3 Insights from Leadership Development Workshops

I recently facilitated sessions with future leaders of a company in Eastern Europe, in the context of a leadership development program. All participants bring in their own discussion cases (real-life work- or career situations they struggle with), and we collectively reflect on these cases and give our feedback. As all participants come from different nationalities, cultures and professions, we get a very diverse view on the problems we all experience in corporate life. This process is called ‘Peer Learning’ and in my view is one of the most powerful elements of any leadership development program.

Without repeating the cases, I share some of my thoughts on 3 topics that came up during the 3 days in Vienna:

Career Management

“You cannot outsource the management of your career to your company”. When working in a company, the language, context and processes of the company surround you all day. For good reasons, you accept them as a given and accept that “this is how things are done around here.” If, within this system, you start thinking about a next career step, it is natural to do that within this same context. You describe career steps in the company language. You look for obvious next positions within the company. You reason in line with the succession planning and career development discussions you had within the company.

From a manager’s perspective, you do the right thing. From a leader’s perspective, you have unnecessarily restricted your options. When confined in the system, your next career move will never be to become a teacher for physically handicapped children. You’ll never start a vineyard. You’ll never make an unexpected move that doesn’t fit the purpose of your current company. Leadership careers should be planned outside of the familiar context of the company you currently work in.

If the result of this planning is that you will stay in the company, you will have made a conscious choice from a state of pro-activeness. Not planning your own career is going with the flow of the context you are in: a little boat drifting on the tide and waves of a big ocean. Passive and uncommitted.

 

The new manager

When you become the manager of a team you know well, this can create friction. You’re no longer part of the gang, you’re leading the gang now. When all is well, and the team is high-performing, this is no problem. When certain individuals underperform, or when unpopular change has to be implemented, this causes friction. Are you one of the gang now, or are you the leader with a bigger scope, working in the interest of the company as such?

It is important for a leader making this transition to go back to his or her expectations and values. If you care for results primarily, you will not have difficulty going for unpopular measures, as long as you can handle the conversations surrounding it with clarity and act with integrity. But if one of the things you hope to find in work is that “everybody likes you”, you’ll find yourself in a difficult position soon. Here you have to make choices deep within:  choices that no one else can make for you.

Which values are stronger for you? What does that choice mean for how you will act as a leader?

 

Hiding behind processes

“We would like to give you the grade change, however, we cannot do that halfway during the year.”

“You have not been nominated in time by your manager, so you cannot enter the high potential program now.”

“I think you are worth a grade 26, but this job has not been officially graded yet, so there is no guideline. We cannot do anything.”

We all recognize this kind of reasoning. And the more we are used to a process-oriented, hierarchical company culture, the more we find the above-mentioned arguments valid. But they are not. Procedures, processes and guidelines are made by employees of the company with the aim to bring structure to the company. Not to restrict things that are needed or wanted. The same human-made processes can be changed by humans if there is a clear business need for this. I’m not arguing here to go around company processes or ignore them, but it’s not fair to blame processes and pretend nothing can be done about them.

When you believe something needs to be done, you will find a way. If you don’t care for something that needs to be done, you blame the system. Are you ready to speak up for what you believe is the right thing to do? And if in a few years you hire future leaders of your company, will you hire people who always color within the lines, or will you find people who fight for what they believe in and sometimes break a company rule to make it happen?

 

Conclusion

These leadership sessions are among the most powerful ones that can be included in a leadership development program I believe. Why?

  1. They tap into the collective wisdom of a group of peers, with different backgrounds, cultures and interests. These discussions are normally not held, as the topics that come up are sensitive. And forming your opinion on sensitive issues is one of the key skills leaders need to develop. Skills that you cannot teach from a textbook, and skills that cannot be transferred from one person to the other. The power of the group is explored to full extent.
  2. Diversity is brining the radically different points of view and insights of a mixed group of people together, and benefiting from these differences. This is exactly what is done in these sessions, and hardly happens in different contexts in the company. Diversity in action!
  3. There is not one simple, linear solution to these problems. These are so-called “wicked problems” where there is not one right answer. Future leaders experience this on the fly. Take any of the 3 cases mentioned above, and ask a future leader: “If you were to make the call here, what would you do?”  They suddenly realize that indeed there is not one straightforward answer. There’s many different points-of-view, ans the best thing leaders can do is explore the nuances of the case, and carefully design solutions with the team.

Just some thoughts on the discussions that came up in these sessions. Recognize the dilemma’s these leaders face?

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