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Developing leaders: A process that works

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I was working with a business leader recently when I asked him what his process was for developing leaders in his business. That question was followed by some crickets and then, well, more crickets loosely disguised as an answer. It's ironic that we have a process for so many things that mean much less to our success than the development of leaders.

Most businesses have a process for firing people that is much more robust than the one for developing people. We often have handbooks devoted to executing a particular operation but have done much less work on a process for developing the people who will lead the team that carries out that same operation.

There are several reasons for why there is often not a clear development process, but the biggest one seems to be "we don't know how to do that." Maybe it's because it is people oriented and that makes it feel soft and squishy while operations are clear cut and defined. Ironically, things like raising kids or choosing a spouse are kind of in the same realm, but people seem to be able to describe how they do them more effectively than how they develop leaders in an organization.

Either way, I thought it might help to lay out the process we use for helping businesses develop leaders who can:

  • take the enterprise to the next level
  • create and sustain employee engagement
  • build teams that become more capable every day
  • take accountability for the success of the organization; not just the job they were asked to perform

CHOICE

First we focus on choice. Leaders don't become leaders in the first place, or even better leaders simply because someone told them to. They take that step because they decided to based on what they want, how they want to be thought of, what they want to accomplish or even what they want people to say about them. No matter what, leadership is a choice.

Many people think of leadership as a set of skills or experiences and it is, but only after a choice to be good at those things is made by the individual leader. Teaching someone who hasn't decided to lead is a lot like that whole pig and singing analogy. If you are not familiar with the quote, it's from American science fiction writer Robert Heinlein who said "never try to teach a pig to sing, it won't work and it annoys the pig."

He also said “Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea” and “Don't handicap your children by making their lives easy” but those are discussions for a completely different article.

We first ask questions, generate discussions and create an experience that helps potential leaders decide what kind of leader they want to be before telling them what to do to get there.

CAPABILITY

Once a person has defined what leadership means for him/herself and has a vision of the type of leader he/she wants to become and what he/she wants to be capable of - then, and only then, does capability matter. At this point in the process we break open concepts like behavior change, culture, coaching, accountability, communication, engagement, and influence and help leaders understand that there are sets of behaviors that cause them to be good at these kinds of things. Coaching is not an accident, or a gift, or a style or even a character trait, it's a process and there are pieces to the puzzle that simply work when they are put together the right way. The same is true for the other capabilities as well.

Leadership is not magic, it's a set of defined behaviors that lead to an expected, consistent set of results. As long as we believe it's smoke and mirrors we can't get better at it. As long as we believe it is simply telling people what to do, we are doomed to fail at it.

COMPETENCE

Like anything that we aren't already good at, leadership takes practice. This is often the hardest part of the process because people are often afraid of "practicing" leadership and failing. The truth is that people have been practicing leadership and failing every day anyway, especially if they are in a role where people expect them to lead. The first time you try to coach people correctly you will say the wrong things, let your own bias get in the way, and resort to just telling them what to do on more than one occasion. Continuing to work on the systematic process of effective coaching will help you move past all of that.

Only by making some of those mistakes along the way can we learn and get to the next level. I have nearly a thousand coaching conversations each year and I still find things every day that I want to improve about the way I coach others. The process doesn't really change, but my ability to execute it well has changed over time. The first time you try to communicate your vision, change the culture, or create a more accountable organization, it may not work. Neither did much of anything else the first time you tried it.

MASTERY

This is the phase where leaders move past why or how and begin to execute with predictable consistency. Put them in charge of any team in any organization in any industry and they will be successful. Not because they understand the business as much as because they understand leadership. They know how to consistently affect individual and group behavior and how to identify and help people fulfill their potential. This is the place where others watch them and think, "boy I wish I had the gifts she has," not understanding that she worked hard and long to choose, practice and perfect her ability to help others become more than they would be without her in their world.

MULTIPLICATION

At this stage, leaders start to affect a business beyond what they themselves can accomplish. They become so adept at their process for leading others that they can articulate, organize and teach others how to lead as well. This is where leadership becomes exponential because it creates more leaders, not more followers. Leaders at this level aren't just effective, they can tell you why and show you how and help you become more effective yourself. Multipliers can answer the question, "what's your process for developing leaders in your business. And that makes them the secret to creating sustainable growth and an adaptable business that can capture any opportunity the marketplace presents.

Of course there are a lot of details and specifics as to how an organization executes each of these steps to develop their leaders. Learning and growing and building this process takes time and effort and commitment. It is ok to be somewhere along the path of building your process for developing great leaders in your business, it's just not ok to not be on the path at all.

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