By Steve Moss and Luis Moreno
Our long-held notions of what is involved in effective leadership are getting a serious relook. There is a decoupling of several things that were closely associated with leadership: masculinity, swagger, overconfidence and extroversion to name a few.
We have leveraged our experience, expertise and research on Emotional Intelligence, Human Centered Leadership, and Executive Leadership Coaching and Consulting to discuss the effective qualities of leadership and how they evolve in time. We have discussed these dynamics with multiple organizations and would like to share some with you.
It’s said that people don’t leave organizations, they leave bosses. While many people around the world have identified with that sentiment, there is another important insight: People leave organizations that don’t respond to bad bosses. If somebody brings up the shortcomings of a boss, especially when the boss’s behavior and actions are against the values of the organization, and the organization’s leadership looks the other way and takes no action, employees notice. Employees expect organizations to control the quality of its leadership. Organizations have a responsibility to plan and invest in training and coaching their leaders, or they risk employee flight beyond that manager’s direct reports. Also, when employees leave, those who stay also start leaving in their mind, as it has been studied through the workplace dynamic known as "Quiet Quitting", when employees experience low engagement and limit their efforts to the requirements of their roles, without doing extra efforts.
Some organizations and leaders have believed the idea of “Once a great leader, always a great leader” but we dispute that notion. In fact, as demonstrated by research and anecdotal experience, great leaders are like great athletes; they need the continuous training, coaching and practice to remain at the top of their game and to continue to win events, matches, and medals. The moment we stop learning, we begin to fall behind.
Steve shares this experience from a few months ago: I had a tough conversation with a sales leader seeking a new job. He had great stories of accomplishments with his previous employers, not just as driver of revenue but as a manager of other salespeople. But I had to stop him when he referred to the recruiter at a prospective employer as "the gal who interviewed me." I told him, "Dude, you’re not going to get past the screener interview if you call her ‘the gal.’ You just proved yourself to be a fossil."
Business evolves. We must evolve as leaders, too. The workforce is changing constantly, as new generations of employees join the team. Expecting to have now the same great results we had a few years ago using the same leadership practices of the past, represents a big risk for the leader and for the organization. They may no longer work.
Leaders need to remain coachable. Kevin Wilde notes that, as we get older and more senior, we tend to be less interested in feedback. That’s natural. But shutting down completely to feedback is highly correlated to failing in a job --- even if you’ve been successful in every previous role. This doesn’t mean just asking for feedback. It is about listening, considering, believing, and appreciating the feedback, and acting on it. Some leaders pride themselves on asking for feedback, but they dismiss it when they get it, by not believing it, by being defensive about it and by basically resisting the feedback.
When it comes to leadership, what has worked in the past won’t necessarily work now. The world changes continually and so do organizations and employees, especially their expectations of what great leadership is. Board and leadership team composition is different today. The workforce is dominated by Millennials who want different things from work than Boomers and Gen Xers did. And leaders often know what change is necessary, even if they have yet to completely embrace it.
In Luis’ work and research, he has identified some notable new directions in leadership.
1. Involved Leadership
The leadership of the past: "Don't come to me with problems, come to me with solutions."
The new leadership: "Thanks for identifying this problem. Let's go over it together. I may be able to share some perspectives and may point out some resources that may help."
If the boss is only there to be presented with already well-thought-out solutions, why do we even need a boss? Sometimes this can play into the development of employees. People may not be experienced or confident enough to decide or to resolve a complex problem that even experienced leaders may not be able to resolve easily. This is especially important when navigating complex workplace dynamics involving Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), such as differences arising from racial, cultural, gender or generational factors.
Steve comments: I once had three managers reporting to me who were at different points of their leadership journey and development. One would say, “I saw this problem, and after considering options, I took this course of action. I hope you agree.” The next would say, “I’m facing an issue, I’ve identified some options, but I need help on finding the right course.” And the third would say, “I think I have a problem.” For me, there was joy in working with all three as they grew as leaders. In case you are wondering what happened to the manager who was not yet ready to identify problems and come up with solutions, she successfully grew into VP Marketing roles at world-famous sporting goods and accessory companies. This is another manifestation of inclusion. Different team members want to identify and solve problems differently and we need to be open minded and engage with all of them so that we can arrive at the best solution as a team, together.
Luis comments: In my work with Law Enforcement agencies, I have learned something very important. As leaders, we need to learn to see the value in an employee’s ability and diligence to identify a problem, even if the person has still not identified the solution. Consider when Law Enforcement agencies are working on preventing terrorism, narcotraffic and crime. When an agent says: “I have identified a problem,” if we leave it to that agent to resolve the problem alone and we wait for the agent to have the solution, it may be too late. A building could be blown up or a person could be hurt in the meantime. We need to value the identification of a problem and engage. In some corporate scandals that have made it to the news in the past decade, the investigations revealed that multiple employees had identified the problem and had brought it up to their leaders. But some leaders waited for them to come up with the solutions. The result was not good, as many of us saw in the news.
This also reminds us of a quote from Barack Obama about what he learned early in his first term as president. “One of the first things I discovered…was that not every decision that landed on my desk had an easy, tidy answer. The black-and-white questions never made it to me- somebody else on my staff would have already answered them.”
2. Caring Leadership
The Leadership of the Past: "It's 7:00 am, let's get started. This is the agenda…”
The new Leadership: "How's everybody doing? How was your weekend?"
At the guts of the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) is the weekly L10 meeting among leaders. The first 5 minutes on that 90-minute agenda is called the Segue or the Check-in. It is a personal connection. Attendees share a personal or professional win from the past week or a discovery that would inspire others. Why would you start a strictly facilitated meeting with something soft like this? Because businesses are composed of people, and the connection of people is what gives a business its traction.
For decades, leaders believed the Jack Welch credo that it was not necessary to be liked, as long as you were respected. But new research suggests that being liked can lead to being respected. There is a difference between treating people as people and working so hard to please that you don’t make the tough calls. We are not advocating for lenient management. There are also cultural and generational layers to this dynamic. In certain cultures, like in the Latino culture, it would be very hard for people to respect a leader that they don’t like. That’s because liking someone is part of the result of them seeing themselves identified with the person and their human values. Younger employees are also less likely to respect leaders who they can’t relate to and like, in the way that previous generations were more likely to do.
3. Inclusive Leadership
The leadership of the past: "You did a great job! I'll present it to the Board!"
The new leadership: "You did a great job! I'd love for you to present it to the Board. How’s your calendar for next Tuesday at 10:00 am"
This is not necessarily how we think about inclusion. Bear with us. Steve comments: Michael Gaffney teaches functional leadership at Nova Southeastern University and is an internationally known keynote speaker on inclusion, diversity, belonging and equity. He once told me, “Diversity is about counting numbers, and inclusion is about making numbers count.” Making the numbers count at a micro level means giving team members the chance to exhibit what they can do.
I once had a boss who would say, “There is no limit to how far you will go if you are willing to give others credit.” Think of four steps in a job well done: First, it is in the accomplishment itself. Second, is the recognition from your boss. Third, being sponsored for your performance. Fourth, being given the visibility that your accomplishment deserves.
Perhaps your employee is internally driven enough to take satisfaction from their achievement without it being acknowledged. That may not do as much to move their career forward. You could praise them and take no further action. This reaffirms the value of what they have done, while leaving unsaid what, if anything, you will do as their advocate. You might use their accomplishment as a data point in your advocacy of them. Here, you tell others of the value they are delivering. The final step in inclusive leadership is giving them the chance to impress others, as they have impressed you. There is the risk that they might fail. You may have to spend time coaching them to mitigate that risk. But this wins respect from your achieving direct report and from others who see the exposure they are getting. This helps with employee engagement, motivation, development and retention. It’s a win for the employee, the leader and the organization.
It’s a new era with new leadership challenges. Employees’ expectations of leaders have changed. Fundamental goals have changed. Leaders have to evolve to this new reality. Great leaders, like great athletes, need to be checking the new trends and research, and get the coaching and the training necessary to keep learning, practicing, pivoting, and putting in the work to become and remain great leaders.
About the authors:
Steve Moss is the President of Executive Springboard. He served as a marketing executive in global organizations, as CEO in a green-tech start-up and as a consultant, marketing best practice trainer and brand strategist before founding Executive Springboard. He earned his BA degree from Georgetown University and his MBA from the Wharton School.
Luis Moreno has a passion for Personal and Professional Development and reads, studies, speaks, and writes on topics related to Human-Centered Leadership, Emotional Intelligence, Diversity and Inclusion, Talent, and other topics. Luis obtained an MBA in Marketing & Strategy from the Carlson School at the University of Minnesota and is a Humphrey Public Policy Fellow. He is engaged in efforts to increase U.S. Competitiveness and Shared Prosperity as a member of the Young American Leaders Program (YALP) at Harvard Business School. The State of Minnesota gave Luis the Distinguished Service Award for his contributions in the areas of race relations, justice, community service, education, and civil and human rights.
My first role as a Vice President involved a move to Canada. I was asked to lead the marketing department for my company’s subsidiary, just outside of Toronto. It was one of the great learning experiences in my career.
You couldn’t ask for a much easier international transition. A flight of less than an hour. People who spoke the same language. A broader portfolio than I was accustomed to, but with many familiar brands. How hard could it be? I read a few books on Canada and its history, and I was ready to roll.
Sure, there were some language issues. Tabling an issue meant to discuss for decision, not to put it off. And then, a decision was taken, not made. British spelling was used, Governour. I had to get used to the metric system (easy guide: 28°C is 82°F, 16°C is 61°F, 0°C is freezing and -10°C is frigging cold.)
There were other subtle differences. Blinking green traffic lights, blue laws that kept grocery stores closed on Sundays, and milk in plastic bags. Some things impacted my business. Price elasticity was more pronounced in Canada. People valued order and politeness more than in the States. Concern about the environment was far more developed.
I felt very fortunate by how I was welcomed by my organization. I made friends there. I had a generous allowance for housing. I dove into my work and had some early successes. And my wife and I knew that this was to be a three-year rotation. At home with three small kids, she was more supportive than she had to be about my absences, as our family didn’t move from Connecticut until about 3 months into my tenure.
The learning experience was sometimes painful. I went through my first layoffs and firings. I overestimated the equity I had built in some of our brands. My boss become abusive as his position was threatened and he feared I was more politically connected than he was. I dealt with the awkwardness of succession as my rotation came to an end.
Truth be told, we were sorry that our expat life ended with a repatriation to the US. We were geared up for an assignment in Europe that didn’t come. Years later, my wife and I spent Thanksgiving in Buenos Aires as we considered a move there. We concluded that the culture was too far out of our comfort zone for that to work for our family.
Throughout my career, I’ve seen international assignments that didn’t go well. A colleague told me of his experience when a rotation in Greece left him with no sponsor there and no way back home for five years. In my first visit to South Africa, I ran into a newly-placed country manager who hadn’t realized what living in the Third World really entailed. I asked my company’s MD in Korea to take on a role in the US, because he was one of the best marketers in the company. He faced enormous resistance from an American team that was unconvinced that his successes in Asia would translate elsewhere.
Learning a new culture, whether it is national or corporate, is hard work. It is easy to make a misstep. Some of us are better prepared for the transition than others. Some of us read books on Canadian history, others get coaches who prepare them and their family for their new lives. Almost always, that coaching ends by the time an executive arrives in their new home. And that’s a problem.
As well prepared as my friend in South Africa thought he was, his failure came from not having help in- market. Same with the guy marooned in Greece. My own plate was too full to adequately provide the support my colleague from Korea needed in the US.
What is gained from spending the money to send an executive halfway around the world for a three-year rotation? Arguably, it makes the executive more effective and versatile, creating a more well-rounded company. Hopefully, it injects a new perspective into the host company. Leaving aside moral justifications, this is the business case for diversity practices.
If diversity is operationally defined by the number of underrepresented people hired by a company, inclusion is more about their retention and success. Inclusion often focuses on making cultural changes in the organization to encourage acceptance. That’s playing the long game. But shorter term, it often misses the opportunity to provide sponsorship to those diverse employees that the company wants to keep and grow.
Here is the lesson I learned. While almost everybody needs a coach or mentor, the need is critical for those who are different. While inclusion efforts attempt to tear down the wall to acceptance, those recruited can't wait for the wall to come down. They need a boost right now.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.