Business leaders I know react one of two ways to this statement.
To group 1, I don’t need to say anything because you aren’t reading this.
To group 2, yes. I’m talking to you. I am you. So this stuff is tricky. And at least we’re doing something, right?
I’ll say it again.
But it’s hard to know how much or what part.
In theory, we know having good leadership is important for business success. We know that doing things that evolve poor leadership into good leadership and good leadership into better leadership is good for the business. Where it gets murky, is knowing how to dial in our leadership development investment so we’re getting best bang for our buck. To add to the confusion, everywhere you look, there’s another leadership expert telling you how things should be (the thing they sell, of course.)
And here I am, adding to the noise.
Now that I’ve got your attention, how would you like to inject management science and organizational engineering know-how into your leadership development investments so you can be less haphazard and more purposeful?
This post is a continuation of my last post on the biggest reasons businesses fail to scale and thrive. In sum, the most important reason businesses fail to scale is right leadership and that current methods for determining right leadership lack precision and objectivity. There is a better way.
In a previous post, I also talked about the criteria for getting the right people in leadership roles. There’s more I can say about fine-tuning your ability to select the right people for manager roles, and I probably will someday.
Right-er? Yes, by right-er I mean more adept at the execution part of the formula. By right-er, I mean more adept at orienting and coordinating the creativity of human beings. By right-er, I mean maximizing the capabilities of your people. These things matter for your business.
Why is that?
First, we need to do a great job of getting right people in the management seats. Leaders, once in those seats, are the people who are responsible for getting other seats filled by right people. If you don’t do the first thing well, you are almost certain to fail on the second thing. Restating this point, if you don’t get right people in leadership seats, you will mess up a whole lot of other seats too. Even more, if you don’t do the right-people-right-seats part well, you can forget about effective execution.
This is about strategy execution.
The only way any business succeeds—your business succeeds– is by converting the ingenuity, energy, and creativity of humans into business value. The more this people-energy is amplified, harmonized, and pointed in the same direction—that’s great leadership. The more this people-energy is lost, re-directed, or working at cross-purposes—that’s a lack in leadership.
I bet I know which one you prefer.
If you want your business to create value—and you do—then you want leaders who can do that. Which brings us to leadership development.
These practices are concerned with:
Leading well today. First, leadership development should enhance the capability of today’s leaders to lead well. By today’s leaders, I mean anybody who is currently responsible for the output of other people.
Leading well tomorrow. Leadership development should also mold leadership skills in future leaders so that you ensure tomorrow’s leaders can lead well. This includes some thought into how future leaders are identified, because not everyone is cut out for leadership.
This becomes an issue very early in a company’s growth. If you rely solely on the instincts of your team, you are very, very likely to have a mess. This may not be noticeable right away, but eventually you’ll have business dysfunction that stems from unintentionally poor leadership.
This is where leadership development investments come in. It’s not about feel-goods. It’s not just a cost you take on to boost retention. It’s about systematically amplifying your business value growth through people.
You get this. Now for the part we often flub up.
This is important. It’s self-evident. Logical. Yet every day I see evidence of some business somewhere applying a policy or practice that requires people to not be human.
Let me offer some examples.
We often hold assumptions that lead us to create systems that don’t perform as well as we expect. Instead, we get unintended consequences.
You spend more time working than doing anything else in life. It’s not right that the experience of work, even at some of the best employers, should be so demotivating and dehumanizing.
Laszlo Bock, Work Rules!
What is the truth about human nature? Social science has advanced leaps and bounds in our understanding about how humans decide, work, and behave.
These are all human traits that are true and real, whether we want them to be or not. These traits show us to be irrational actors chasing social affiliation, dominance, pattern seeking, and a drive to create. While we all are subject to these subconscious influences, we each do it a little differently based on our own motives, needs, and ability.
This may sound abstract and fluffy-duffy. Hang with me.
My really, really important point…
Poor design begets poor results. You do not want poor results. Well-meaning ignorance can’t make up for poor design. You still get poor results. And results matter.
If you aren’t an engineer, go ask one what happens when you design something that only works when physics bend to your hopes. Disaster, right?
To illustrate my point, let’s look at bridge-making as an analogy.
Imagine two bridges.
One is built on fervent hope and good intentions.
The other is built on an understanding of the fundamentals of physics and structural engineering.
We know that rainbows and sunshine, while happy-making and bright, don’t provide us a sound foundation for getting from here to there.
We get that.
What’s less obvious is the analogous scenario in all of our businesses– that poorly constructed managerial and organizational practices endanger our business performance. It’s especially tricky to recognize because poor design is so prevalent, we think that’s just how it’s got to be.
Just like in engineering, there are principles that underlie how people work together at peak capacity. If your leaders apply these principles, you get better results. A certified professional engineer must learn and apply the principles of physics and structural engineering. Likewise, leadership development should enable your leaders to learn and apply the principles of human nature and organizational engineering.
This is how we avoid wasting money on leadership development.
NOTE: It’s beyond the scope of this post to describe each of these in detail. I might write about them later. I’m always happy to talk about how these apply to your work world.
Right leadership is right-er when all leaders practice leading in ways that are consistent with all of the above principles. Is that true for you? For the other leaders in your business? Odds are that the leaders in your business have opportunities to improve.
Think about what your leadership development investments focus on. Are you teaching principles or solving symptoms?
It’s easy to get off track.
What I’ve learned is that the symptoms of unsound organizational design and leadership practices look a lot like personality conflicts, poor communication, and a need to get rid of bad actors. So you go train managers how to get rid of people, give feedback, and communicate better.
There’s room for that. You need that, because it feels necessary to address the problem you see. Yet, if you mistake these palliatives for solutions, you’ll keep solving the same problems over and over again.
Here’s the good news. If you have sound organizational design and your leaders apply these principles, you’ll have a lot fewer of those symptoms less often.
Start with a good foundation.
The root of sound management practices is an understanding of how to handle the dilemmas you encounter as a leader. What do you do when your gut and your head push you to different conclusions? Better, what do you do when your gut isn’t even sure which way to go?
Making good decisions in the face of competing influences is hard work that matters. That’s the essence of leadership.
Look back at the organizational engineering principles. What assumptions does your business have about people, management, and work that run afoul of these principles? If you, the leader, aren’t sure, I bet there are people in your business that could tell you. Whether it is safe for them to tell you, well, that depends.
Here are some questions to ask your team through your leaders, managers-once-removed, surveys, HR team, and/or other method.
While this process would unearth useful feedback for individual managers, it’s the systematic trends that help you re-engineer your organization and practices for better results.
If you get stuck, contact me. I’m always happy to help.
I'm Alicia Parr. I am a fractional Chief People Officer and organizational engineer for growth businesses making the leap from small to mid-sized. I use people science and a coaching orientation to solve hairy people problems and navigate the speedbumps of fast growth. I can help you and your business be even greater than you already are. Join the conversation below by commenting or contact me directly.