Want Better Leaders? Support Them At the Start of Their Journey

Selfie @ Piz Nair, highest point in St Moritz, 2 January 2015

There is a misconception that leaders are born. It’s true that leadership seems to fit certain people more naturally than others, until you realise that you might just have a fixed notion about how a leader should look, think, feel and behave.

Leadership becomes a way of being over time. You don’t start out as a brilliant leader. No one does. To be a brilliant leader, there are skills you must learn and master like accountability, communication, coaching and visionary thinking. These skills are not consciously taught at school, but rather make up the curriculum of the “school of life.” If you stay in business long enough, you may acquire these skills, though there are no guarantees.

The problem with leaving it to chance is that you often learn these skills when you’ve taken a tumble. The temptation is to cut corners and wing it until the s&*t hits the fan. Then you do something about it to avoid feeling any more pain. Most of you don’t actively seek growth until the pain becomes unbearable. If it ain’t broke (never mind if it doesn’t work so well), then don’t fix it.

It’s called accidental leadership. Perhaps you’ve reached a point in your career when you look around to find that, hey, you’re finally doing OK with the people management thing, though you recognise you could probably do better in certain areas. Maybe you’ve got children, and they will have taught you A LOT about people’s inner drivers. As a result, you’re better able to see where the people you manage are emotionally stuck by having observed your children’s behaviours.

But think back to the early days of your management career. Think back to the times when you fumbled around in the dark, trying to convince yourself and everyone around you that you knew what you were doing, when really, you didn’t have a clue. For some of you, this will have cost you career ambitions. It’s entirely possible you changed career or dropped out of business altogether for something you deemed much more rewarding. Or you may be hanging on to the bitter end, hoping that some day you’ll rise to the top.

I speak to a lot of people about management, and almost everyone says the same thing: they would have made significantly different career choices had they been given greater support at the start of their management journey. Is this true for you? Or have you recently embarked upon your management journey with very little constructive guidance so far?

A study published recently found that 98 per cent of managers feel managers need more support at the start of their career. 98 per cent! Managers want support in areas like professional development, conflict resolution, employee turnover, time management and project management. The same 98 per cent of middle managers believe key company objectives such as employee retention, office morale, client satisfaction and revenue would improve if managers were trained to be effective more quickly.

So, it seems as though just about everyone apart from the people holding the purse strings and creating the leadership development strategy gets it. It’s a big old blindspot in corporate structures, and it’s time to grab a mirror and start dealing with it.

Now, while I’m a fan of using technology to solve problems, I firmly believe that, in the case of leadership, you must include a human element. Given that leadership is all about people, it would be ludicrous to cut corners by eliminating the human element from the growth and training experience. Given, too, that the trend has been to eliminate live human experts in favour of e-learning and pre-recorded online courses, it’s no surprise that the quality of leadership has plummeted in the last 20 years.

While I’m also a fan of e-learning and online training courses, both modes of learning are severely restricted in their ability to respond to needs or situations as they arise. These learning modalities work on the assumption that people’s brains are blank slates waiting to be filled with useful information. In fact, your brain is only capable of retaining about 10 per cent of what it learns in any given moment.

The real issue business is yet to tackle with any great aptitude is mindset. There’s a focus on behaviours, but not the unconscious thinking that drives behaviour. Think of your brain as a computer. Would you try to run Office 2016 on a Windows 95 operating system? It’s seems crazy, but consider that mindset, the operating system upon which the behaviours, or applications, run, needs upgrading and regular debugging, just like your computer systems, to ensure optimal performance.

I use the metaphor of learning to ski when discussing leadership development. It’s a sport that instils fear in many people. The idea of sliding down a snow-covered mountain on two thin planks of wood seems like a really dumb idea. The thought of being a leader has a similar impact on people in your organisation.

For a long time, the idea of skiing terrified me. While my fiance-now-husband went to the Alps with the boys for a week on the slopes, I’d set off for a week’s rejuvenation in an Indian ashram. Despite my terror, I was intrigued by the number of people who shared that it makes a great family holiday. I decided to make use of an indoor snow centre that opened in the next town. What did I have to lose but a bit of money and a few hours of my time? So, at the age of 40, I started learning how to ski.

Seven years later, and as a family we excitedly plan our ski holiday in the final days of our summer holiday. I fantasise about spending months at a time exploring the magical snowy mountain landscapes of the world. In three words, I love skiing. Ten years ago, I never thought I’d be able to say that.

Did I learn to ski by reading a book, watching a video, or interacting with a piece of computer software? No, I didn’t. I spent four years in training out on Alpine slopes and at the snow centre under the tutelage of various instructors who observed my actions, corrected my technique and challenged me to take new actions, each set of new actions building on the previous.

Did I start out on black runs? No! I began skiing indoors, and then on the nursery slopes, gradually working my way up to blues, reds and now black runs over a period of several years. I’m not the world’s best skier by far, but I am able to handle tricky runs, and sometimes I even enjoy them! Do I feel confident when I put on my ski boots and sit in the chairlift on the first morning? The answer is yes, because I know that my body remembers what to do.

Was this true when I started? No! Ask my husband and son how many times they have had to coax me down a challenging section of piste. At times I was almost paralysed with fear, and having a person to coach me in those moments meant I got down the slope with my skis still on my feet. Had I been on my own, I might have given up and branded myself a failure.

What has learning to ski got to do with leadership? Leadership is a skill, just like skiing. It’s a skill upon which you build over time. It’s an activity that forces people out of their comfort zone, and that comes with danger. Therefore, you must bring a high degree of consciousness and intentionality to the instruction to mitigate risk and facilitate success. If you’re new to the sport, your ski instructor will challenge your assumptions and champion your successes. Over time, your confidence grows as you ditch inappropriate beliefs about yourself as a skier and upgrade your thought processes, allowing you to navigate the terrain with greater certainty and finesse.

The other critical issue is one of safety. Putting someone on a mountain without first teaching them how to stop using snow plough not only puts them in danger, but it also puts the other people on the slopes in danger. It’s highly irresponsible.

Now take the analogy of learning to ski and apply it to your leadership development strategy. Consider what it is that you expect from your managers and how you approach their development as leaders. Do you hand them the materials, leave them to get on with it, expect them to excel, and then wonder why only very few make it to the bottom unscathed? Or, do you employ experts whose job it is to help each individual refine his or her technique, one turn at a time, until it becomes natural and effortless?

In short, are you approaching the development of your leaders responsibly, or are you winging it on a hope and a prayer?

This is not an invitation to blame your leaders. I’d like you, instead, to turn the finger round to your leadership development strategy and assess it with a high degree of honesty. What do you find? Are you really doing enough to support your people’s success? Are you still grappling with problems like increasing employee engagement or bringing greater diversity to your organisation? Has it not occurred to you that your lack of success could be the direct result of poorly equipped leaders?

I am championing a move away from accidental leadership and a move towards intentional leadership, and I’d love you to join me. More specifically, I want you to bring intentionality to your leadership development at the start of your leaders’ journeys. If you’re a new leader, I invite you to demand that your company’s L&D department equip you with the appropriate mindset and skills to do your job to the best of your ability. Being fobbed off with a manual and a course link is not good enough.

You owe it to yourself and to the people in your organisation to do the best for them, especially at a time when strong leadership is not a nice-to-have but an absolute necessity for future business success.

Are you ready to take action? Then grab your boots and skis and let’s hit the slopes. There’s no time like the present.

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