One of the many conundrums of today’s overtaxed and under-resourced front-line managers is the issue of coaching the development of emerging leaders.
Few argue with the importance of this objective, yet the “how” is an abstract concept. The words make sense and heads nod when managers are told this is part of their job, but without the training, a roadmap, or framework to guide them, the work of developing emerging leaders is ad hoc at best. All too frequently, ad hoc would be a step up from the complete absence of effort in this area.
What managers need is a practical way to think about emerging leader development and a framework to guide their efforts. Some years ago while working with a group of managers navigating the emerging leader challenge on their teams, I suggested a foundation and pillars approach as a framework for guiding coaching and developmental activities. This framework emerged from my own experiences supporting the development of emerging leaders and had helped me focus my efforts.
Foundation + 4 Pillars of Emerging Leaders:
The Foundation + 4 Pillars framework depicted in the diagram offers the manager critical context for coaching and defining developmental opportunities for emerging leaders.
Success as a leader is built upon a strong foundation comprised of character, values, competence, and trustworthiness (or as I term it: trustability). These attributes are all on display and in large part determine whether others decide to trust and do their best work for the leader.
One additional and a critically important component of the leader’s foundation is purpose. Purpose answers the “Why” someone chooses to lead. Ken Blanchard references this as Leadership-Point-of-View (LPOV). Regardless of what you call it, clarity for a leader’s higher sense of purpose is an essential ingredient for high performance. Additionally, “purpose” is malleable and shapeable through coaching.
I help emerging leaders think about and articulate purpose through two primary tools: a leadership charter and a set of leadership values. The charter typically starts with, “My purpose as a leader is… , and goes on to spell out the behaviors and values the leader aspires to deliver and to be accountable for in this role. The best leadership charters include input from team members and are visible artifacts in the working environment.
A manager working with and exposing emerging leaders to informal opportunities to guide groups and lead initiatives can and should encourage the individuals to think about their “Why.” I wish I had been pushed earlier in my career to tune into what it meant to me to lead and to better develop a listing of my priorities.
The 4 Pillars of Emerging Leaders:
1. Leadership Flexibility
Effective leaders learn to flex their approaches to fit the person, team, and situation. In reality, a leader plays many roles over time and sometimes on a daily basis, and needs to learn to play the right role for each situation. From servant to defender to parent to coach to guide, a manager must assess the situation and flex and adapt depending upon circumstances.
For the manager developing emerging leaders, the questions: “What is your role in this situation?” as well as “How do you think your approach worked?” and “How might you have flexed to create a better outcome?” drive essential coaching discussions.
A goal of the emerging leader is to avoid receiving the feedback I gained earlier in my career: “You had a good year. People learned you’re not a robot.”
2. Strategic and Critical Thinking
Of all of the attributes we look for in our leaders, the ability to cope with complexity and ambiguity and provide direction and make decisions that promote actions may be the most important!
I look for a variety of behaviors when evaluating and coaching for strategic and critical thinking with the emphasis on decision-making and an individual’s ability to solve complex problems steeped in ambiguity. I also look for the emerging leader’s ability to guide groups through complex issues.
Experience has convinced me that people can grow and strengthen as problem-solvers, decision-makers, and strategists. The challenge for the manager coaching the emerging leader is to provide ample opportunities for the individual to move beyond programmed situations and even beyond the firm’s four walls. In some circumstances, you have to thrust people into unfamiliar surroundings and prompt critical thinking through asking questions and challenging them to find the opportunities or threats in all of the noise and do something about them
3. Communication Adaptability
Leaders succeed on the basis of their ability to communicate. One early mentor offered to me: “You will go as far as you are able to communicate.” Whether it’s talking about change, gaining access to resources, or navigating the many challenging conversations around coaching and feedback, learning to adapt and adjust and succeed with each situation is essential.
I encourage and coach emerging leaders to approach every workplace conversation as a principled negotiation, where two or more parties are striving to advance the firm’s interests at the same time they are asserting their interests. The best workplace communicators recognize these conversations as negotiations and work to learn and apply principles and tactics of positive persuasion.
Beyond persuasion and internal negotiation, the hard work of leading others takes place through a nearly endless succession of challenging conversations. Those who succeed, learn to embrace and navigate these discussions as part of their daily jobs.
As a manager supporting the development of emerging leaders, it’s your job to teach and reinforce the tools and skills of effective workplace communication.
4. Operational Agility
Jim Fisher, writing in The Thoughtful Leader, suggests: “What we want from leaders is more revenue or higher profits, software that works, schools that perform, agencies that deliver, and hospitals that serve.” I might humbly add, teams that work and projects that deliver.
Operational agility is the pillar where an individual’s ability to generate the right kind of results in the proper manner is visible and tangible. This work requires a deep understanding of the firm’s business, strategies, and processes, as well as an intimate knowledge of how the firm serves customers and ultimately makes money. Coaching, feedback, training, and assignment rotation are all critical for growth in this pillar.
Less Measuring Stick and More Navigation Tool
There’s an instinct in our data-driven culture to impose a rating or measuring system on the pillars. After all, we want a baseline, and we want to be able to measure change and improvement over time. While I understand this drive to quantify today’s level and measure growth over time, experience has shown me that success in developing emerging leaders is less about measurement and much more about observation, feedback and coaching dialog, based on continuous exposure to new experiences.
Beware the pursuit of false precision when it comes to developing emerging leaders.
I use, and I encourage you to use the Foundation + Four Pillars as a tool and a guide to your good work of coaching and development for emerging leaders. It offers a way to observe and coach and to design new assignments that support growth in each of the pillars.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
A strong foundation and deliberate effort to develop the skills and behaviors in the four pillars are essential for success as a leader. While some may suggest I’m oversimplifying the work, my polite push-back is that I am “decomplexifying” the activities of developing emerging leaders around a practical framework that encourages and guides actions, experiences, and discussions.