill. Courtney printed her survey responses with the hope of sharing them at the hospital with Bob and his wife. But Bob was too sick to see Courtney, so she gave them to Bob’s wife, and attached the following letter:
I was recently asked to be interviewed regarding my favorite boss, who is resoundingly YOU. I felt like my responses truly captured all that you mean to me and the multitude of ways you have touched and enriched my life over the years, so I’ve enclosed the transcript for you to see. It could never do justice to expressing the role you’ve played in my life and the special place you hold in my heart, but it’s a start.
I hope you find comfort and peace knowing how many people love you and the level of positive impact you’ve had on everyone you’ve touched in this world.
A short time later, Bob passed away. But not before Bob’s wife was able to read Courtney’s words to her dying husband. A few days later, Bob’s minister shared Courtney’s heartfelt story at the funeral. It was an amazing moment that reminded everyone in attendance about the incredible impact one person could have on another.
A Final Thought
Whether you are a senior leader in any type of organization or simply someone’s supervisor, you are in a position to bring the power Best Boss traits to your organization. And, if you have been paying attention, you know that this is much more than an organizational topic. It’s personal. If you are lucky enough to have had a Best Boss relationship, it likely has had a transformational impact not only on your work but your life as well.
To conclude, let me ask you to think about the best job you have ever had.
Why did you like this job?
There could be lots of reasons. You understood the importance of your role. You were having an impact. You were learning. Your values were aligned. You were having fun. You were making a difference. You were trusted. You were respected.
Not just as an employee but as a person. Do you remember how you felt?
Your commitment was unquestioned. Your direction was clear. Your development was enhanced. Your performance excelled.
Your entire life was brighter.
There was probably a Best Boss at the center of it all.
Shouldn’t everyone feel this way? What would happen if they did?
That’s the extraordinary impact of a Best Boss. And we should do everything we can to make sure we have a lot more of them.
We would love to hear your Best Boss story. Visit the Best Boss Experience to share your story, watch videos, and learn more. Contact us if you’d like to talk about bringing the Best Boss Experience to life in your organization.
An industrial manufacturer had an opening for the General Manager position at one of their flagship US facilities. The organization hired a search firm to find the best candidates and internally vetted several top contenders. They ended up hiring Fred, a well-known industry veteran who had many years of experience managing similar-sized facilities. On paper, Fred was a good fit. The organization invested considerable time and resources in his onboarding. But within eighteen months, Fred was in over his head.
What went wrong? The business was experiencing rapid growth and seismic shifts in the markets they served. General Managers were being asked to think more creatively and proactively about customer needs, the business was globalizing in response to rapid advancements in technology, and there were plans in the works to significantly expand the production capability of Fred’s site. As we listened to the story in preparation for conducting assessments to fill Fred’s open-again role, it become clear what had been overlooked in the first hiring decision.
The Best Predictor of Future Performance is…
We’ve all heard the axiom, “The best predictor of future performance is the past.” Evaluating experience and past performance is important, undoubtedly, but it is increasingly insufficient as a primary predictor of future success.
Most HR selection protocols rightly stress the importance of interviewing for the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) required to drive job performance today. But how do you take into account what the job – or the entire organization – could look like tomorrow? Critical aspects of the future are unknown. Jobs and organizations shift rapidly and unpredictably.
How do you assess for what you don’t know? Even without the clearly defined KSAs that will be required in the job’s future state, you can still anticipate a candidate’s longer-term success, if you know what to look for.
Rigorously evaluating “potential” when making a hiring decision is now critical. Without it, you may find yourself with a Fred. Potential is different from one’s demonstrated behavior or current skill set. Instead, it’s about something not yet realized. Potential establishes a probability of great performance at more advanced levels of responsibility. Put another way, it is the capability to thrive in roles of greater scale and complexity than what a leader has experienced in the past.
The Four Indicators to Look Out For
Based on reviews of organizational research and academic literature, as well our experience assessing thousands of executives and up-and-coming leaders, we’ve determined that evaluating these four factors can help you get a good read on a candidate’s ability to stretch, adapt, and tackle increasingly difficult challenges. Further, these four indicators of potential have utility across most job families and industries.
This is about more than simply being smart; it’s the ability to demonstrate mental flexibility, see the big picture, and identify patterns within the business environment which have strategic importance.
Going back to our example, while Fred was certainly intelligent and possessed highly relevant experience, he was too operational in his focus. He struggled to get out of the fray to look across the business and spot problems while they were still on the horizon. Plus, as his facility was required to change the way it was operating, he had to rely less and less on his past experience and struggled to manage the ambiguity.
Being inquisitive and motivated to learn are critical elements when trying to establish someone’s potential for growth. Those high in Curiosity are hungry for feedback and motivated to put that insight into action. Indeed, research has demonstrated that curiosity promotes exposure to new and challenging opportunities, which are forerunners to learning and growth.
An important element to curiosity is the concept of learning agility. This refers to the ability and motivation to acquire knowledge and apply it. Learning agility is a cliché whose time has come, and for good reason. Given rapid expansion of disruptive technologies, the ability to quickly learn is more important than ever.
In spite of his commitment, Fred lacked the self-awareness to recognize his shortcomings, or seek out enough feedback to calibrate his perception against that of his management team. He struggled to implement the constructive feedback he was being given and didn’t make the necessary course corrections.
Leads with Purpose
There is an emerging body of literature on the power of engaging, inspiring and connecting people to a higher purpose. This means using the company’s mission to articulate his or her higher purpose and helping others do the same. This concept is consistent with Daniel’s Pink’s research: one of the biggest motivators to an employee is the desire to spend time at work in the service of something larger than ourselves. Leads with Purpose also includes one’s level of humility and social competence.
In Fred’s case, he struggled to articulate a shared sense of purpose. While he tried to make visible improvements to the operation (for example, he upgraded talent in a few key management positions), employee engagement was low. A recent study by NYU indicates that purpose-oriented workers are more likely to thrive than those who work mainly for status, pay, or an advancement because such individuals are more likely to stay engaged, perform, and to lead.
Fred was so immersed in the details of managing change that he failed to connect with his employees. As a result, morale remained low and the safety culture within the facility began to deteriorate. This trend is consistent with research on the relationship between employee engagement and performance in manufacturing, where disengaged workers have 37 percent higher absenteeism, 49 percent more accidents and 60 percent more errors and defects.
Drive was an indicator Fred had in large quantities. He had an unrelenting motivation to achieve and be successful. He was energized by new assignments and overcoming obstacles. Perhaps his strength in this area led the organization to incorrectly assume he possessed the necessary potential during the hiring process. Unfortunately, his deficiencies in the other indicators ultimately contributed to his downfall.
Strength in One Potential Indicator is Not Enough
It’s worth nothing again that Fred would be evaluated very highly on one of the indicators – Drive – but possessing the skills and abilities of one indicator is not enough. The four indicators work together, and the overpowering presence of one should not be mistaken as indicative of general potential. Thinking Agility, Curiosity, Leading with Purpose, and Drive are all necessary components to thrive in increasingly complex and uncertain futures.
Improving your hiring decisions by looking to the future
We’ve found that individuals who score highly on all four of these factors demonstrate the best potential for growth and are more likely to be successful at the next level, or when the role they’re in changes in scope.
When evaluating a candidate for any position in the organization we recommend focusing on the ability to:
1) Manage increasing levels of complexity and speed when making decisions through Thinking Agility,
2) Be open to feedback and apply learning in novel situations as a result of Curiosity,
3) Inspire, empower, and help others gain a sense of personal fulfillment in their work by Leading with Purpose,
4) Demonstrate high levels of resilience and determination to achieve difficult goals through Drive.
While carefully taking into account past performance and current levels of competence relative to the demands of the job are important components of a hiring decision, it only gives you a partial picture when trying to predict job success. A candidate’s ability to quickly adapt and respond to changes in the workplace is critical in today’s complex environment.
When the manufacturing organization filled the General Manager role, they selected a candidate who showed up well both with past experience and potential, and the organization is feeling confident in that their new hire will bring long-term success. More fully assessing the candidate’s capacity for learning and growth by evaluating against the four indicators will help organizations avoid costly hiring mistakes.
Do you have other indicators of potential that you’ve found to be great predictors of success? What have you learned from previous hiring mistakes? Share your thinking in the comments below.
A recent anonymous NY Times Op Ed boldly proclaimed that some officials within the current presidential administration are actively working against the President’s agenda and blocking some of his efforts. The defiant, salacious, and anonymous message has dominated the news cycle as pundits scramble to find evidence of the claims and uncover the author.
Political ideologies and affiliations aside, this is not an uncommon leadership issue and one worth exploring. When creating change, there will always be resistance. Savvy leaders anticipate resistance to change, plan for it, and use it to their advantage to improve change initiatives.
But if individuals are actively hiding their resistance and instead working to sabotage your efforts, what is a leader to do?
The most important factor in whether you can uncover resistance to change is creating open dialogue.
When someone actively seeks your opinion, listens to your input, offers feedback on where they see merit in your ideas, and adjusts their own plans to accommodate your thinking, you are overwhelmingly more likely to share your ideas with them. This is obvious, and yet so many leaders either fail to do this entirely or simply go through the motions and then continue to drive their own agenda. These are the instances that breed yes-men and yes-women and offer leaders little input beyond compliments for their own thinking, or restated messages that align with the current plan.
If you’re experiencing or leading a change and have not created open dialogue with your team, do these three things:
1. Actively seek feedback, individually or in small groups, about the proposed change and do not provide your own commentary (yet).
Show that you take the feedback seriously by taking notes, not interrupting, and listening intently. Then, repeat what you’ve heard to make sure you understand. Lastly, thank your employees and let them know what you found helpful about their input. Do not discuss where or why they are wrong. This is not the time. This is the time to listen, hear, and thank them for sharing.
2. Create multiple and ongoing venues for employees to ask questions.
Many organizations utilize large-scale town halls where everyone gets the same message at the same time and hears the same answers to the same questions. Others create a “comment box” program where people can anonymously drop questions for the leader into a box that gets reviewed at staff meetings. Still others start team meetings with requests for employees to bring forth information from the ‘rumor mill,’ and the leader commits to dispelling or finding out the truth about these rumors and reporting back to the team. However you orchestrate it, questions will continue to emerge as change takes hold. Allow continuous opportunity to raise concerns, not just a one-time event.
3. Avoid creating an “us versus them” environment between acceptors and resisters.
Remember, we are truly all on the same page here. In the example of the NY Times Op Ed, the author indicates that the resistance’s motivations are to stop actions and policies they perceive as destructive. Employees may too feel they’re protecting the company’s legacy, values, history, or employees by resisting change. In some ways, these are noble and genuine motivations that signify the employees’ commitment, and you want to foster and support those feelings. Even better, refining your vision to specifically address areas of concern for employees (i.e., preserving company history) is a valuable tool of influence because allowing employees to make an impact on the vision will inherently increase their buy-in. Understanding the motivations and fears of your resisters is key to aligning the team or organization for success.
Have you ever privately resisted a change? What could your organization have done to get you to open up about your concerns? What have you done to mitigate resistance as you’ve led change yourself? Sound off in the comments.
I was having dinner with a friend the other night who works for a large multi-national conglomerate. Over the last ten years, she has given the company her best efforts as a human resources professional. She told me she wanted a promotion to lead at the Director level, although those positions were few and far between in her company. When talking about her candidacy for the role, she explained to me how big data could be used in her organization to inform the hiring decision. Specifically, she talked about how analytics from HR systems could affect her bid for an advanced role. She said, “These new HRIS systems can track all sorts of things – how long a manager spends in meetings, how many emails they have unread in their inbox. These crazy computers can make up all kinds of profiles about you.” Her story sounded ominous, so I decided to investigate further.
What Big Data Does for Decisions
It’s true that big data can provide helpful information. In fact, one of our blog posts earlier this year discussed the benefits of using AI to track organization-wide trends, like turnover rates. It can also tell us how much time we spend on tasks, who we spend the most time with, and what steps we need to take to get a certain outcome. Big data can help us understand managerial skill better: we have all sorts of tools to measure critical thinking, personality, and leadership preferences within the workplace.
When aggregated, big data and artificial intelligence may lead to virtual simulations in which a professional can role-play how he or she would handle a management situation, and the computer will respond like a human being. As electronic management simulations are becoming increasingly available, managers may get to practice their leadership skills like they were playing a video game.
The idea of collecting data points to understand someone’s managerial abilities is by no means new. A few decades ago, industrial-organizational psychologists came up with ways to categorize their people along a vertical axis of performance – what an employee has done in the past to get results – and a horizontal axis of potential – how likely the employee will be able to succeed in the future. If you’ve ever participated in a talent review, you’ll realize I’m describing the nine-box grid.
Big data and artificial intelligence could help categorize professionals more quickly and make decisions on what opportunities would be best for them in the organization. However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out the risks inherent in relying too heavily on technology to provide insights. And I think we all realize that the number of unread emails in an inbox is, by itself, not nearly enough data to indict anyone.
What Big Data Means for An Emerging Leader
What’s interesting is that although we’ve gotten more sophisticated at collecting data on managerial abilities (hence the advanced technology tools), the fundamentals of being a good manager remain the same.
When I coach a manager, I typically think about four basic areas based on the work of Mark Horstmann and Mike Auzenne. Mark is the author of The Effective Manager, and Mark and Mike host a weekly podcast called Manager Tools. Their main points are:
Get to know your people well.
It seems to be a straightforward formula for success.
So, what do you do? If you are like my friend (who knows she is being watched), do you run and hide your managerial skills? Do you try to game the intricate HR systems? Maybe try to figure out the algorithm and have it work in your favor? No!
Create more positive data points! Although technology has gotten much better, the fundamentals of management have not changed. To be noticed, you have to get great results, be a strong team player, and be willing to make change happen in the organization. It’s not easy, but it’s the perfect playbook to get promoted from manager upwards in a complex organization.
My clients typically ask, “Well, how do you that?” My answer is to build strong relationships. That may sound cliché, but it is true. The stronger interpersonal relationships you have in the organization, the more effective you’ll be as a manager. Building trust in your direct reports’ abilities – and, in turn, building their confidence in you – is the cornerstone of effective management. This means taking the time to get to know your people, understanding what they need from you, and setting clear expectations of what they need to accomplish. If you get strong results, are a strong team player, and can drive change; you will be on the upward path towards for promotion.
As for the sophisticated algorithms, stick to the fundamentals of managing others well and the formulas will take care of themselves. Remember, we don’t want to work for managers who have good ratings – we want to create a collaborative partnership with a great boss!
“Either/or” thinking is all around us, even though common sense tells us life is not black and white. For example, consider the business leader who asks the marketing team to determine if the business should invest primarily in technology or design for the next release of their product line – either technology or design! Why not both?
Or, when the Board of a healthcare system facing its CEO’s upcoming retirement asks, “Should we recruit a physician-leader or do we need to find a strong business leader?” The two desirable features cannot appear in a single person?
Or, when a conflict arises between the heads of two departments about the loss of a key account, and the blame game begins. The inevitable emails are volleyed until an ultimatum arrives from an otherwise sensible and very valuable leader: “Either you back me up on this or you can start looking for my replacement.”
“Either/or” thinking is the decision-making equivalent of painting oneself into a corner – or, in the example of the ultimatum, being painted into a corner by others. Under high-stress conditions, people lose their ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity; they take flight into the simplicity “either/or” thinking provides, even if that refuge is short-term and ultimately costly.
So, what does a business leader do in the face of “either/or” thinking? Here are three prescriptions for those who aspire to be a “Both/And” leader.
Ask for a Third Option
When the first attempt at solving a problem comes in the form of just two options – especially if those options reflect the perspectives of opposing camps – push back and ask for additional options.
A software company was falling behind in the development of new products because they had to allocate the time of their engineers to supporting customers who were having difficulties with previous releases. The customer service people were asking for more time from the engineers while marketing and sales were asking for the next new product. The head of engineering demanded a decision at a senior team meeting: “Either we support what is already out there, or we abandon our customers and focus on new products. It’s one or the other.” The President acknowledged everyone’s point of view but then proposed a different approach: “Look, we’re pulling on opposite ends of a rather frayed rope. We will support our customers and we will design new products, but we can’t accomplish these things going at it the same way we have in the past. We need to re-think how we support our customers and develop new products; we can get more out of what we have.” By re-framing the problem and extracting the team from “either/or” thinking, the President initiated a process that ultimately led to gains in both customer support and new product development – without adding more people.
Challenge your team to draw up criteria that would represent a good outcome before they start recommending actions. Then, build options that meet the criteria. Insist on considering “Both/And” options that accomplish multiple goals – both cost reduction and improved quality; both functionality and design; both increased productivity and improved safety.
In anticipation of the new health legislation, a small health care system hired two black belts trained to find options for improving quality assurance and patient safety. The management team made it clear to them that there were many opportunities to improve the system, but they wanted to focus on changes that would accomplish three things simultaneously: improve patient outcomes, reduce costs and engage the health care professionals. By setting multiple criteria to filter decisions about which opportunities warranted attention, the management team prevented wasteful debate.
Employ an Inclusive Use of Data
Use an open, inclusive approach to gathering data. Actively invite multiple perspectives, invite both hard data and soft data, e.g. both error rates and focus groups; both survey data and expert opinion.
A large city’s Department of Public Health was struggling to find a cost-effective approach to meeting the needs of the mentally ill. There were plenty of opinions, and heated arguments bubbled up which often seemed to be built around professional turf issues. For example, some felt the patients were put on medication reflexively and without sufficient human support. A physician overhearing that concern became angry: “What do you people want? Either we get these poor people on medication or they will be roaming the streets hallucinating. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.” The head of the Department hired a university to study the question, and they employed a very transparent approach to ensure all parties were heard, including patients. There was plenty of hard data, but also an effort to gather the perspectives of those who worked there, those who referred patients and those who chose not to refer patients. A fuller picture invited a more thoughtful approach to the complex problems the Department faced. The final report provided focus and direction by articulating how to move toward a system of care that would be both adequate to the needs of the mentally ill, especially those with chronic and severe mental illness, and sustainable.
If the villain in this story is “either/or” thinking in the face of complexity, the hero is the leader’s capacity to manage the tension that comes with high-stakes decisions and to discern what is best by weighing all the information available.
Periods of crisis bring pressure and that, in turn, can degrade the quality of organizational thinking. A common indicator of problem-solving gone wrong is the inclination to retreat into “either/or” formulations of issues that are much more complex. It is at these moments when leaders can have their greatest value as they help their organization step toward the complexity and demonstrate the importance of “Both/And” thinking.
Have you ever faced a problem with two seemingly incompatible solutions? How did you find an option that satisfied all needs? Tell us about it in the comments below!