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GLN conversation – Navigating the Leadership Journey

Earlier this year I was approached to become a Director of the Global Leadership Network UK (GLN) and having accepted the appointment I had a “conversation by email” where we explored my background and some leadership related topics.  The discussion that ensued is reproduced here in an unedited format.  (Note that the Global Leadership Summit (GLS) is the flagship conference for the GLN which is held in Chicago in August year.  This includes talks from Leaders around the world and is rebroadcast around the UK later in the year.)

What is one mistake you witness your clients or leaders in general making more frequently than others? Is there a certain behaviour or trait that you have seen damage or derail careers? How do you help steer people away from, or work through, such mistakes and behaviours?

I spent most of my early career managing engineering projects.  Now, engineers are really good at dealing with things – designing things, building things, creating things.  However, they’re not always very good with people, and as a project manager, I found that you can manage things, but you need to lead people.  I discovered that a key differentiator between success and failure had a lot to do with effective leadership skills, in leading people well, because you can get the best out of people when you help them to turn ‘have to’ into ‘want to’ because then people inspire themselves to be great.  

A lot of leaders I meet are also really good with achieving objectives, often it is their achievements that have brought them into their position of leadership.  However, the skills and attributes that bring you to a position of leadership are often not the skills that you will need to keep you there.  

It’s rather like a musician who works hard on improving their skills in playing their instrument and becoming a very successful performer.  However, to transition to becoming a conductor takes quite a different set of skills.  Now, it’s not enough to know how to play one instrument; it’s necessary to understand how to play all sorts of different instrument, and to understand how to get the best out of each performer to make the orchestra as a whole perform at its best to get the sound you’re after.  

Some years ago, I was on the board of an organisation where the Chief Executive and his Operations Director had allowed an issue to creep in which was causing a significant disagreement and disturbance, and this was causing the organisation as a whole to suffer.  As chair of the board I was asked to come in to see if I could see a way out of this problem and find a way forward.  

After an initial discussion with each of the people involved, I asked them to come together, and then for each to explain the situation from the perspective of the other person, in such a way that the other person could agree with the description.  The Chief Exec event went first and spent 20 minutes describing the situation from the perspective of the Operations Director, and she nodded her agreement to this, looking over to me as if to say “now can you see what the problem is”.   I then asked the Operations Director to describe the situation from the perspective of the Chief Exec, and she spent the next 20 minutes entirely unable to describe the situation from the perspective of the Chief Exec.  

This simple exercise was really helpful in exposing where the problem actually lay and helped to point us towards finding a solution to the disagreement.  We need to be able to see people through their eyes, not ours; we need to be able to see other people through their experience and understanding, not our own.  

Understanding my own unique personality and the things that motivate me are really valuable in understanding how to lead myself well and understanding other people’s unique personalities and the things that motivate them are essential to understanding how to lead other people well.  Understanding what it is that drives you, and what it is that draws you, what pushes you and what pulls you, can actually produce more growth, satisfaction, and fulfilment for you, your team, and your organisation.  

This is where I find many leaders can struggle; even if they understand themselves well and can lead themselves well, often they can struggle to understand the other people in their team and how to lead them well.

I always make sure that we have a language and vocabulary with which we can discuss and understand different behaviours and motives in a team.  This isn’t to put people in boxes or to label them, rather it is a really helpful way to understand with a common language how people see situations, and how they will act and react to different circumstances and challenges.  

When I was a young engineer, I spent a while working with a small engineering maintenance team.  This team had a couple of engineers who were really different in the way they went about their work.  One was really methodical and would take what seemed like forever to complete any work on a machine, whereas another was really quick to complete his work.  The shift manager explained to me that whenever there was a breakdown then he would send the engineer who was really quick because the machine would be back up and running in no time.  However, he made sure that the slower engineer was assigned to each of the machines in the factory in turn during planned maintenance over the course of a year.  In this way, he could keep the breakdown time to a minimum by using the quicker engineer, but make sure that the equipment was maintained more thoroughly to a high standard by using the slower, more methodical engineer.  That way each engineer was working to their strengths and the factory efficiency was maintained at the highest level.  

How do you hold people to account on their leadership development commitments? What does that look like? 

This is, of course, one of the key challenges in any development environment and leadership development is no different.  To introduce lasting change is the main aim of all personal and group development programmes, and we often fall short of really achieving that.  

I have found that peer accountability is the most effective means of holding people to account on development commitments, and wherever possible I like to work with clients over a series of sessions to facilitate this peer accountability and to see lasting change.  One of my favourite pieces of course feedback was when a CEO wrote simply: “Long term input is bearing fruit – big thanks!”.

The most effective means of holding people to account is to encourage a regular cycle of accountability.  This cycle can be weekly, monthly, quarterly or annual depending on the situation and circumstances.  For training and development, I favour a 6 weekly cycle or twice per quarter for people in the business community, whether that’s the public, private or social sector.  That seems to offer enough time to achieve something worthwhile, and yet not leave too long between sessions to allow the focus to drift.  For people in education, I use a cycle based on the half-term periods since this suits their natural cadence, and these cycles are built into my Personal Production Planner.  

Accountability for leadership development commitments is most effective when there is detail to the development actions.  Some people use Objectives and Indicators of Success, others use Objectives and Key Results.  I use a methodology based on identifying the “Next Exciting Win”, doing something NEW.  We identify a set of NEWs for each new cycle and predict what the NEWs Headlines will be at the end of each cycle.  We then have a NEWs Review at the start of each new cycle to review whether these Headlines were achieved.  For some clients, we also include a one-to-one coaching session roughly halfway through the cycle to provide a NEWs Bulletin and to bring additional focus on achieving their Headlines.

About Roger Fairhead

Roger is a leadership specialist delivering Leadership for Business Achievement through Speaking, Training and Coaching to business leaders and entrepreneurs.

“He is articulate, tracks complex issues with ease and has an incredible gift for raising pearls of wisdom out of the murky depths of people and process.” His passion is to help people to learn effective leadership skills to lead their teams to capitalize on their strengths and passions to realize their dreams.

Leadership for Business also invests into the dreams of families in the world’s underserved communities to offer them small loans that empower them to invest in their future, to provide for their families and give back to their communities.