Releasing the Potential of All

By Mark Anderson

How will you cultivate great leadership to drive superior performance? In this article, the author elaborates on the importance of unleashing the individual strengths of employees – which is a defining feature of a leadership that is truly outstanding.

It’s commonplace in discussions about leadership and management to place a strong emphasis on unlocking the potential of all colleagues, not just those identified as high-fliers. This is becoming seen as increasingly critical as we enter an era of unparalleled technological change which is likely to render many current jobs obsolete and create many new type of jobs not thought of today. Add to that the increasingly ageing population, bringing with it the practical and financial need to work longer, and we have an employment cocktail demanding the very best development of and utilisation of skills.

But it’s not clear that many organisations are ready to meet this challenge. Too many rely on outdated approaches to so-called “talent management”. Too often this is about categorising colleagues into pre-determined groups, at the apex of which are high-fliers destined for greater roles, increased responsibility and ascension up the hierarchy. I have written elsewhere about the difference between leadership and management (The Leadership Book, FT Publishing, 2e 2013). Talent management which follows this kind of categorisation process – often in the name of identifying the “leaders of tomorrow” – is actually an example of management not leadership, because it focusses on the process more than the outcome.

The very best leadership happens when those in leadership roles (actually anyone with a responsibility for teams) recognise that they are like the conductor of an orchestra coaxing and inspiring the very best performances from all players. At the same time, they demonstrate the essential humility which acknowledges that each individual player has an expertise and skillset the leader themselves can never match. In this sense, the best leaders are jacks of all all trades but masters of none.

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Each individual player has an expertise and skillset the leader themselves can never match. In this sense, the best leaders are jacks of all all trades but masters of none.

Great leadership therefore seeks to recognise the capability for excellence and personal development in all colleagues. It is blind to educational background, prior experience, current role, hierarchy and indeed many of the indicators which typically drive talent management. Above all else it is blind to making assumptions that anyone’s current role and performance is a valid indicator of future capability and performance. It recognises that very frequently in organisations colleagues become straitjacketed by what they do. It also recognises that personal development isn’t and shouldn’t be about hierarchical progression.

This view intersects with what is often called the gig economy. Right now this is more often than not associated with zero-hours contracts and a fragility of employment. But let’s also think about the gig economy as a liberation, a liberation from the constraints of conventional employment within corporates and a means for individuals to do what they do best, in the way and at the rate they want. It’s no exaggeration to say that in the long run the corporate of one must be seen as valid as the corporate of many.

This is a demanding and radical agenda. It depends on some substantial changes in assumptions and approach:

  • organisations must above all else recognise that they are learning institutions not recipients of colleagues who have learned elsewhere (whether at school, university or other employers)
  • organisations must see their talent pool as internal and external, combining their own staff with others
  • thus talent management ceases to be primarily an internal staff-only exercise but one which extend to all talent wherever it comes from
  • organisation development focusses less on filling roles in a top-to-bottom structure but on assessing skills needs and how to meet them in a three-dimensional inside-and-out analysis
  • personal development – and thus personal development plans – should therefore not be exclusively focussed on hierarchical analysis and promotion, rather it should be focussed on a keen understanding of colleagues’ skills and how they can best be utilised
  • traditional badges of achievement – usually titles associated with hierarchy – should be replaced by titles associated with skills acquisition, excellence and thought leadership
  • promotion should be as likely lateral as upwards, and pay grades should be wholly separated from reporting lines 

For even some of this to be realised there needs to be a concomitant and radical change to prevailing company cultures. Above all else command and control structures which rely heavily on traditional hierarchies are likely to have to be replaced by more a project-based, transient and fluid pooling of skills. The tolerated level of risk will have to rise to enable entrepreneurship and personal skills maximisation to flourish. For many three year plans will have to be replaced by overarching goals implemented by a relentless series of sprints.

The tolerated level of risk will have to rise to enable entrepreneurship and personal skills maximisation to flourish.

Changes on this scale will in turn demand fresh approaches from those who assume longer-term or short-term project-based leadership roles. The best leaders in these circumstances will:

  • assume the mantle of a conductor of frequently differently formed ensembles
  • always recognise that they are supported by colleagues who have stronger skills bases in certain areas than they do (and not just in obvious functional specialisms)
  • always see every colleague as an individual with a unique perspective and contribution
  • associate leadership with enablement not power
  • always prioritise the good to be developed rather than the poor to be contained

This is very different: you lead from the middle not the front.

There is then an extraordinary rich opportunity for the individual, one which I would hope can lead to an efflorescence of skills development and an increased sense of personal reward. In this – maybe idealistic but nonetheless realisable – scenario, the individual is:

  • assessed for who they are not how they shape up against a predetermined role
  • placed in a skills development framework not a manager-led hierarchy
  • promoted on the basis of skills achievements in a manner which is not linked to hierarchy and traditional pay grades
  • encouraged to be a skills leader first and hierarchy leader second
  • employed in a learning institution where they simultaneously teach and learn

In this content who precisely employs you is not really an issue. Sensible government policy would equalise benefits and obligations across corporate and self employment.

In the end, making this happen is about immense cultural change because it would demand changes to almost all assumptions and built in working practices we typically find today. But in the knowledge economy where power lies in what you know, and the critical thinking skills you deploy to apply the wisdom of your knowledge, only the flourishing of the individual – and indeed teams of individuals – will drive superior performance.


About the Author

Mark Anderson is Chief Executive and Vice Chair of MACAT International, and Chair of London Metropolitan University, Bibliotech and Created Education. From 2014-2016 he was MD of Pearson UK. He is a Cambridge Fellow in Science & Policy and the author of The Leadership Book (FT Publishing, 2e, 2013).


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