If you’ve ever been to Philadelphia in the summer, you know how hot it is.
Imagine yourself there in 1776. You’re a representative of one of the colonies, wearing a dress coat, a shirt with sleeves tightly cuffed at your wrist and, of course, your silk stockings.
It’s now July 4th and the document is ready for signature. With its final approval, the colonies will declare independence from Great Britain, ending a long debate and all revisions of the document. The United States, a new nation, will be born.
You approach the table and see John Hancock’s signature in massive letters, which he says is so that “King George can see it without spectacles.”
Your turn to sign. The other delegates look at you expectantly.
You realize the weight of the moment, but you also realize that, by signing, your own life will be in danger. To many, you will be a traitor. If the revolution fails, you will hang for just a few letters on a piece of paper.
You push those thoughts aside and sign.
Your signature, along with the others, just changed the world.
A new beginning. The United States of America is now born.
The new country was far from perfect. The horrific practice of slavery wouldn’t end until the Civil War nearly ripped the country apart. Women and minorities had no vote.
Still, the United States of America would become a country that most of us are proud to call home. We value family, freedom, God and country.
In Leaders Ready Now: Accelerating Growth in a Faster World, authors Matthew Paese, Ph.D., Audrey B. Smith, Ph.D., and William C. Byham, Ph.D. share their collective wisdom about talent and leadership. All three authors are employed by DDI helping organizations grow their own leaders.
I recently spoke with Matt about the new book and the extensive research on talent and growing leaders in organizations.
Study: Leadership readiness is stagnant even among companies with leadership programs.
What’s working and not working with today’s talent management systems?
What’s working is that we know how to build processes, tools, and technology to help leaders learn. What’s not working is that all this “stuff” fails to generate the energy that fuels real growth. In fact, more often than not, the initiatives that are put in place to accelerate the growth of talent drain energy instead of creating it.
The learning experiences that leaders describe as the most beneficial are not necessarily the ones that we design for them. They tend to be the ones that happen on the fly. So we have to find ways to make the tools, technology and learning experiences that we design more useful and powerful on a day-to-day basis.
Potential is not performance. Potential is not readiness.
With the increasing pressure to deliver immediate financial results, some leaders may discount leadership development. How do you make it a top business priority and keep it there where it belongs even in tough times?
There is a simple answer to this one: keep score or don’t play. But you can’t just keep score of anything. When we say ‘keep score,’ we mean something very specific. Frankly, this is where many companies get it wrong. It’s important to remember that most organizations invest in development so that they can create more capability, and they need it now, but they don’t keep score that way. It’s routine to see organizations declare growth-focused objectives while they only keep score of learning activity, engagement, or retention. It’s like scoring a basketball game by keeping track of how many players are on the court. It’s just not the right metric. Eventually people lose interest and frustration sets in, so programs become difficult to sustain.
A classic example of keeping score of the wrong thing is tracking how many people have development plans or how many people were satisfied with a learning initiative. Those may be interesting metrics, but they don’t say much about what happened to leadership capability as a result of the effort.
“Each time you give up on a leader, you drain energy from your acceleration system.”
A measure of growth tracks the application of what has been learned or may keep track of changes in leadership readiness. For example, some organizations have begun scoring ‘conversions,’ which involve converting a leader from ‘not ready’ to ‘ready now.’ If you set targets against conversions (instead of learning activity or engagement) and establish clear accountability for who is responsible for generating them, the dynamics of a leadership acceleration system change dramatically, and management becomes much more competitive (in a good way) about growing talent.
Accelerating Talent Growth
1: Commit: adopt acceleration as a business priority.
2: Aim: define leadership success for your business context.
3: Identify: make efficient, accurate decisions about whom to accelerate.
4: Assess: accurately evaluate readiness gaps and give great feedback.
5: Grow: make the right development happen.
6: Sustain: aggressively manufacture the energy for growth.
Talk about leadership context and why it matters to leadership development.
In today’s environment, business context means constant change. This means that development needs to move at the speed of change. Learning content, and the tools, support, and technology that leaders need to apply it, must be directly applicable to their most pressing challenges. They simply don’t have time or mindshare to engage in the sort of extracurricular development that traditionally characterized leadership development.
If formal learning is to make a positive business difference, it must be supported by readily available and easy-to-use tools, job aids, technology, networks, and management support. Organizing these assets isn’t rocket science, but when it’s done right, the results show it. Decades of experience and research have generated big data that now shows convincingly that a handful of the right principles and practices make a profound difference in the outcomes of leadership development that is built to be context-specific.
Trust. Find any high performance team with sustained success and you’ll find it. It’s the glue of relationships. It’s the desire to serve the team over self.
As important as it is, you’ll receive little training on it in an MBA program. You may have experienced it, but it seems elusive. Few can describe it; fewer can teach it, and finding a leader who can create it multiple times seems like a dream.
Enter Colonel JV Venable. He’s a graduate of the USAF’s Fighter Weapons School. He commanded and led the USAF Thunderbirds and 1100 American airmen.
“Commitment is the demonstrated will to deliver for the people around you.” -JV Venable
Teaching trust is crucial. Think about the trust needed to fly within inches of another yet at over 500 miles per hour. You just can’t imagine doing it without the highest degree of trust. JV’s new book, Breaking the Trust Barrier: How Leaders Close the Gaps for High Performance, shares lessons from his experience as a Top Gun instructor with all of us. I recently asked him about creating this level of trust and how everyone can learn from his experience.
“Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.” -Helen Keller
As you might imagine, the insights and sensations that came with flying on the point of the Thunderbirds were pretty special. More often than not I got the feeling my jet was being furthered by the five jets on my wing. I was convinced it was an emotional surge until I felt the shift on a particularly smooth day, half way through my first year on the team. In the middle of the demonstration, an unexpected but very real surge of energy hit my jet and it began to turn the entire formation — like a giant hand lifting up my left wing. During the debrief it became obvious the surge came from the rate of closure and end-game proximity of my left wingman. He was so close that he caused that wing to become more efficient and produce more lift than the one on the right. That was the moment I realized it wasn’t just a feeling I was being carried by the team around me; the surge was real. Just like stock car racers on the track at Daytona, we were drafting. The more I thought about it, the more I could see drafting’s effects everywhere, and the thought would change the way I looked at the world around me.
How can understanding the phenomenon of drafting help a leader?
In racing, the concept of drafting is based on a leader cutting a path through the air for those behind him, and a trailer being close enough to the leader’s bumper to shift the drag from the leader’s bumper to his own. That same concept was alive on the Thunderbirds in the air — and on the ground.
Every unit within our organization was minimally manned, and each relied on the others to help execute its role. Our amazing people were lined up, bumper to bumper, taking the weight, the drag off the individuals and elements in front of them, while they plowed the path for those in trail.
Once you realize the impact closure can have on your team, you’ll see drafting everywhere you look. Cyclists in the Tour de France, the V formations of migrating geese, even ducklings on a pond will make you realize how your actions can cause gaps to close or expand, and accelerate or slow your organization down. That dwell time will give you an understanding of the positive impact, or the repercussions of your actions, before you put them in play.
Drafting makes leadership something you can see.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” -Abraham Lincoln
We’ve all seen it. Questionable decisions, made in a corporate office, are rolled out. No one questions the corporate mandate. Sure, some may grumble or may complain about the stupidity of something, but little is done. No one is listening anyway, especially to the employees who are just told to hit their numbers.
“Engagement is being totally present.” -Steven D. Goldstein
Steven Goldstein was an executive at Sears when he visited a store in Florida. His question Why Are There Snowblowers in Miami?, is now the title of his book and is a wakeup call to leaders. Engaging with employees and customers in the right way will help organizations make better decisions.
Steve has held executive positions with leading global brands including American Express (Chairman & CEO of American Express Bank), Sears (President of Sears Credit), Citigroup and others. He also has advised numerous CEOs on how to improve performance.
“Leaders connect by interacting authentically with employees, not by dictating to them.” -Steven D. Goldstein
The story is such a compelling example that I have to ask you to start with it. Tell us about the title of the book and how it impacted your leadership thinking.
Twenty years ago, while I was President of the Sears Credit Card business, I happened to be in Miami in February to make a speech. As I always did, I visited the local store – to have a look around, talk to employees and see what we could do for them to help improve sales. When I walked into the lawn and garden department, my eyes were immediately drawn to four shiny red snowblowers. I found a salesman and asked him, “Why are there snowblowers in Miami?”
On my flight back to Chicago, I started to think about all of the other “snowblower” stories I had come across in my career, and it struck me as a perfect metaphor for what is wrong in business. Since then, my experience in leading, advising and investing in companies convinced me that there had to be a way to attack this.
“Maintaining the status quo keeps you from achieving your full potential.” -Steven D. Goldstein
I tend to question everything. If someone tells me, “That’s the way it’s always been done,” I will challenge that process. Because what I have found is that with many leaders, there is a gravitational bias towards the status quo. And while it’s not likely to get you into trouble, simply maintaining the status quo will keep you from achieving your full potential.
I began codifying the approaches, principles and practices I was using and realized it would be great if I could share this learning with other leaders so that they could improve the performance in their own organizations. So I began writing this book, and I thought this was the only title that made sense.
Most recently, I have been giving speeches about these principles and working with several leadership teams to teach them how to make this part of their daily diet. It is resonating extremely well.
“A company is only good as the people it keeps.” -Mary Kay Ash
How do leaders best adopt an outsider’s perspective — especially if they have been at an organization for many years?
For many leaders, this is not easy to do. If you are a consultant or a private equity investor, you look at a business as an enterprise consisting of assets that generate cash flow, which in turn generates attractive returns to shareholders. Through that aperture, you want to identify those areas where changes, improvement and new directions can be made to enhance value. You are consciously looking for those nuggets.
For many leaders, those nuggets are hiding in plain sight. Leaders must first accept that adopting an “outside in” perspective is critical to finding this gold. I’m currently Chairman of a private equity-owned company, and recently the leadership team was in a brainstorming session to explore new opportunities and approaches as well as to consider whether our existing business model needed changes. After discussing many good ideas, someone asked, “Will our PE owners be OK with this? I’m not sure they will.” My answer to him was, “They are looking to us to present them with a plan that makes sense, and if it does, they will say thank you.”
Like most things, leaders must accept the fact that their views are colored, even distorted, by their history with the company – and that this skewed perspective limits the possibilities they are able to see. They have to be willing to take the first step, as with any program that induces change. I tell leaders to take a long walk, forget everything they know about their business, come back into the building as if it were the first time and just start asking questions. While it may sound somewhat silly, it actually creates some discomfort; more importantly, it generates excitement about this exploration possibly leading them in new directions. I myself question everything: Why do we do it that way? What does that mean? What other options have you explored? Do you have the right players in each position? This “fresh eyes” approach is one of my five principles of engagement and is essential for generating any real, positive change.
“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” -Robert Louis Stevenson
Do you regularly make time to get away by yourself?
As your life gets busier, how often do you just spend time with you?
Most of us don’t think we have the time for this. We rush to work. We rush to the store, to pick up the kids, to the gym, running errands like a hamster on a wheel.
Want to try an experiment? I love to watch this event, which plays out in every restaurant I have seen. A couple is eating dinner. One person will get up. See how long the remaining person waits before fishing out the cell phone and playing around on it. Likely, it will not be long. It seems we are that uncomfortable with being alone, even in a crowded restaurant.
What would happen if we made alone time a priority?
Jesus did it. He would regularly remove himself from the crowds to be alone and meditate.
Thoreau did it. His book Walden is a classic, filled with the wisdom of his time alone in the woods.
But today? Take the time to be alone?
Studies show taking time out for you increases memory, creativity, and mood.