Most leadership development does not produce a pack. It produces individual leaders. Below, John Sutherland discusses the importance of leaders working well with other strong leaders, and argues that the pack that hunts together stays together.
Wolves hunt as a pack and are brilliant team players. Once they pick up the scent they are strategic, purposeful and persistent. Quite frightening if you are the quarry but good news if you are interested in the wolf pack’s success.
What about your leaders? Do you have individuals who vie with each other to be top dog or do you have powerful leaders who also pull together as a pack? And what do you need to achieve your business plan? If you are like most businesses you need leaders who pull together to become an unstoppable force focussed on hunting down your compelling vision. You want all the energy channelled towards your objective, not dissipated in internal fighting.
But most leadership development does not produce a pack. It produces pack leaders. Great for the individual ego, but counter-productive if you need leaders who hunt as a pack.
The Cult of the Individual Leader
The primary focus of most leadership programmes is developing individual leaders, not creating the pack. That may be no surprise because the very word “leadership” conjures up the image of an individual, like Steve Jobs or Richard Branson. The debate then starts on the particular qualities, behaviours and habits that define these charismatic individuals. No wonder, then, that a focus on the individual is what most people are expecting when they go off to a business school or enrol on a leadership programme. They want to become a compelling leader who stands out from the crowd, to grow leadership presence and get promoted above the rest. To be top dog.
It seems logical to want the best leaders working for your company. The current fad for “Top Grading” is a prime example. The idea being that you only recruit the top 10% of people in any profession or discipline, on the assumption that if you have the very best people working for you your venture will do well. And of course having excellent people is a useful starting place, but if they end up fighting each other rather than fighting the competition together you will have a problem. They not only have to have phenomenal individual leadership skills, they also need to know how to work well with other strong leaders. It is a bit like the Olympics. Having a number of potential gold medal winners at their individual discipline is fantastic. If, in addition, they know how to be part of their country’s team and support each other as they build the momentum required to march up the medal table together, then it can be amazing.
However, many of us are not wired or trained to work well together. We want to be in charge. Picture the scene. Two strong and independently minded leaders stand facing each other pulling a tug-of-war rope between them. Each is trying to haul the other over to their side to win. If either succeeds they will feel validated and triumphant but the business will have lost out and the loser will plot their revenge.
Meet Jonathan and Ted, both senior players in a retail business. Jonathan’s experience tells him that you need to make decisions quickly and crack on with a sense of urgency, otherwise you never hit the numbers in the plan. Ted’s experience is that if you rush a decision you fail to tackle the issues in sufficient depth to find the robust answer that will stand the test of time. Jonathan is structured and has a value around people following clear instructions, and he has a personal need to feel in charge. Ted is flexible and has a value around involving people so that they are on board with the chosen way forward, and he has a need to feel heard. They are both strong characters and neither is willing to back down, so their arguments become heated and often end in stalemate. There are a large number of Jonathans and Teds in every business. Strong “medal contenders” in their own discipline but working across each other rather than synergistically.
So how do you develop a pack that knows how to, and wants to, work together? Here are the four success factors we have found in our leadership development work over the last 25 years.
1. Scenting the Quarry
Your leaders need a common goal to unite behind and get their teeth into. Just running a leadership programme is not enough, it needs to be directly focussed on achieving your business plan. A focus on revenue growth, for example, will draw out different leadership needs than one aimed at turnaround. If you need to develop cohesion across a global business or develop margin in the EMEA region these, again, will influence the specific leadership skills you require. But whatever your business is focussed on achieving, the same rule applies: make this the primary focus for your leadership development work and expect the programme to make a significant contribution to the delivery of your high level objectives.
Every leadership programme we have run has the same defining moment. It is the point at which the leaders on the programme realise the potential they collectively have to really shift the dial on performance across their organisation. This is when it stops being a mere leadership programme and starts becoming a group of significant leaders, realising just how much impact they can have working together on real business issues. There is always a surge of energy at this transition point as the leaders on the programme realise that “this is for real” rather than “just for development”, and it is my favourite moment. They quickly become an unstoppable force focussed on delivering your extraordinary achievement.
2. Learning on the Run
Having set the target as the achievement of your business plan, the leadership development work can then be focussed on the real and live business issues of the day.
But the key advantage is that it means the work is live and relevant, not based on some abstract scenario which has been beaten to death by a thousand delegates before you. Scenario based learning is the major teaching methodology of most business schools and leadership programmes, because they are not able to focus on the precise needs of your unique organisation. Live work on current objectives within your business brings compelling advantages.
As I write we are working with a client who has just made a major acquisition, and the leadership team is drawn half from the parent company and half from the company they have acquired. A perfect place to develop post-acquisition competence and high performance senior team work in real time. One half of the team had been on a leadership programme before but found that doing the development work “for real” around live business issues made all the difference. It was so much more relevant and they could see the immediate benefits of their learning. They were excited, and it was infectious.
Learning on the run immediately removes the age old problem of how to transfer learning from off-site workshops back into the real world of work. When the benefits are obvious uptake is immediate and morale gets a boost. Leaders begin to sense the potency of the pack and that is when a critically important switch in the development focus takes place. At the outset somebody, perhaps the CEO or the HRDirector, decided there was a compelling business case for running a leadership programme and invited people to attend. But when the people they have invited on the programme start to see the impact they can have, and the benefit they are deriving, they begin to find their own sense of direction and momentum for their ongoing development as a pack. They become leaders of their own leadership development work, identifying where the development work can focus next to bring the most benefit.
3. Teaching Others to Hunt
Leaders who have been through a highly productive and relevant development programme, progressing real business issues, always have the same reaction. They want to pass their learning on to their direct reports so that they can have a positive influence on the wider organisation and accelerate progress. There are three fantastic benefits of this impulse. The first is that one of the best ways to really understand what you have learnt is to teach it to others. It means you have to understand it at the level of practical mastery, so that you can explain it from direct experience, rather than just spout theory. The second is that they pass their knowledge on in a way that is directly tailored to the needs of their unique organisation. Yes, this leadership model builds real collaboration but the way we ground that in our organisation is, of course, unique. The third is that, through so many leaders getting involved in working with the next layer of the organisation, it becomes apparent which are the four or five most potent leadership models that capture the distilled essence of what really works for moving the dial on performance here. No two organisations are ever the same, of course, and I can never predict which, of the 70 or so models we regularly use, will prove to be the key ones for each client organisation. Quite often the final selection includes a model that has been co-created between the leaders and the facilitators. Putting all this together means that they automatically produce a unique company leadership approach, based on proven models, that helps provide continuity across the organisation and gives a cohesive framework for new joiners. You end up with your own book on how to do leadership here.
4. Forming as a Pack
When leaders work and learn together with peers in this way it is inevitable that strong bonds of loyalty are formed. The pack that hunts together stays together. They are there for each other and reach incredible levels of honesty, challenge and focus which translates into impact, productivity and, finally, Return on Investment. It takes a good deal of courage and self-awareness to get past the stage of vying to be top dog in order to realise the potency inherent in complementing each other’s skills and experience. Paradoxically, you cannot have your pack of wolves working well together unless each individual has developed a high degree of emotional competence. If Emotional Intelligence is understanding my reactions and those of others then Emotional Competence is mastering the practical skill of knowing how to turn tension into traction and conflict into cohesion. Entirely more useful and critically important in pack behaviour.
Because they go through a lot together the pack forms more tightly and they feel able to tackle organisational issues that have been resistant to change, or seemed to present insurmountable problems. Once leaders are confident in the pack their optimism rises, not based on some fluffy good intention but rooted in the repeated experience that the pack is much stronger than the sum of the parts.
Your leaders forming as a pack is bad news for your competitors. Focussed and persistent with fabulous team work. Self-directing and quick to learn. Scary. I would not fancy their chances against you.
About the Author
John Sutherland is the Director of the Leadership Initiative, which provides leadership development focussed on delivering the business plan. He also runs Strategic Resource, which provides management due diligence and portfolio value enhancement work for the investment community.
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