How to get extraordinary leaders for an uncertain world

Jun 12, 2013 | Ideas, Ideas for Organisation, Ideas for Strategy, News & Updates, Sri Lanka

Great leadership is generally perceived to be in short supply for our time as many seem to believe that we only have outstanding leaders in the past and not now. The fact is, if you were to conduct a poll then, many leaders would not have been seen as great in their age. For example if Winston Churchill was really one of the greatest British Prime Minister ever, then he should have won the re-election after the 2nd World War.

Everyone seems to have an opinion of what a great leader should be but few are aware of the delicate process of getting them. The general perception of great leaders is almost utopian as we like to imagine our leaders as incredibly confident, always know where the compass is pointing towards and seems to be super men and women. As in, they were perceived to have this god-like ability to do amazing things alone. This utopian and almost idealistic way of looking at leadership development will virtually ensure that you will never get extraordinary leaders.

In truth, extraordinary leaders do not emerge from a clear path. It is often messy and many would not have become leaders if a senior colleague did not take note and guided them. The acknowledgement that it is in the midst of chaos and fast evolution that you get extraordinary leaders is important for our age. We are witnessing an incredible moment of change for our world. We are now connected to the world instantaneously, we will most certainly see civilians travel to space in our lifetime and the level of scientific development is expected to leap forward due to the convergence of new understanding on the core foundations of what we know.

Therefore it is important to develop leadership programmes that are open to diversity and change. In our work to help Asian brands transform their business models, we had to redesign their leadership development programmes in order to sustain change. During those audits, here are 3 primary reasons why their existing programmes do not work:

1)  One size simply cannot fit all

Many Asian companies surprise us by sharing that the last time, they had a leadership development programme was simply to invite a consultant to give a workshop. Then based on those notes, they would use what was taught as a benchmark to measure the performance of their leaders. This is a general practitioner’s approach and it is dangerous as it is almost like saying that if this medicine is good for that other person then it should be good for me too. The problem is, every organisation is different in terms of stages of development, make-up of skill sets and obviously industry. So when Asian companies simply apply the template, they won’t get much results from it. That is why their leadership programmes produce findings that are still not a reliable indicator of good leadership relevant to their organisation.

2)  Lack of review makes the programme irrelevant

The next startling discovery is, while many organisations review the development of their leaders, they do not review the effectiveness of their programmes on a scheduled basis. Some have not reviewed their initiatives for almost a decade! There are now a lot more technological tools to make it easier for assessment. So the good thing is, we no longer need to worry about the tools and we can focus on customising the framework, adjust the tools in a faster way. We are highlighting this as some companies end up buying software for the sake of having something to assess their leaders. But software is just a tool, for without strategy to constantly tweak the framework, the participants will soon find the process irrelevant.

3)  Lack of a mentorship programme

Finally no amount of technology can replace the intuition of the human person. Every extraordinary leader that has ever emerged will always be able to share how there is this 1 or 2 persons who have guided them and changed their lives. Therefore the quality of mentorship, encouraging people to mentor others is critical. The new challenge is, many staff nowadays prefer a short tenure and this presents another challenge to companies. Therefore the mentorship programme should be initiated early to ensure that the companies engage and retain talent early on. But the pity is, many organisations fail to properly monitor and encourage the work of these mentors, thus affecting the effectiveness of the leadership  programme.

Many organisations in Asia are facing extraordinary challenges, the industry where they used to operate in has changed, the level of expectations from staff are now different and the way we communicate our values have also evolved. Hence it is important for us to review and build a more relevant programme to ensure that no probable leader will be cut out from the process through an obsolete approach. Here are 3 ideas to design a leadership programme fit for our time:

1)  Clarify purpose and goals

Before setting up the leadership development programme it is important to identify specific goals for its existence as it is a long-term commitment. Different organisations will have different purpose for the programme. For family-owned companies, these programmes may not evolve into succession planning as that is reserved for family members. But for most Asian firms out there, the purpose is generally to build up a base of leaders who will eventually have the ability to succeed the top echelon of the group. Once you have identified the purpose, it will be a more accurate way to determine the resources delegated to its development.  In our work we have identified the following aspects that make a good leadership development plan:

1A – Involvement of CEO or Managing Director.

The involvement of the boss is absolutely critical to demonstrate the commitment of the management. This is one task that cannot be outsourced to anyone. It may have been developed with others but ultimately it is the CEO who has to oversee this programme to ensure buy-in and effectiveness.

1B – Keen understanding on the development of talents

Every talent in the company goes through different stages and it is important to observe them regularly and see how they have conducted themselves as they serve their roles. Assigning a senior person to look after promising talent is another important element in this activity.

1C – Evolutionary nature of programme

All organisations evolve due to size, capabilities and quality of talent. Therefore a scheduled annual review is critical especially for fast-growing firms to ensure that the programme is relevant to their growth.

1D – Good follow-through with action plans

Assessing talent is the easier part, the more difficult one is where to place them afterward. How to design job scopes and projects that will build on their strengths and stretch them. It is a good practice to ask candidates to review their personal journeys each year and work with them to set higher targets together. This gives them the certainty about where they are headed next.

1E – Keeping it manageable

Finally not every organisation will have the resources to do a comprehensive leadership programme. Before deciding to start it, think carefully about the time and personnel needed to carry out the tasks. It is better to have a less perfect system that is done on a yearly basis then to have an ambitious process which will never be implemented.

2) Building a dream team

No company will have all the desired talents at the same time and in one place. Some already exist while others need to be discovered eventually through the exercise or recruitment. In other words, you are always trying to build the dream team. And in this case, being open to diversity is key because no one can predict how the world will evolve. The sensitivity of this programme is, if the process gets too narrow then you will end up with the same mould of leaders. This then lowers your chances of getting a more diverse talent base which will be a better bet in an uncertain world. So do not focus on the style but rather look at any select group as if they are part of a garden. When you take a garden approach, then you will have a more diverse group of people with slightly different approaches. You may think that this makes it more difficult to manage but it will not be so if you have clarity in terms of direction. So the formula to managing a diverse group is this:

2A – Reflecting on the purpose of the company, what does the person bring?

Any leadership development programme is not meant to be the final test, it is meant to be an assessment to see if the person is ready for the big challenges. Therefore it is about finding that person who brings something different to the table in terms of views and skill-sets. You don’t really want to look for an exact replica for an existing leader as it is impossible.

2B – Regarding style, why am I uncomfortable with it?

It is important not to place too much emphasis on the style of leadership though it is still important to review it in a frank and objective way. The style of leadership obviously cannot undermine his/her ability to do the work. Therefore if the approach is different but if it works, then it is best to let it be. This openness to different styles will also encourage more talents to come forward.

2C – Regarding beliefs, where does the person stand?

Ultimately the litmus test for any leader is, where does the person stand in terms of values and beliefs? Therefore any evaluation must have a special emphasis on the approach the person took. How did it reflect his/her values and beliefs? Thus even if the person achieved the project objectives but fail to align with the company’s beliefs, it is best not to take the person forward.

3) Decide how one emerges as the overall champion

At the end of the day, only one person will get a chance to lead the entire organisation. When you begin to assess the person, you will generally be looking out for efficiency, quality and the ability to manage a team. But ultimately CEOs are chosen because they know how to either scale or innovate. They have the vision and ideas on how to bring everyone forward. It will not be something that everyone will ordinarily expect and it could be disruptive but there has to be a vision to move forward.

So years before the top management make the decision to choose the new leader, it is important to understand the opinions of those who have worked for or with the promising leader. How did the person lead and the reasoning behind the decisions he made. In life, the many difficult steps before is what makes the arrival at our destination even sweeter. Therefore no journey is the same and it is also important to consider including the opinions of those who have worked with the person. In this way, you get a more holistic view of the person whether he/she has what it takes to bring your hard work to the next level.

Great leadership is generally perceived to be in short supply for our time as many seem to believe that we only have outstanding leaders in the past and not now. The fact is, if you were to conduct a poll then, many leaders would not have been seen as great in their age. For example if Winston Churchill was really one of the greatest British Prime Minister ever, then he should have won the re-election after the 2nd World War.

Everyone seems to have an opinion of what a great leader should be but few are aware of the delicate process of getting them. The general perception of great leaders is almost utopian as we like to imagine our leaders as incredibly confident, always know where the compass is pointing towards and seems to be super men and women. As in, they were perceived to have this god-like ability to do amazing things alone. This utopian and almost idealistic way of looking at leadership development will virtually ensure that you will never get extraordinary leaders.

In truth, extraordinary leaders do not emerge from a clear path. It is often messy and many would not have become leaders if a senior colleague did not take note and guided them. The acknowledgement that it is in the midst of chaos and fast evolution that you get extraordinary leaders is important for our age. We are witnessing an incredible moment of change for our world. We are now connected to the world instantaneously, we will most certainly see civilians travel to space in our lifetime and the level of scientific development is expected to leap forward due to the convergence of new understanding on the core foundations of what we know.

Therefore it is important to develop leadership programmes that are open to diversity and change. In our work to help Asian brands transform their business models, we had to redesign their leadership development programmes in order to sustain change. During those audits, here are 3 primary reasons why their existing programmes do not work:

1)  One size simply cannot fit all

Many Asian companies surprise us by sharing that the last time, they had a leadership development programme was simply to invite a consultant to give a workshop. Then based on those notes, they would use what was taught as a benchmark to measure the performance of their leaders. This is a general practitioner’s approach and it is dangerous as it is almost like saying that if this medicine is good for that other person then it should be good for me too. The problem is, every organisation is different in terms of stages of development, make-up of skill sets and obviously industry. So when Asian companies simply apply the template, they won’t get much results from it. That is why their leadership programmes produce findings that are still not a reliable indicator of good leadership relevant to their organisation.

2)  Lack of review makes the programme irrelevant

The next startling discovery is, while many organisations review the development of their leaders, they do not review the effectiveness of their programmes on a scheduled basis. Some have not reviewed their initiatives for almost a decade! There are now a lot more technological tools to make it easier for assessment. So the good thing is, we no longer need to worry about the tools and we can focus on customising the framework, adjust the tools in a faster way. We are highlighting this as some companies end up buying software for the sake of having something to assess their leaders. But software is just a tool, for without strategy to constantly tweak the framework, the participants will soon find the process irrelevant.

3)  Lack of a mentorship programme

Finally no amount of technology can replace the intuition of the human person. Every extraordinary leader that has ever emerged will always be able to share how there is this 1 or 2 persons who have guided them and changed their lives. Therefore the quality of mentorship, encouraging people to mentor others is critical. The new challenge is, many staff nowadays prefer a short tenure and this presents another challenge to companies. Therefore the mentorship programme should be initiated early to ensure that the companies engage and retain talent early on. But the pity is, many organisations fail to properly monitor and encourage the work of these mentors, thus affecting the effectiveness of the leadership  programme.

Many organisations in Asia are facing extraordinary challenges, the industry where they used to operate in has changed, the level of expectations from staff are now different and the way we communicate our values have also evolved. Hence it is important for us to review and build a more relevant programme to ensure that no probable leader will be cut out from the process through an obsolete approach. Here are 3 ideas to design a leadership programme fit for our time:

1)  Clarify purpose and goals

Before setting up the leadership development programme it is important to identify specific goals for its existence as it is a long-term commitment. Different organisations will have different purpose for the programme. For family-owned companies, these programmes may not evolve into succession planning as that is reserved for family members. But for most Asian firms out there, the purpose is generally to build up a base of leaders who will eventually have the ability to succeed the top echelon of the group. Once you have identified the purpose, it will be a more accurate way to determine the resources delegated to its development.  In our work we have identified the following aspects that make a good leadership development plan:

1A – Involvement of CEO or Managing Director.

The involvement of the boss is absolutely critical to demonstrate the commitment of the management. This is one task that cannot be outsourced to anyone. It may have been developed with others but ultimately it is the CEO who has to oversee this programme to ensure buy-in and effectiveness.

1B – Keen understanding on the development of talents

Every talent in the company goes through different stages and it is important to observe them regularly and see how they have conducted themselves as they serve their roles. Assigning a senior person to look after promising talent is another important element in this activity.

1C – Evolutionary nature of programme

All organisations evolve due to size, capabilities and quality of talent. Therefore a scheduled annual review is critical especially for fast-growing firms to ensure that the programme is relevant to their growth.

1D – Good follow-through with action plans

Assessing talent is the easier part, the more difficult one is where to place them afterward. How to design job scopes and projects that will build on their strengths and stretch them. It is a good practice to ask candidates to review their personal journeys each year and work with them to set higher targets together. This gives them the certainty about where they are headed next.

1E – Keeping it manageable

Finally not every organisation will have the resources to do a comprehensive leadership programme. Before deciding to start it, think carefully about the time and personnel needed to carry out the tasks. It is better to have a less perfect system that is done on a yearly basis then to have an ambitious process which will never be implemented.

2) Building a dream team

No company will have all the desired talents at the same time and in one place. Some already exist while others need to be discovered eventually through the exercise or recruitment. In other words, you are always trying to build the dream team. And in this case, being open to diversity is key because no one can predict how the world will evolve. The sensitivity of this programme is, if the process gets too narrow then you will end up with the same mould of leaders. This then lowers your chances of getting a more diverse talent base which will be a better bet in an uncertain world. So do not focus on the style but rather look at any select group as if they are part of a garden. When you take a garden approach, then you will have a more diverse group of people with slightly different approaches. You may think that this makes it more difficult to manage but it will not be so if you have clarity in terms of direction. So the formula to managing a diverse group is this:

2A – Reflecting on the purpose of the company, what does the person bring?

Any leadership development programme is not meant to be the final test, it is meant to be an assessment to see if the person is ready for the big challenges. Therefore it is about finding that person who brings something different to the table in terms of views and skill-sets. You don’t really want to look for an exact replica for an existing leader as it is impossible.

2B – Regarding style, why am I uncomfortable with it?

It is important not to place too much emphasis on the style of leadership though it is still important to review it in a frank and objective way. The style of leadership obviously cannot undermine his/her ability to do the work. Therefore if the approach is different but if it works, then it is best to let it be. This openness to different styles will also encourage more talents to come forward.

2C – Regarding beliefs, where does the person stand?

Ultimately the litmus test for any leader is, where does the person stand in terms of values and beliefs? Therefore any evaluation must have a special emphasis on the approach the person took. How did it reflect his/her values and beliefs? Thus even if the person achieved the project objectives but fail to align with the company’s beliefs, it is best not to take the person forward.

3) Decide how one emerges as the overall champion

At the end of the day, only one person will get a chance to lead the entire organisation. When you begin to assess the person, you will generally be looking out for efficiency, quality and the ability to manage a team. But ultimately CEOs are chosen because they know how to either scale or innovate. They have the vision and ideas on how to bring everyone forward. It will not be something that everyone will ordinarily expect and it could be disruptive but there has to be a vision to move forward.

So years before the top management make the decision to choose the new leader, it is important to understand the opinions of those who have worked for or with the promising leader. How did the person lead and the reasoning behind the decisions he made. In life, the many difficult steps before is what makes the arrival at our destination even sweeter. Therefore no journey is the same and it is also important to consider including the opinions of those who have worked with the person. In this way, you get a more holistic view of the person whether he/she has what it takes to bring your hard work to the next level.

Read the full article here.

Lawrence Chong is the CEO of Consulus, a company specializing in helping Asian firms rebrand and redesign their organizations to be more innovative through business design. Consulus has begun operations in Sri Lanka in partnership with Hummingbird International.  Shiraz Latiff is the CEO/Lead Consultant  of Hummingbird International, a regional knowledge house specializing in coaching, consulting & outsourcing through global partnerships & collaborations. 

This article is part of a weekly column called Shaping the World where Lawrence and Shiraz share insights and ideas about building innovative Asian Brands. It is published by one of the leading dailies in Sri Lanka, Ceylon Today.