By Steve King, University of Wisconsin Business School
Leadership development has become a business in and of itself. Quite a big business in fact. Classes, seminars, webinars, mentors, coaches, affinity groups, 3600 feedback, online communities, best-selling books, and a lot of these resources are quite good.
Businesses all over the world have certainly bought in. Leadership development in one form or another seems to be at the top of talent agendas everywhere. A lot is going on in this space.
So, I guess it’s not surprising that I find a growing sense among some leaders that they are overwhelmed with the prescriptions to better leadership. Recently, a senior leader of a large organization showed me her leadership “development plan,” with an external coach and endorsed by her CEO. It had four different areas of development focus and three or four actions steps for each of those areas, and some of those action steps were sophisticated.
She told me it reminded her of when she started playing golf, which she took up at the age of 35. Her husband, eager to help her learn, had 25 tips the first day. It did not go well. Just too many things to keep track of, and she lost interest quickly until her husband wisely stepped aside and let the club pro take over. After assessing her game, his recommendation was to focus on two things and two things only. Her game improved. Then came the third thing to focus on and her game continued to develop.
As with many aspects of our lives, progress is made not through massive, all-encompassing change but rather through the strategic adoption of a few small yet powerful changes. For example, in golf, a simple change to how a golf club is held, called the “grip,” can make the difference between the ball going straight and the ball curving unintentionally into the woods. I know this from personal experience.
This premise of adopting simple, yet powerful, changes to achieve desired business outcomes applies to leaders and their development as well.
Here’s another example – one senior leader I knew, earlier in his career, struggled to motivate those who worked for him. He led a large organization and came in daily contact with dozens of employees, hundreds every month. He received feedback through conversations with trusted colleagues and a leadership 3600 evaluation process that employees found him to be unapproachable and distant.
At first, he didn’t give this feedback much thought, figuring that everyone’s goals were clear, and he was providing adequate resources to get the job done. Things were going well, and results were good. Why did it matter if he was unapproachable?
But after some more thought he began to worry that being unapproachable might mean good ideas were not coming his way or perhaps issues that needed his attention were not successfully finding their way to him. That’s not what he wanted.
So was he a candidate for a major personality change from distant to warm and fuzzy? Maybe. But that’s really asking a lot of someone whose introverted nature or shy disposition might be making them unapproachable to others.
This leader decided to start his developmental journey by making one small adjustment to his management style, one he hoped would warm up interactions with others and create an environment more conducive to sharing issues and ideas. Every morning he placed five pennies in his left pocket. These were there to remind him that he needed to engage with people more warmly and with an invitation to conversation. Each time he gave someone positive feedback or thanked them for something wonderful they did, he would take one penny and move it from his left pocket to his right pocket. His job every day? Move all five pennies from his left pocket to his right pocket.
By the time I met him, I had found a leader who was a bit formal and a bit hard edged. But I quickly noticed that my coworkers loved working with him. In fact, I conducted a 3600 leadership assessment for him as part of a succession planning exercise, and it was clear from the feedback that others felt positively motivated by his leadership.
He credits it to the pennies in the pocket. Personally, I doubt that moving pennies from one pocket to another explains his whole transformation, but I believe it contributed, and I think it provides us all with a valuable lesson about leadership development.
We tend to see the development of leaders as a large, complicated set of endeavors because human beings are complex and what makes us who we are is a result of our life’s journey. So, unlearning bad habits and learning better ones is going to be hard.
But just like our expert friends skilled in Six Sigma and Lean remind us, the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, applies in leadership development, too. We can get 80 percent bang out of 20 percent effort if we just pick the right 20 percent …like pennies in a pocket.