Converting Existing Managers into Future Ready Leaders

The word “growth” is interpreted differently by different people – and this can have a significant impact on the goal-result equation.

One company I interacted with – probably the twelfth in the last three months – had set its growth aspirations at achieving twice their current revenue over the next 2-3 years.  The CEO’s vision was clear. I quote him: “I am clear about what we need to do in order to achieve our growth goals. But we have a weak link. We need our middle, senior and top level managers to step up and lead this organization to the future. Our organization is not future ready”.

A unique situation

The unique aspect here is that capital is not a constraint.  In fact, the company also has full access to technology and skilled manpower. So what could possibly be the issue? Given the slower economic growth across the rest of the world, the growth opportunities in India are poised to bring in dramatic changes. Companies need to redefine their business models, reinvent customer relationship models as well as workforce models (both operationally and culturally) to translate business expectations into results. This brings to the forefront the urgent need for talented/qualified managers who have proven leadership capabilities to leverage these opportunities and create an environment for the workforce that:

  • Fosters innovative thinking
  • Focuses on achieving results
  • Involves the workforce and makes it feel valued
  • Engages the workforce, encouraging initiative and action in line with organization strategy
  • Strengthens team spirit

Businesses are aware that the real constraint here is making leaders from the existing talent. In my experience managers appear to practice delivering success by “telling” people what to do, rather than making them “think”.  Also, chosen “stars” in the team are given that extra push to shine, rather than nurturing true collaboration within the team, fostering team spirit. Rather than take advantage of each one’s potential in a globally diverse team to work towards a corporate goal, people are wary of team members who are different.

In such a scenario, converting existing managers into leaders presents some inherent challenges.

  1. The Line managers don’t get it

Line thinks leadership development is a waste of time. Others may recognize the value in such an investment, but for the line manager, conducting business is the supreme task. Activities such as leadership training and development are “competition”, delaying development initiatives that can impact the organization significantly, indefinitely postponing workshop and coaching dates. Even if these initiatives do see the light of day, the effect is diluted.  Naturally, those in the development process develop a slack in their momentum, threatening the investment made by the organization.

One business head I worked with was naïve enough to believe that the manager to whom he directly reported had to be effective. His contention was: when a person manages a business worth millions of dollars, how can he go wrong with people management? Besides, he also had a lousy team, right?.

While the solution for addressing this is found in “communication and buy-in”, it is rarely enough. The real answer, then, is to mandate development and get the line manager to perceive it as a pre-requisite to successful business operations. The only way this can be done is by driving home the business benefits of the investment.

Research into our own Hay Group reveals that a leader’s leadership style is directly responsible for 70% of the working environment in which the team operates which in turn accounting for the 30% of the variation in business results the leader is accountable for.

2. The learners don’t get it.

“To know and not to do, is not yet to know”. I read this Zen thought recently, and I was struck by how aptly it defines our response to learning. In the context of leadership development, a majority of learners assume that knowing the concept is as good as applying it, and therefore, there is nothing left to learn. In a generic corporate culture of low feedback, managers such as these remain ignorant. Even the bosses do not see the relevance of feedback, so long as the manager in question is delivering results.

As a starting point, there is a critical need for robust data to provide a “mirror” to the learner in the leadership development process. In my professional experience, a potent “mirror” is more than just a 360 degree feedback. A feedback on deep psychometrics on the preferences helps the learner to take a wider view on self. However, the eye-opener was a conversation with the learner interpreting this data vis-à-vis the organization’s present and future vision, as well as his personal vision.  A meaningful conversation at this stage commits the learner to the development process and cultivates a feeling of ownership in relation to results.

3. The Organization processes are designed for old style

The cultural challenge of preferred leadership style in India is a combination of directive, affiliative and “pace-setting” styles. Part of this comes from the way organization sets its goals, it defines job, performance measures, rewards only for results etc. This results in a “follow-the-leader” type of workforce which waits for instructions. Employees are not trained to think. The onus for thinking rests with a select team resulting in a business risk to the organization’s growth.

Moreover, organizational processes function in an environment that does not promote objective thinking; the system is fault finding, rather than facilitating causal analysis. When learners in the leadership development process become immersed back in this environment, it becomes one of the most underestimated contributors to derail the development process. Such a setting discourages learners from developing into innovative leaders for fear of going “against the grain” of the organization. Leadership development needs an enabling environment infused with the organization’s support. There are various ways of doing it. A case in point: One organization made the learner team members responsible for “designing newer business planning and reporting process”. Another organization, set up regular evening catch up dinner meeting of the learners with the sponsor team.

4. Learners give up along the way

In my experience most learners tend to give up or get distracted at the top of the learning cycle. In Kolbs Learning Cycle this is characterized by learning from “concrete experience”, that is learning by immersing themselves in the new experience.

Some learners liken their feeling to being asked to jump off a cliff. One learner from the top management team, who had never challenged a particularly vociferous CEO’s views before, now realized the need for doing so. He learned to express his point of view skillfully and responsibly. But when the time came to apply it in a real life situation, he froze. He feared that it would upset the CEO, and spoil their amicable relationship. He gave up learning, rationalizing that these skills do not work in the real life. Surprisingly, the CEO was his sponsor for this development process.

A strong coach can lead the learner through this part of the cycle, until the learner is able to take action consistently. Incidentally, the story of our learner did have a happy ending after all; with the coach’s help he practiced challenging in a small way at first, and consistently stepped up the pace. He also realized the need to reset work expectations with the CEO and get him to accept the fact he would challenge his views more often.

Peer coaching or peer learning is another mechanism that helps the learner effectively go through such experiences. Support groups made up of peers help the learner to find the courage to stay the course.

5. Leaders are not “naturally innovative”

Being innovative basically boils down to the three critical leadership skills of observation, reflection and imagination that go into managing complex business situations, rather than just analysis. Currently, corporate leaders, globally and especially in India, tend to solve problems based on analyses because they assume that present and future behavior is pre-determined by historical data. Research, however, disputes this. Further, to interpret this data correctly, it proves the need for leaders to develop the skill of “abductive reasoning” credited to Charles Sanders Pierce. This inference becomes the optimum interpretation based on a given a data set although the data may be insufficient. Leaders then follow through with action on this possible inference, aware that it may be the best answer only for now. Smart leaders build on this experience and eventually find a solution that truly works.

The skill of observation is similarly potent. To quote a project manager in an IT firm who told his technical lead: “I have seen you now for three review meetings. Each time you look frustrated, explaining the extra time you needed to code this piece to the team. I am wondering how we can understand your situation better.”  Instead, he could have asked “why do you need more time to code this piece?” This relays what he observed and creates an opportunity for the team lead to bring to the table any issues that the project manager may have overlooked.

When leaders practice and promote proactive thinking, it can unleash the full potential of their team. People will not hesitate to risk failure. In my experience, the best way to hone these skills is through the “coaching style” of leadership. Combined with the visioning style of leadership, it has the power to drive long term impact in the organization.

In summary…

There is a critical need to make a paradigm shift in the way organizations function and this includes their culture, attitude and strategic thinking. The need of the hour is to convert the existing managers into leaders who can leverage the potential of their team as a whole and ensure a proactive workforce where every individual feels responsible and accountable for results. For an organization that wants to grow, achieve its business goals and stay competitive, it is time to reinvent itself.

Author : Mohinish Sinha

Mohinish’s core expertise is in Organization Transformation, Leadership Development and Coaching & Setting up and Assessing learning functions.

He works with clients to identify and address their needs for organizational transformations, change, learning by helping turn their business strategies into the results they desire. He is also a leadership coach and has coached and facilitated hundreds of senior and top management executives within India and outside.

Mohinish works with a variety of clients in sectors of Education, Oil & Gas, Banking and Financial Services and IT. He has also worked extensively with the government, public sector and UN organizations as well as with multinationals and Indian family owned business. Worked significantly with start ups also.

Mohinish holds an MBA from XLRI Jamshedpur and a graduate degree in Physics from Delhi University.

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