Rethinking leadership development - it's about strategy execution

About 15 years ago a major Australian resources company set out to develop ‘world class leadership’.  But Professor Chris Worley rebuts[i] the usual prescription of ‘more leadership’.  He argues that asking people to change behaviours without changing the underlying system – the structure, systems and processes – is borderline immoral. It is this system which reinforces the very behaviours you are seeking to change.   We have all seen managers going off to leadership training only to return to a work environment where nothing else is changing.  Forget new mindsets and behaviours. 

Leadership requires us to develop new behaviours and create a context in which those behaviours can flourish. 

This parallels my organisational research which began with the resources company looking to build ‘world class leadership’.  Focus group research among leaders within their organisation revealed three major barriers to better leadership:

  • No-one understood the organisational vision
  • Leaders felt overwhelmed by initiatives from head office; and
  • Leaders felt conflicted between creating an esprit de corps and exercising discipline

I was confident I would find the same issues at any resources company.   Add to this another observation.  Most mid-level managers can develop a reasonable model of leadership in a facilitated workshop.  Leadership barriers are often not a lack of knowledge. 

This led to my research question: what role – if any – does the organisational context play in creating barriers to leadership? 

The research began with a qualitative survey of more than 100 leaders in one large mining company asking: “What are the barriers to you being a better leader?”  Roughly half of the barriers described were personal factors[ii]: I wish I had more energy; I wish I could be more inspiring; I wish I was smarter … etc.  The other half were organisational factors: lack of clarity around the strategy and my role; dysfunctional (bureaucratic) systems; ineffective performance management systems; organisational culture. 

This research was extended with in depth interviews within the original research firm.  It later incorporated data from another large mining company. 

What did I find?  Here’s three high level take-aways[iii].

Organisational context presents significant barriers to leadership.  These barriers are at least as significant as personal barriers.  My research findings on this were unequivocal.  We need to invest more time in designing a context which enables effective leadership.  As Elliott Jaques has observed, ‘neither effective leadership nor effective leadership development is possible unless the organisational conditions are right’.   The right conditions should make it possible ‘for ordinary people to exercise effective leadership’. 

But what are the right conditions? 

My research identified three core themes that create the right conditions.  It begins with clarity – in terms of strategy, priorities and roles.  It requires competence, at both the individual and the organisational level.  We need to rebalance the organisational systems design: from one predominantly built for control to one built to enable.    And a culture that is open to change is a given: engagement and empowerment; courage (the value that enables all others) and agility; and a willingness to learn and adjust.    

Collectively this describes what I call the execution architecture.  

The organisational design challenge is to create an interlocking and integrated series of structure, decision rights, resource allocation systems, work processes and rewards that reinforce each other in support of the strategy.

Leadership and management are symbiotic … one without the other is like fertiliser without water: wasted.  Organisational competence is the result of ‘managerial’ work.  Effective management is essential to transformational leadership.  But can we walk on both feet?  The research suggests that organisations that seek to lift their ‘leadership quotient’ may lose some of their ‘managerial fitness’.  The real challenge: how can we lift both?

Finally, the quality of the leader’s leader is critical … if you are not seeing the transformational leadership you expect from your team ask yourself if they see you as a transformational leader.  The quality of the leader’s leader plays a critical role in influencing the likelihood of transformational leadership beyond simple ‘role modelling’.  A simple example: if your reports feel empowered, they will in turn be more inspirational, a central dimension of transformational leadership. 

So what can you do?  Here are three simple processes that you could introduce into your organisation’s leadership development agenda:

  1. Incorporate a GE style ‘WorkOut’ exercise into your leadership development programs focusing on removing leadership barriers.  Have your leaders identify an organisational barrier to effective leadership in your organisation; build the business case to remove them; and pitch the solution to a panel of senior leaders.  The leadership group either endorse the proposal or give direct feedback there and then. 
  2. Identify the top three issues that you feel are organisational barriers to stepping your leadership up to the next level.  Discuss these with your peers.  Pick one and anoint yourself champion for ‘removing’ this barrier.  Keep your peers in the conversation.
  3. Have an explicit conversation with your direct reports about the business strategy.  Ask them to describe the strategy on three phrase cards (they can’t just parrot the ‘corporate speak’ … they have to translate it into their words).    Share everyone’s contribution and resolve differences.  Ask them how their role contributes to the strategy execution.

A couple of colleagues and I are building an organisational development model designed to accelerate execution.  We are looking for 2-3 organisations willing to be part of a prototype program. Drop me an email if you’re interested.  Good luck.

[i] See Professor Chris Worley’s LinkedIn post (click here).  I agree with much of his commentary … but not all

[ii] Ina later blog I will discuss the personal factors identified as leadership barriers in my research

[iii] This is a very brief summary of 75,000 word thesis.  If you would like to understand more about barriers to transformational leadership, drop me an email.