The three most exciting days in my life have been March 7, 1987, April 19, 1989 and September 1, 1994. On those dates my three children were born—and I was there, an eyewitness to the miracle of three human births.
I remember staring down at those little pink, wrinkled, newborn packages of undeveloped potential, trying to imagine their futures. Clairvoyant I wasn’t. But I believed then and now that their futures would be determined less by their DNA (looks, IQ, or personality) and more by the formative support and encouragement they would receive and the individual choices they would make.
I believe the same to be essentially true for leaders. Let’s face facts. All leaders are born—but none are born leaders. Leaders develop over time, in stages much like babies. They must learn to crawl before they stand; stand before they walk; and walk before they run.
The best leaders learn to lead through the support and focused encouragement provided by experienced leaders. As an experienced leader, we should embrace the opportunity and professional responsibility to live out the credo: Each one, teach one.
But like children, young leaders also learn by experimentation—trial and error—absorbing their fair share of bumps and bruises along the way. All leaders make mistakes. The best leaders look for the lessons in those mistakes, making adjustments for the future and maturing accordingly.
Every day a leader is born. It is our privilege to help guide that individual along his or her path to learning to lead.
Discussion: Are Leaders Born or Are Leaders Made?
Today marks the beginning of a weekly series of discussions on the 11 Ground Rules for Common Sense Leadership. I would like to hear your opinions and comments so I invite you to join the discussion.
Please comment here or if you prefer, join the discussion in our Leaders Ought to Know group on LinkedIn.
Phillip Van Hooser
Leadership Expert, Keynote Speaker, Author – Leaders Ought to Know: 11 Ground Rules for Common Sense Leadership
A while back, I found myself engaged in a rather spirited conversation with an admittedly frustrated manager. He had spent the better part of the morning sitting through one of my leadership training retreats. One in which we dissected the concept of various leadership roles, responsibilities and results. My single-minded focus had been to help those present develop a blueprint of sorts that could enhance their own daily personal leadership activities. It was a positive exercise. But, all morning I could tell the concepts weren’t exactly clicking with this individual. So during our first break, I pulled him aside and asked him, “Why isn’t this working for you?”
“Phil, it’s not that it’s not working,” he began earnestly. “I realize the importance of what you’re sharing. But, I keep waiting to hear you tell me what I really need most right now. Tell me why these new employees I have been hiring lately are not working out.” He continued.
“I do extensive searches to find the most qualified candidates available. Once we get them hired and trained, we provide them the necessary tools, resources and support to allow them to be successful in their new jobs. Then, I stand back anxiously awaiting their success. Instead, too often, I end up watching the wheels come off before my very eyes. My department’s productivity drops. Our quality ratings suffer. The customer is far from being satisfied. Trying to find what motivates these people is like trying to find the lost city of Atlantis. It’s impossible! In the midst of all that, the overall morale of my best, most senior employees has dropped to an all time low. Now, if you really want to make this a good, worthwhile leadership development program, just show me what I am doing wrong and help me fix it. Then I will leave here a happy man!”
The challenge was clearly before me. Though I admittedly didn’t have all the answers for his questions and frustrations, I did recognize one fundamental problem in his approach that, over time I’ve discovered, has tripped up a great number of otherwise well-meaning managers.
“Well, the first thing you should realize is you don’t always want the most qualified candidates for every job,” I stated rather matter-of-factly. The gentleman shot me a quick look of disbelief. I could almost hear him thinking, “So this is the clown they picked to help make our organization better?”
Despite what he might have been thinking, his spoken response was more subtle and measured. “I’m confused,” he admitted. “I’ve always been taught that a good manager surrounds himself with the most qualified people available. Now you’re telling me that those are exactly the persons I don’t want?”
“Possibly,” I countered. “And here’s the reason why. The ‘most qualified’ candidates, often are simply not the ‘best suited’ candidates for the jobs we need to fill. Do you understand what I mean?”
The manager’s confusion was obvious and predictable. I was suggesting a concept that ran counter to much of what he had been taught and had practiced throughout his professional managerial career. Yes, he was confused, but he was also curious. By his own earlier admission, the way he was doing it now was simply not working as he planned. He knew there had to be a better way, he just hadn’t discovered what that better way was. Therefore, he was open to suggestions. That’s what brought him to my training session in the first place.
For the next several minutes we talked as I shared with him some thoughts as to why the ‘best suited’ employees trumped the ‘most qualified’ employees almost every time. He seemed to find value in our discussion and maybe you will too.
One practical reason why we shouldn’t always hire the “most qualified” candidates is purely economic. We may not be able to afford them. As a result of the education and experience the “most qualified” individuals possess, they frequently expect and command premium compensation in the marketplace. To pay them what they are worth may be impractical due both to limited financial resources and to the possible internal inconsistencies that would be created by paying this “new” employee (regardless of how qualified he or she may be) at a rate over and above that which other more experienced, long term employees are paid.
A second practical reason involves professional flexibility. Many of us have discovered the hard way, that the more experienced and qualified an individual is, often the less flexible he or she may be to learning new and tailored ways of doing things. In other words, the “most qualified” individuals may already “know” what works (based on their past education and experiences) and therefore, be less willing to listen and learn about the history of how and why things are done the way they are in this organization.
Coupled with the reason listed above, another practical reason for concern deals with the type of reception offered the “most qualified” new employees by their new co-workers and teammates. If the existing work group is intimidated or frustrated by the manner in which new, highly touted employees enter the established work group, then dissension, teamwork and morale problems can result. It takes a skillful leader to be able to introduce new, high performing individuals into an established work group without negatively disrupting the chemistry of the group. It’s not impossible. It can be done. But it must always be done with great care and consideration.
Finally, observant leaders must always be on the lookout for any internal activity that might offer even the slightest impression or indication of legal impropriety or inappropriateness. Let me offer an example of what I mean. Assume, if you will, that you are just concluding an interview with an extremely well qualified candidate for a current job opening. During the course of the interview, you had already made the conscious decision that this candidate would not be a good fit for the position you have available. The candidate was obviously over-qualified, or too expensive, or too inflexible, or too cocky, or, well, you get the picture. It’s not that she is a bad person, it’s just that she’s not the “best suited” person for this job.
Just before bringing the interview to its end, you ask if she has any lingering questions? She offers only one, “What are you looking for in the candidate you will ultimately hire to fill this position?” Ever so innocently, you respond by saying among other things, “our intent is to fill this job with the ‘most qualified’ person available.” You didn’t really think about what you said, you just said it. But she thought very carefully about the specific words you used. You were just saying what you thought was the right thing to say. But what she heard was an implied promise.
Later on, once she learns that she has been passed over for the position, if she discovers the job was filled by a less educated, less experienced, less senior individual, a very real possibility exists that she will assume she has been ultimately discriminated against. After all, she heard you say, “Our intent is to fill this job with the ‘most qualified’ person available,” and in her mind, that means her. Is a lawsuit imminent? Not necessarily. That depends on factors too numerous to address here. But, why put ourselves in such a position of risk? It’s not worth it.
I can’t say whether or not the gentleman that initiated the exchange that led to this article actually left “a happy man” or not. I do think he left with a better understanding of the significance of the words we use, when coupled with the responsibility that comes with our roles as supervisors, managers and leaders. I wish the same for you.
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In a recent conversation with Mike McCarty, President & CEO of Helena Chemical Company, I asked Mike what skills leaders must possess to be effective today.
Phil: Tell me, from your perspective in developing leaders, what are the key elements, one, two, three, top one, top two, top three things that you think a leader, regardless of the industry, but a leader needs to be able to do today that may have been different five or ten years ago and may be different five years from now?
Mike: Yes, again, good question. Obviously, when you look at that of a leader, you need to be qualified to move into a position form a technical standpoint or a knowledgeable standpoint. I think the key, the higher up you move into the management role of the organization, the greater your people skills need to be. Again, I’m a little biased because as I’ve said many times, I think the agricultural industry is so relationship-oriented, but again, you cannot lose sight of the people side of the business and to be an effective leader today, you have to have superior people skills. If you could manage people…because the earlier question, you said what was the bigger challenge and I said it was people.
People drive our industry. People drive any industry in business, so I try to encourage people to…and that’s one of the questions I ask when you move into a role – how have you been at managing people? How do you communicate to people? We’re going to have a lot of people up underneath these managers that have the technical expertise, the knowledge base, to do the daily job, but when you become a senior level, whether it’s a Vice President, Division Manager or Senior Manager, it’s people skills. So that would be the number one trait. Obviously, there’s many other things that go into the qualifications to move into a job, but it’s people skills.
Phil: Well, let me take that broad based question and ask it in a more direct and more personal standpoint. You mentioned to the group earlier that you’d been with the company – I think you said – thirty-two years?
Mike: Thirty-two years.
Phil: Thirty-two years, same company, young man, started early in your career and here you are in the middle part of your career. Maybe even approaching the latter stages of your career or getting closer there, what do you going from a salesman in the business to now the CEO suite, what did you attribute, again, the top one, two, three things for you personally? What is it that you learned that brought you from where you were to where you are today?
Mike: Okay, let me sum this up and I’ll kind of worked backwards. You have to trust other people in the company and let me say what I mean by that. When you’re first promoted into a management position and you’re usually coming out of a field, you tend to be much more hands-on because that’s how you’re successful being a sales rep or a branch manager is you move into manager roles. You have many, now, different people working for you. Initially, most people take the same approach of being very hands-on because that’s the way they’ve been successful when in many times you have to back away.
You have to learn how to delegate and you have to learn how to communicate. That gets back a little bit to what I said earlier about the people skills. How do you communicate with people? How do you delegate with people and not be where, I’ve always said, where people feel that you’re looking over their shoulder. If you can do that and create that team concept and support people rather than being the doer, then it works well. I had to learn that the hard way. I mean I was very young when I got the opportunity to become President. I was forty years old.
Phil: Forty years old, wow.
Mike: I was forty years old, was offered the opportunity to be Helena, very grateful, but I was inheriting, at that time, about a billion dollar company and I was forty years old. Many people asked me, “What did you do to prepare?” Well, there was no preparation.
I told them I would do it because I had enough confidence, when you’re younger. I said, “Look, I’m going to try this and I think I can do it.” Did you have formal training? No. I told people I came out of the field. I was a salesman at heart. I loved dealing with people and I had a desire to succeed. I wanted to succeed. There were a lot of things that drive you and you just say, “Okay, I’m going to do that.” Then you learn, so I kind of learned on the job, so to speak, and I’ve been in the job now for sixteen years. So when I first took it, I said, “Well, we’ll see how long this will last,” because you don’t really know when you’re a forty year old and you take over a company. How long are you going to be able to get along with your shareholders and your stakeholders in the company, but you learn by that and I’ve learned a lot.
Now, what I want to try to do is share what I’ve learned for the generation, so the next guy that sits in my seat doesn’t have to do it the way I did it. Not saying it can’t be done, but we’re a much more complex company today. We’re not a billion dollar company anymore. We’re almost a $4 billion dollar company. We’re so much more diverse. We have so many more employees, so the transition should be different.
Phil: Well, then let me ask you one final question and this question will be on the heels of the comment you just made. You said, “I’m trying to help the next person to know how to do it a little bit differently.” For the people that may be watching and who may have the desires to grow their own career past where they are right now, maybe not to a CEO suite at some point, but to somewhere beyond where they are, what would you suggest to them that they need to do almost immediately that would move them toward whatever that goal or level in their career might be?
Mike: I think it’s making it known what you would like to do because when you have a lot of people in the company. If I know, as the CEO of Helena, people have a desire to want to do more, to move into a management role, I encourage them to tell me that. Believe or not, you remember these things. You remember these individuals because when you’re part of a mass group, there’s so many talented people. Obviously, working hard and achieving success and being one of the top people in the company, certainly, that’s an advantage, but also making it known because don’t take it for granted that people know what you want to do and I think that’s what I’ve always encouraged people.
If someone wants to have an opportunity to work in California, as an example, let us know that or if you have an opportunity to work in a certain segment a bit, let us know that or if you have a desire to be one the senior executives, let us know that. We need to know because, again, we have to identify. Again, when you have a lot of people like that, you have as many individuals as we have, it makes it more difficult. I’ve asked that and people have told me that. In my mind, I know there’s certain individuals now that have that desire to be the next Vice President or the next President of Helena and we’ll do everything we can, I’ll do everything I can to give those opportunities.
All the best,
Phillip Van Hooser
During a recent Leaders Ought To Know retreat, I had the good fortune to sit down with the President & CEO of Helena Chemical Company, Mike McCarty. We discussed a number of leadership development issues. Here are excerpts from our conversation on the importance of organizational succession planning.
Phil: Mike, you were asked a number of questions a few minutes ago, but one of the questions that intrigued me was what’s it like to be the president of a $1.3 billion multinational company, primarily, in the United States, but serving countries around the world. How do you answer a question like that?
Mike: Well, I think the question was what is my biggest challenge of running almost a $4 billion dollar corporation and the response I gave to the individual was people is probably the biggest opportunity and challenge. When you have that many folks out there, you’re going to have a tremendous amount of opportunities. You’re biggest asset in the company are people, but your biggest opportunity are also people because with people, it also leads itself to change with companies. We’re in a constant state of change in our personal live, professional lives and we need to help, I need to help, guide that and lead that, which then creates the opportunities on the people side of the business and why we need to do these things.
My job in the company is to look out at where we’re going to go in the next five or ten years. I’ve got all the confidence in the world that all our managers and all our employees are going to take care of the day-to-day business and the annual business. We’ve got to look and I’ve got to look at the management team for the future. So the challenge, again, comes back to where do we go, how do we change and how do we communicate that change.
Phil: You mentioned just a minute ago the importance of the people and also the challenge associated by people. Talk to me a little bit about succession planning within Helena Chemical. You know that most of the people that will be watching this are people who are focused in on leadership and leadership development, so on and so forth. First of all, how do you identify leaders within the organization both current and future and then how do you develop them so that you can prepare them for the challenges that are to come, as well?
Mike: That’s a good question and a timely question for us because we’re in the process right now with my executive team. We’re going through a new strategic plan for our next five years. One of the things that has surfaced and we knew this is the area succession planning and it goes back to my generation of the company when we joined the company. I jokingly say we’re a bunch of young kids. We’re a bunch of 25 year olds that joined the company. We’ve all been here a long time now and we’re starting to see the retirements take place.
This is something that Helena will experience that we’ve never really experienced before and that’s going to be more of a mass retirement staggered over the next five years. Now, that leads itself to the opportunity of who replaces everyone in the company and succession planning. I’ve asked all of them to start to identify the next generation of who has that opportunity, of who may want to move to different geographies because, again, being a nationwide company, I think that, again, is a different opportunity. The younger generation I see today is not as prone to move as what we were when I was coming up in the industry.
Well, we’ve done a relatively good job of identifying those individuals. Now, it’s going to be creating the opportunities for them and as that takes place and we’re in the process of doing that right now. One of the things I’m trying to do is get that next generation in here to the corporate office because when you move to a corporate office, it’s a different environment from when you’ve been out in the field. We’ve all experienced that, but until you’re here, you really don’t know. My wish would be that we would have a very seamless transition of individuals and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish right now where we have staggered retirements of the executive team where they don’t all go at one time.
We’re starting to lose them now and if I just look at it for the 20 or 25 people that we have in that group, I feel we’re in very, very good shape. Where we’re going to have our opportunities, it’s kind of like the domino effect. As people move up into management and then they move up into the senior roles at the field level, who takes the place at the sales rep level and our branch manager level? That means we’re going to have to do a higher level of recruiting. So we’re going to need more people. We’re going to need more of that younger generation coming in, which is contrary to what’s really going on with the business in the U.S. today when we look at unemployment. We’re going to be out there actively recruiting at universities right now to try to take care of this issue that you had talked about with succession planning.
I’ll share more from this conversation in the coming days.
Phillip Van Hooser
Building Leadership Bench Strength
Building leadership bench strength within your organization requires a steady supply of leadership talent. Looking within the organization, managers and supervisors should consider opportunities to prepare those around them for ever more challenging leadership roles. That said how do you take these high potential candidates and move them forward to leadership success?
Consider the following progression for empowering employees. The assumption here is that the supervisor is continuously testing and evaluating each individual employee to determine what level of empowerment he or she is capable of assuming successfully on behalf of the organization. The supervisor or manage will ultimately decide the actual readiness of the individual for further empowerment and at what specific level.
You (the employee) research an assigned activity; you report what you have learned or discovered; but I (the supervisor) will decide what action is to be taken.
This is the most basic level of empowerment. It is used to determine a baseline for how an individual thinks, prepares, works and communicates. It is most commonly used in evaluating the actual skills of new employees or newly transferred employees. If specific flaws or shortcomings are identified, specific plans for further training and development should be undertaken. If it is determined that the individual meets and exceeds expectations in this area, then the next level of empowerment should be considered. Because of the supervisor’s stated intent to make the final decision, there is no relevant risk assumed by the employee at this stage.
You research an assigned activity; you report the alternative actions/options that are available; you suggest one for implementation; but I will decide what action is to be taken.
Here you are evaluating the mental dexterity and awareness of various decision making options and how relevant or irrelevant they might be for the organization’s specific purposes and intents. As before, there continues to be no relevant risk to the employee since the supervisor has reserved the right to make the decision. If the employee is determined to be ready, the next step in the process is assigned.
You research an assigned activity; you report what you intend to do; but don’t act without my approval.
Notice there is a marked increase in the expectation of performance on the part of the employee. This is the first level at which the employee assumes some specific level of risk. However, the supervisor has continued to maintain some level of “institutional control” by making sure s/he is comfortable with the communicated actions. In each of these first three levels of empowerment, continuing one-on-one, face-to-face communication and the conversations that need to take place are absolutely critical. If the employee is determined to be ready, the next step in the process is assigned.
You research an assigned activity; you report what you intend to do; go ahead and do it unless I say “no.”
By this point in the process, the trust level has clearly increased between both parties. The subordinate has earned the right to move to this level of empowerment based on an understanding of the goals and objectives of the organization and his or her proven performance and identified ability to meet those goals and objectives. Communication is still important at this level, but the reins of decision making responsibility are now being passed from the supervisor to the subordinate.
You research an assigned activity; you take the action you deem appropriate; report what you did.
Subordinates are working independently of their supervisor, with the supervisor’s full knowledge and confidence based on the subordinate’s past proven ability and successes. The unencumbered performance of the subordinate, in turn, frees the supervisor to attend to other pressing issues.
You research an assigned activity; you take the action you deem appropriate; no further communication is required.
This is the highest level of empowerment. It is rarely earned and rarely granted–and then only to the best, most tested and most trusted subordinates. With this level, both supervisor and subordinate share the risk of the empowered actions taken.
A few important observations to remember:
This is not an overnight process. It requires vigilant communication, observation, evaluation and training. As previously discussed, empowerment is preceded and supported by significant and on-going coaching and counseling activities. This is not a “one-size-fits-all” process. It requires customized activities for individual employees who may or may not accept empowerment in the same way or at the same rate as another employee. Appropriate empowerment levels are also dependent on individual jobs. In other words, a single employee may be at a Level 5 empowerment level for one task and the same employee at a Level 2 empowerment level for a different task.
Creating a continuous flow of leadership talent from within our organizations can happen and happen effectively when those of us in leadership positions are willing to share our power with those individuals who demonstrate they are worthy of the challenge.
The big challenge with empowerment is understanding the six levels but also understanding where people fit on those six levels. Take some time to consider each of your employees and the empowerment level that’s right for them. That information and these strategies are things that Leaders Ought To Know.
Phillip Van Hooser
It’s sad to say, but too many organizations around the world still don’t see the value of investing in the professional development of their most valuable resource—their people.
They ask short-sighted questions like, “Why would any organization invest resources, in times like these, developing leaders when there’s no guarantee that they’ll even stay with us?”
Or, how about this one: “What’s wrong with people today learning leadership the old-fashioned way, like I did — by the seat of the pants?”
Choosing to ignore the need for focused professional leadership development may appear to be an option for some organizations — just not the great ones. Companies like Proctor and Gamble, Nokia, Amway, Rockwell Collins, Capital One Financial and General Electric, to name a few, have long recognized the value — and profit — associated with developing leaders internally.
In an August 2010 article published in the Wall Street Journal, the author made the following points:
• Business layoffs and cutbacks in recent years have thinned the manager pipelines.
• Baby boomers who postponed retirement during the recession will soon start departing.
Too many organizations, for too long have turned a blind eye to the inevitable reality that their supervisors and managers were aging. Supervisors and managers you work with are beginning to vacate their leadership positions in droves. Unfortunately, too many organizations have done too little to address their succession planning needs in a practical way.
In other words, the need for more and better leaders is not just a future need — they are needed now.
An earlier article in FORTUNE magazine put it this way, “Your competition can copy every advantage you’ve got—except one. That’s why the best companies are realizing that no matter what business they’re in, the real business is building leaders.”
But, back to that earlier question: Why is leadership training even necessary?
First, there exists a dire need for more effective leaders in almost every business organization in the world. Second, employees and people of all kinds and cultures have a strong desire to follow — to be led. Finally, well trained leaders today can actually make a difference for the organizations they represent — a difference in profitability, a difference in productivity, a difference in on-time performance, a difference in employee engagement, even a difference in safety awareness.
These well trained leaders create a lasting difference by establishing a culture of leadership that is sure to permeate the organization and extend well beyond their time of individual service.
The success and viability of organizations in the future is quite literally being shaped today by the quality and capability of that organization’s leaders.
Not too long ago I was working on-site with a corporate client, conducting leadership training. An employee approached me and asked if we could talk. As soon as the conversation began, it became quite clear that the employee was terribly upset with his supervisor. For the next few minutes, he railed on about a mistake he believed his supervisor had made and how that perceived injustice was continuing to affect his performance in a negative way. He questioned how such a fundamental mistake, in his mind, at least, could have happened in the first place. Finally, in an exasperated tone, he ended his remarks to me with this statement:
“Leaders ought to know better.” Now there’s an interesting concept, I thought.
Let’s face the facts. Most of us were never formally trained to be a leader. Most of the managers and supervisors I know, initially earned their opportunity to be in a position of leadership because they were smart, hard working and really good at what they did before being promoted to a leadership position.
The engineer had a proven ability to analyze schematics in the search for inaccuracies, while the accountant was adept at interpreting the nuances of a balance sheet with relative ease. They were good at what they did because that’s what they had studied and trained to do. After years of hands-on experience their proven ability and performance had elevated them to a level of competence and visibility, thus earning them a positive reputation and recognition for the good they did.
Then one day their boss called this peak performer into her office and announced that she had good news. After much careful deliberation, it had been determined this person had earned the right to be promoted to the level of supervision or management. In other words, overnight this person was promoted to a position of leadership.
But, did that make them a leader? For far too many of us, that’s where the trouble begins.
The person was confident and capable in his or her ability read blueprints or to create an amazing spreadsheet, but far less sure about their ability to communicate group objectives effectively, to lead their new team through a process of consensual decision making or to successfully accomplish the dozens of other responsibilities expected of a leader daily.
This was all new territory. They hadn’t been trained for this. And add to the equation that from day one, the employees and individuals this newly minted leader had been tapped to lead were thinking, “Someone in an important leadership position like his or hers, well, they just ought to know better.”
That’s why we’re here – because there are some really important things that Leaders Ought To Know.
But we don’t want this to be a monologue on leadership – we consider it a conversation and we want you to join the exchange. Your insights will make the discussions more relevant and on point, so please share your questions, comments and perspectives at any time. Because Leaders Ought To Know…
Phillip Van Hooser
Founder & Concept Director