A Key Leadership Question: Who’s Holding Your Ladder?

Who’s Holding Your Ladder?

Walking through a busy convention floor at Book Expo America, I nearly bumped into him as I dodged through a publisher’s stand on my way to an appointment. It was one of those chance meetings, the ones you don’t expect but you figure somehow it was arranged or planned to happen just that way.

Dr. Samuel R. Chand and I collided, and it started a conversation about leadership and what makes it possible. After our meeting, I had the opportunity to read his books and soak in his ideas. I’m delighted to introduce him to you and share some of our conversation.

 

“The best use of power is to give it away.” –Sam Chand

 

The Story Behind the Ladders

I want to know the story behind your work. How did you first develop the idea for your books?

The story behind my book Who’s Holding Your Ladder? was an epiphany and came from my experience in 1999 in Long Island, NY.

Waiting for someone to call me into the auditorium, I stared out the window. As I meditated on the points I wanted to cover as a featured speaker at this leadership conference, something in the street below caught my attention.

A man stood on a ladder painting—not that uncommon a sight. I smiled, remembering my student days in college. I had spent my summers doing that kind of work. Yet I couldn’t take my eyes off the man. For several minutes, I watched his graceful motions as he moved his brush and roller across the surface.

As I watched, I noticed that this painter was only covering a limited area. He stretched as far as he could to the left, to the right and even reached above his head. It also occurred to me that he was only going to the height that he was comfortable at, even though the extension ladder he was using could reach much higher.

From my painting experience, I remembered that once I was on the ladder and had the necessary resources, I painted a much larger area before taking the additional time needed to climb down and relocate the ladder. It was an efficient method.

 

“Those who know how will always work for those who know why.” –Sam Chand

 

“Why isn’t he going higher to paint all the way up? What would allow him to go higher?” I asked myself. Then I saw the reason—no one was holding his ladder. By himself, the painter couldn’t go any further. He had done everything he could by himself. He needed help.

samchand 2As I watched his graceful strokes, I realized the leadership parallels. Whether we’re talking about churches, businesses or non-profit organizations, the effectiveness of a leader depends on the person or persons holding the ladder—those who are in support roles.

The height that a visionary leader reaches on the ladder to their vision is not controlled by the leader’s capabilities. It’s not even controlled by how inspiring their vision might be. It’s controlled by who’s holding the ladder.

Then another thought struck me: Those who hold the ladders are as important as the leaders themselves.

The visionaries could have all the training possible, the most expensive equipment, years of experience and knowledge about painting, and a blend of expertise and passion about their craft. But that’s not the deciding factor. The ladder holder determines the height to which the ladder climber ascends. “That’s it!” I cried aloud. “Those who hold the ladder control the ascent of the visionaries.”

 

“When you’re 100 percent certain, you’re too late.” –Charles W. Robinson

 

Additionally, a ladder holder who may be very capable with a 20-foot extension ladder (or vision) may not be the person you want holding your 45-foot extension ladder (a new or enlarged vision). Old ladder holders are rarely adequate at holding new ladders.

My book Who’s Holding Your Ladder?: Selecting Your Leaders: Leaderships Most Critical Decision explains this powerful concept. It explains the need for qualified ladder holders and the necessary qualifications, differentiates between leaders and managers, and describes how you can turn your ladder holders into ladder climbers.

 

“The only time you start at the top is when you’re digging a hole.” -Sam Chand

 

Acknowledge the Ladder Holders

I love your focus on those who hold ladders. How should leaders acknowledge the ladder holders?

The greatest acknowledgement is for leaders to recognize that no one would be the leader that they are today had it not been for someone holding their ladder. There’s no such thing as a “self-made” person. Someone gave us our first break. Someone took a risk and believed in us. Someone leveraged their credibility for our sake. Someone forgave us and gave us another chance. Someone knew we had messed up yet defended us to those who wanted us vanquished. Someone funded that shaky idea. Someone gave us our first job. Someone…

Therefore a spirit of humility and dependency will be the attitude that exudes appreciation for our ladder holders.

 

“More than anything, leadership is about managing expectations.” –Sam Chand

 

Pick the Right People to Hold Your Ladder

What Leaders and the Declaration Signers Have in Common

July 4, 1776

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.

Back to July 4th, 1776.

 

Your Leadership Moment

It was an incredible leadership moment.

As I reflect this week on the July 4th holiday, I think about the leadership lessons from that day:

“Leaders take risks to assure a better future.” -Skip Prichard

 

“Leaders know growth often comes from the uncomfortable.” -Skip Prichard

 

“Leaders inspire others to a better vision of themselves.” -Skip Prichard

 

“Leaders don’t wait for perfection.” -Skip Prichard

 

“Leaders know that imperfect progress is better than stagnation.” -Skip Prichard

 

“Leaders believe more in tomorrow’s promise than today’s problems.” -Skip Prichard

 

Decision Time

How Great Firms Prosper Through Entrepreneurial Thinking

Develop an Entrepreneurial Mindset

Why are some businesses more vulnerable to disruptive change than others?

Should big companies engage in entrepreneurship?

How do you stay ahead of the competition?

In Achieving Longevity: How Great Firms Prosper Through Entrepreneurial Thinking, Jim Dewald provides advice on how to create a culture of entrepreneurial thinking. He offers a method to combine the strength of a strong, established business with the innovation of a startup.

Jim is the Dean of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, a former CEO and entrepreneur.

 

“To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often.” –Winston Churchill

 

Prepare Yourself for Real Disruptive Change

What makes businesses vulnerable to disruptive change?

There are 2 main messages in my book.

First, that while we think the world is changing rapidly, in fact, we continue to rely on a platform that arose from the invention of 3 general purpose technologies in the 1870’s: the internal combustion engine, the light bulb, and the telephone. Even with the computer and the Internet, we have spent decades boxing in this amazing new technology to fit our paradigm need for a faster, smaller, cheaper phone. So, while we think we are in the midst of rapid change, the western world is in fact obsessed with ensuring we stick with the old world and reward refinements of tired mature ways of doing things. When real change comes, will business leaders be prepared? I don’t think so.Dewald_AchievingLongevity

One of the reasons why we won’t respond well when real change comes is that while ideas are abundant, small start-up ventures lack the resources – people, money, physical assets — to launch these ideas. They also lack the credibility, networks, access to customers, suppliers, government officials, etc. This limits their ability to move these ideas forward, no matter how great they may be. At the same time, existing companies are flush with people, money, networks, customers, and, most important, credibility and brand value. But what they lack is an entrepreneurial mindset. To move forward, companies need to resist the rhetoric of finding and sticking to a narrow form of sustainable competitive advantage, and instead adopt a model of strategic entrepreneurship that promotes transformational growth and longevity.

The fundamental impact of disruptive change is that our organizations are not built to manage change very well. Through principles such as sustainable competitive advantage, we tend to use fixed mindsets that build a sort of impenetrable armor around the firm’s processes and procedures, instead of being flexible and adaptable. When disruptive technologies or business models present an alternative, firms resist. Indeed, even customers often resist, as we remain stuck in our paradigms formed as noted above. However, in time, customers adapt because they do not have the level of sunk investment in the old ways that companies often do. Time and again, rigid non-entrepreneurial firms fall by the wayside.

There are many very extreme examples of this phenomenon. Think of Kodak, which is a firm that actually pioneered digital photography, but in the end was unable to adapt to this powerful disruptive technology.

 

“Progress is a nice word we like to use. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.” –Robert Kennedy

 

Embrace a Spirit of Entrepreneurship

How can large organizations embrace a spirit of entrepreneurship?

I emphasize the importance of adopting three points:

  1. Recognize that opportunities are developed at all levels of the organization.
  2. Build a culture that embraces and supports entrepreneurship.
  3. Consciously develop support for entrepreneurial initiatives through effectual processes or bricolage.

The key is leadership, not only in words, but in action. It is imperative that the CEO endorse an entrepreneurial culture by example – championing new ideas. In fact, a failure or two is good because it demonstrates that even the CEO recognizes that not every entrepreneurial idea is destined for success, and it is important to manage your investment and ensure that no one new venture will take down the ship.

 

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” –Peter Drucker

 

The Key Elements of a Good Corporate Culture

What are the elements of a good corporate culture?

There are many theories on this question, and I included quite a few in my book. In the end, the key elements are:

  1. Provide open opportunities for opportunity development – these include group time (because we know that mixing people with diverse expertise and background can lead to innovative solutions), plus unstructured open thinking time (such as 3M’s famous “tinkering” time).
  2. Adopt a learning culture – growth mindsets are essential, pursuing what could be as opposed to why this won’t work.
  3. Accept failure, and the importance of learning from failure.
  4. Adopt bricolage (known outcomes, with unknown ways of getting there), or effectuation (building on invention, experiment, and science) as frameworks for pursuing each entrepreneurial initiative (purposefully).

 

“The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization’s ability to learn faster than the competition.” –Peter Senge

 

Encourage Creativity at all Levels

How do leaders encourage creativity at all levels of the organization?

The first thing I would say is that leaders must recognize that organizations need time to change. This is not an overnight process and will require considerable and repetitive actions and wins to change. And failure is a key component – an organization can move far closer to being creative and adopting entrepreneurial thinking by showing that a person with a great idea that failed in implementation is celebrated as thinking outside the box, rather than penalized for failing.

Researchers have studied the importance of story-telling in organizations, and how a lasting culture can be built around well-known, maybe even legendary, stories that come from the history of the organization. The dimensions of story-telling I describe in my book include equality (versus inequality), security (versus insecurity), and control (versus lack of control). Through story-telling of actual events that happened in the organization’s history, employees are able to gauge whether the organization will endorse or shun creativity at all levels.

 

“Successful innovators are..not risk-focused; they are opportunity focused.” –Peter Drucker

 

Middle management is often ignored in the leadership literature. What role do they have in this type of change management?

Strategies to Accelerate the Growth of Your Leaders

When You Need Leaders Fast

Talent.

Most of us leading organizations are thinking about it all the time. Great strategy means nothing if you don’t have the people to make it happen.

If you want to lead, if you want to accelerate your growth, if you want to energize your company, you need to have a talent management system that produces leaders.

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.

 

Managing Talent in Your Organization

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.

 

Make Leadership Development A Top Priority

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.

 

“Leadership is not a task. it is a role.”

 

Rethink Feedback

9 Leadership Lessons from Dad

This post is in honor of Father’s Day. Father’s Day is this Sunday, June 19th.

Wisdom from Dad

How old I was, I don’t know. Probably around four or five years old, give or take, though my father will likely correct the number with his own memory of the same event. It was a typical hot summer day, and my family was enjoying a day at the beach. We were in Ocean City, New Jersey, to be specific. At that time, the beach seemed to stretch on forever, which I now realize was a function of my age more than the actual distance of the sand. We brought food to the beach, which was typical because there was no way my father would pay Boardwalk prices for anything.

As usual, I was in the water. Somehow I lost track of my brother, Jack, who was with me. When I pulled myself out, exhausted, I scanned the crowd, looking for someone I recognized. I started walking, dodging people, umbrellas, walking around towels, sunbathers, and family tents. After what seemed like a few hours, which likely meant twenty minutes, I realized I was completely, utterly lost.

No matter where I looked, I didn’t see a single person I recognized. I was just short of panic. It’s a feeling I can recall to this day. I had never been lost before, uncertain about what to do or where to go.

Then, I spotted my dad. Where I was stressed, he was as calm as could be. My heart rate may have been spiking, but not his. He was scanning the area, his eyes making a mechanical sweep of everything. As soon as I saw him, I felt a flood of relief as if one of the waves washed all of the worry away in an instant.

This is one of the first memories I have of my father, and one that’s fitting to remember on Father’s Day. A few years ago, I wrote about 9 Leadership Lessons from Mom. It was so popular that I was interviewed numerous times about my childhood. Today I want to turn that spotlight onto my dad and share some of that fatherly wisdom. Because that day on the beach, I had a realization: when I was lost, I wasn’t really on my own. Dad was looking for me. And he wouldn’t give up until he found me. Still to this day, when I hear a sermon about God leaving the flock of sheep to look for a single lost lamb (Matthew 18:12), I think of my own dad doing that very thing.

 

1. Leaders never stop learning.

My dad loves to learn. His degrees range from electrical engineering to operations research (and many others). He went to seminary and then got an MBA. Even now, he is finishing a doctorate in business. My siblings know that our family was able to “Google” something long before the search engine was even formed. We simply found Dad, inputted the question, and out would come the answer. When the internet first started, I would often find he was faster. And, when we took a family trip, we would have to stop and read every plaque and see more historical sites than anyone else I knew.

Leaders have an insatiable curiosity. The more you learn to ask questions, the more you will learn information that may change the future.

 

“Leaders have insatiable curiosity.” -Skip Prichard

 

2. Leaders serve others first.

When my wife and I were first married, we moved quite a bit. Guess who helped us move? Painted? Took down or put up wallpaper? How about fixing the leaky sinks? Inspecting the house? You’d think he was a contractor until I add that he did our taxes, analyzed the best mortgages, and told us about the history of the area.

Leaders serve others first. Leaders give freely of their time and talents.

 

“Leaders give freely of their time and talents.” -Skip Prichard

 

3. Leaders are thrifty.

That’s another way of saying my dad is uh…cheap. And you’d have to be with only a government salary to raise six kids and numerous others we would take into the family home. The lesson, though, is to look for the value in everything. Don’t overpay. Realize that we need to be good stewards of what we have. Don’t waste anything.

Leaders don’t wish for the impossible; they create results with what they have.

 

“Leaders create results with what they have, not what they wish they had.” -Skip Prichard

 

4. Leaders are not defined by a position.

Yes, he had an important job. He dutifully gave his time and talent to his employer. However, my father didn’t lead at work and then fail at home. He spent time with us. He was loyal to his family, and in particular, to my mom. None of us ever questioned his devotion. And that taught me a powerful lesson about leadership: it isn’t defined by a job.

Leadership is defined by character, not position.

Mom and Dad

“Leadership is defined by character, not position.” -Skip Prichard

 

5. Leaders appreciate the uniqueness of each individual.

My childhood home was a bit unusual. Somehow people found their way to our home when they were in trouble. If you were abused, our home was a place of refuge. We had our share of rather strange people stopping over. I never recall my father judging any of them. They were in need, and so they were welcome. And that was it.

Leaders don’t judge. Leaders appreciate each individual for who they are.

 

“Leaders appreciate each individual for who they are.” -Skip Prichard

 

6. Leaders continually raise the bar.

If I came home with a 93% on a paper, I don’t recall a celebration. Instead, I was asked what I got wrong, why, and did I understand what I did wrong. The focus wasn’t on the criticism, but on learning and on striving to be better. My parents required each of us to learn a musical instrument, too, simply because of the benefits we would accrue by doing that.

Leaders raise the bar. Leaders push those around them to reach for more.

 

“Leaders push those around them to reach for more.” -Skip Prichard

 

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7. Leaders don’t give up.