What are Current Leader-Development Systems Lacking?

This month, David Veech published a very interesting new book called Leadersights: Creating Great Leaders Who Create Great Workplaces. This book addresses an important need: How organizations can create a leader-development system that defines, builds, and reinforces critical leader behaviors. When I had the chance to speak with David about his book, I asked him: What is the biggest problem with current leader-development systems and how can they be improved? He provided an insightful answer:

I'm not sure there are problems with leader-development systems that would threaten the livelihood of organizations, but as with everything else in our continuous-improvement community, there are always parts we can improve. I’ve centered and focused on a couple of areas, and I’ve tried to simplify things a bit as I try to communicate with people about becoming better leaders.

After years of studying the Toyota Production System and other companies that demonstrate consistent success, specifically those profiled in Jim Collins’ books Good to Great and Great by Choice, I have come to believe that the key features of any leader-development program must be built on a platform of servant leadership. I get a lot of agreement with this from people, but there are lots of pieces to becoming an effective servant leader.

The most significant of these pieces is the structure of the workplace. If we have an organization structure that is based on traditional, functional silos, and one that bases compensation of the accomplishment of self-set goals, that structure forces leaders into a particularly results-oriented focus, regardless of their personal leadership style preferences. The system affects their leadership behavior. When a leader assumes a new role, the subtle (or not-so-subtle) competitive pressures implied by the results-oriented system force that leader, out of self-preservation, to either undo what previous leaders have done, or make a change that has their fingerprints on it so they can stand out a bit from the crowd. In most organizations, leaders rotate through key positions moderately frequently (sometimes as little as 18 months between roles), and they get conditioned to this kind of activity even though personally they may be humble and very people-oriented. Lean helps because we try to change the work structures for better performance, and because we focus on the development of people as the primary outcome.

Changing the fundamental structure of the conventional organization is a large undertaking, so I have tried to outline something of a more subversive approach than blowing things up and rebuilding from the rubble. We’ll need to first identify what behaviors are truly important to us as a workplace. Empathy. Listening. Encouraging. Correcting. Coaching. These we describe and operationalize in our statement of corporate values, which with our vision and mission set out our operating philosophy. Then we tie these to performance appraisals and bonus compensation. These are hard to measure, so this is a leap of faith for most workplaces. More importantly though, we must have systems and leaders who model and teach these behaviors, and as with other skills we want to develop, these need to be set out in the leaders’ standardized work. I think this might be the biggest departure from what most of us talk about when we describe leaders’ standardized work. Where most of us use this tool as a checklist and reminder of the key things we must complete daily, weekly, and monthly, we don’t articulate how to be empathetic; how to listen; how to encourage. I think we can fix this be setting out standardized work for these types of skills and reinforcing these skills through frequent coaching as a task within Short-Interval Leadership. 

Ultimately, leaders only need to do three things: Decide to love, continue to learn, and let go of the control they think they have over the workplace. Those skills I mentioned are all components of these three decisions/actions/ habits. These allow us to integrate various leadership styles in our daily work, including the “go out and get noticed” piece that I call “connecting”. But I have to take this back to the structure conversation. Without key changes in the way we describe, hire, evaluate, and compensate leaders; and without key changes in how the work is structured in the workplace away from batch-and-queue, lots of handoffs, and transaction-driven and toward flow, it will be very difficult to build these types of leaders for the future.  

What type of leadership-development system exists in your organization?  What are the major factors affecting your leaders' behaviors?