Leadership Conundrum

Anu Zachariah pinpoints challenges that the front line leaders face and argues on why organisations need to be sensitive to these issues.

Anu Zachariah pinpoints challenges that the front line leaders face and argues on why organisations need to be sensitive to these issues.

If you ask most HR or business executives, they would tell you that they want to practice a “grow-your-own-leader” strategy at all levels. It demonstrates the organisation’s commitment to rewarding and growing their top performers. Yet many of these organisations tip-toe around this practice because of the difficulty they have in identifying their next frontline manager.

The transition of an individual contributor to a front line leader role is largely driven by historical performance track record of that individual and not necessarily because of his ‘leadership’ potential or his motivation to lead. In fact, at the bottom of the pyramid most organisations view promotion as a reward, an incentive to engage and retain the high performers.

However, what will enable the a new leader to drive results, manage performance and motivate and engage talent is not his historical performance but a diverse yet universal set of competency/ skills. Unfortunately, organisations do not always coach its new leaders with these ‘readiness’ competencies nor are they assessed on these before they make the transition. The moot question is: are we truly setting up our ‘high performing’ talent for success, or are we pushing them to a deep end where they might fail.

When they look back on their career, global leaders would identify the first time leader role as their most overwhelming and challenging transition point. As Dickens would say, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

The most common challenges that may contribute to the stress of transition are driving results, leading teams and driving team accountability. A front line manager, who has otherwise been individually successful, has to now be accountable for the performance of an entire team. He is besieged with the knowledge that he needs to drive accountability and performance through others and that’s not an easy task.

Other key challenges include excelling through the team with restricted influence on its staffing and capability mix and managing former peers and being accountable for their performance. Some dilemmas to respond to on a day to day basis would be:

  • How do I give feedback?
  • How do I tell a former peer that he is not delivering;
  • How do I push accountability?
  • How do I make them to deliver the maximum?

    Here are some of the questions that were asked to front line leaders in a recently conducted survey: Do they know what it takes to be a good leader? Do they feel prepared for the challenge of leadership? Are they getting the support they need from their managers and their organisation?

    The responses were startling:

  • Only 11 percent are groomed to be a leader by their organisation
  • Fifty-seven percent learn their leadership skills through trial and error.
  • Only 56 percent of new managers understand what it takes to succeed.
  • Eighty-nine percent of managers possess at least one leadership skill “blind spot.”

    Before investing in promoting talent, it is equally important to assess what are the motivational drivers of an individual who wants to be a leader. Money and power aren’t the only reasons. Managers should also aspire to guide and motivate others, to want to make bigger things happen—and, more importantly, relish and ensure the success of the team. If a person’s motivations aren’t aligned with the success of his team, s/he may not be the right leader. These steps provide accurate and unbiased information about the performance and capability of a leader as they provide an objective assessment process.

    The company may then develop strengths that a new leader may leverage upon. Here a manager can play a crucial role by leading discussions on development plans which need specific skills to be learned and apply the same on the job.

    The focus should additionally be on framing diverse experiences in a high trust environment. This would build the new leader’s readiness to take on a larger responsibility. Today organisations have no dearth of projects that would help these individuals build and strengthen connects within the organisation, lead a team, partner with others or deliver. The key would be to pull people out of their familiar environment and challenge them to learn and acquire newer skills, and reframe their world view. Such mind-ful investments in development will prepare a manager to take on the role of a front line leader at an appropriate time.

    -The author is Head – Consulting, DDI India