Developing leaders at all levels

LeadershipEarlier this week I ran an executive retreat for the senior team of one of my favourite charities. On the first day we literally covered the walls with all of the things that needed to be done to deliver their five year goals. There was a lot of stuff.

Later, over dinner, we got talking about their “proudest moments” – those snapshots in time that truly showed the organisation at its best. I listened to stories about genuinely innovative services being launched, of an individual’s life being completely transformed, and of an Area Manager, called Michelle, who’d taken over a group of services that were really struggling, and within a year had completely turned every single one of them around.

Next morning I looked at the huge section of actions and initiatives we’d come up with to raise the bar on quality and impact in services, and asked the really obvious question which, for some reason, had never occurred to me before. “How did Michelle turn around all those services so dramatically, without any of these initiatives?”

After a fairly lengthy, and very thoughtful silence, we picked apart just what it was that made Michelle stand out, and we summarised it as five things:

  • She really “got” the overall strategy, and set out a clear personal vision for her area
  • She built great relationships across the supporting functions – finance, HR, IT and the rest
  • She engaged them, and her team, hearts and minds, and “galvanised” everyone behind one agenda
  • She found ways for her people to deliver, sometimes in spite of the structures and processes
  • She developed and recruited some great new service leaders and gave them the limelight

“If you could only have one or the other,” I asked, “either all of these initiatives delivered tomorrow, or a team of Michelles… which would you choose?” The answer was immediate, unanimous and unequivocal: a team of Michelles, every time.

Structures and processes, appraisals and basic training programmes, will always have a role, especially for tackling poor performance and for raising standards to a basic, satisfactory level. And if that’s the battle you’re facing right now, then those are the things you should focus on. But they won’t help you develop great leaders.

To do that, you need to take a long, deep look at who you have in the organisation who has the potential to be a star, then put them in a role where they have room to grow. Give them clarity on the results that you want, and empower them with as much freedom as you dare, to engage other people and to get the job done. Most important of all, find them a boss who will coach them; someone that will respond to their every question with the four most powerful words in leadership development: “What do you think?”

Great leaders develop great leaders – you only need a few for the ball to start rolling. So who are your Michelles? What could your organisation achieve if you had a whole lot more of them? And what can you do today to start rolling that ball?

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