Leadership 102: So Who Needs Leaders?

Editor’s note: In Ken’s last article, dated February 19, the word “cliche” was misspelled as “clichi” in the email editions of the Daily due to a technical error. We apologize for our mistake. The premises of the last installment on the principles of leadership were that:

  • Leadership, or its potential in a candidate, is not an easy profile to discover using standard applicant screening tools that rely on objective search criteria and Boolean logic?? especially when considering the overwhelmingly subjective nature of the leadership skill set.
  • The average executive tends to confuse the principles of management and leadership, and therefore frequently accepts the former in lieu of the latter, creating a self-perpetuating management practice void of leadership.
  • Not enough emphasis is placed on developing leadership candidates, internally and externally, as a strategic human capital investment for long term growth.

To refresh our memories, why discuss leadership in the first place? After all, isn’t business all about the bottom line? If earnings are high, who cares if your corporation is infested with “non-leader” executives and managers? This is business! The bottom line is all that matters. Go peddle your “soft soap” somewhere else. Well, you have to wonder what the alternative outcome could have been if the executives and senior mangers of the seventh largest corporation in the United States had themselves been true leaders, or if they had consistently hired, developed, nurtured, and promoted true leaders with a sense of vision, ethics, and hands on involvement, leaders who actively participated in teaching, mentoring, and elevating their direct reports to develop that same sense of responsibility and obligation to their employees, investors, and customers by their selfless personal example? Would the Houston Astros still have a sponsor for their stadium? Instead, you just have a bunch of ex-executives and senior management types testifying before a Senate sub-committee, taking the fifth amendment, looking pathetic, and making you wonder what it was that they actually did that was worth their lucrative salaries:

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  • Hey, I was just the CEO/CFO/COO! I didn’t know we were broke.
  • Hey, just because I cashed out my stock options, there was no reason for me not to encourage employees to buy more of their own!
  • Hey, we tried to fire the whistle-blowing troublemaker to keep things under wraps. Why couldn’t she just play along like everybody else?

The lesson to all of us should be that “CEO” is not always synonymous for “leader.” Is there really a good business case to justify HR/staffing to consider championing the search and training of leadership candidates with basic leadership principles? Yes! Good business practices foster good business, in the long term. It takes leadership to look at business from the long view. So where do you find leaders? It would be easy to assume that finding leadership candidates would be as simple a process as looking for a java programmer, tax auditor, or customer service specialist. Just load the search engine with a sufficient number of “buzzwords” and off you go. Well, no, not really. A person may have a resume indicating 15 years of progressive management and leadership roles?? and identifying management style “buzzwords”?? and in fact not actually have any leadership skills. Does anybody have a vocabulary of “buzzwords” that translates to courage, integrity, presence, determination, force of character and likeability? So how is it possible for you to discern “leadership candidates” from reviewing resumes? Well, real leaders leave “signs” that the experienced tracker can follow. For example:

  • They are joiners. Leaders are actively engaged in their chosen profession. They belong to organizations associated with their career. Just as HR professional frequently belong to SHRM, EMA, and the like, each profession and region has it’s own dedicated and easily recognized networking and learning organizations. Not unlike reading articles on ERE (shameless self-promotion). Start collecting lists from the various hiring managers you support, especially the hiring mangers you consider real leaders. But look beyond just being members. It is not just that these potential leadership candidates join these organizations; they also actively participate, volunteer, and seek leadership roles. Leaders like leading and seek out the opportunity whenever possible.
  • Extra-curricular activities. Leaders are “renaissance persons,” they enjoy all aspects of life, not just professional and career pursuits. Leaders tend to contribute their time to these pursuits, and even though they may not appear related to your search, it is further evidence of a leader seeking to make good and valued use of their time. A “soccer parent” is a good parent, but a parent who is also a “soccer coach” may also be a candidate for a leadership role. They don’t surrender to the time-management-crisis monster. They make it work in their personal life, as they make it work in their professional life.
  • Community participation. Leaders want to influence and control their professional, personal, and civic lives. Don’t assume a candidate who is also an Alderman or Selectman in their respective communities does not place sufficient interest in their careers. They place emphasis on everything they do. Leadership skills are a great gift; leaders tend to share it. Volunteer work with the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Rotary Club, or other organizations are good indicators of a possible leadership candidate. But again, you aren’t looking for mere “dues payers” or “checkbook commandoes.” You can have a social conscious and not be a leader. Look for real and active participation indicators.
  • Education. Leaders invest their copious free time in pursuing higher education and professional training. More importantly, they complete their education and training. It’s easy to put, “pursuing MBA” on a resume…for 15 years. It’s something else to actually complete the task. All training should be considered as important as degree-based education. What might at first appear as unrelated may prove to be insightful. For example, in 1994, a “leader” in corporate communications may have begun taking some initial training in basic computer science, information technology, or fourth GL programming instead of working on an MBA. It may have appeared non-career related then, but in 1998 when they were championing “best practices” development on the marketing or corporate communications website, their vision and prophecy marked them as leaders. Those without vision seldom see what the visionaries see. Read resumes looking for leadership candidates outside the pro-forma HR/staffing “screening box.”
  • Risk-taking counter indicators. A leader’s resume may have a few counter indicators based on the fact that a leader may not always be right. But they try never to be boring. They constantly seek the leading edge of their profession or craft, and it is risky out there. The good news is their failures are as important in their development as their successes. When I was a kid I lived in mortal fear of getting punched. Then one day a kid punched me. I didn’t like it, but it was nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be. I ceased making decisions based solely on the fear of getting punched or of the unknown (I also learned to stop calling the big kid in my class “Jolly Green Giant. Ho-Ho-Ho!”?? I probably deserved to get popped). So the occasional “punch” in a leaders career does not mean they are prone to problems. They are just busy learning life lessons which they will, in turn, teach those who work with or for them.
  • Consistency. A leader’s career pathway tends to make sense. A reasonably consistent career of consistent movement upward. Each ladder rung a greater challenge and not just a change. There is a plan. It is constantly reviewed for relevance, but there is a plan.

Despite the above indicators that you can “glean off” a resume, when seeking a leadership candidate, nothing works better than meeting one, face-to-face. You can always tell when you meet as leader. How? Because you instantly wish you worked for them, or at least with them. When you accept the mission of recruiting leadership candidates, you also accept the need to leave your office more often and miss some more dinners at home. The best way to find someone who is “out there” is to “get out there” with him or her. Attend the seminars, association meetings, professional gatherings, and other leads you developed from your “prospect list” from your meetings with your pre-existing “leader” hiring managers or “leader” non-managers. Have an actual member of your organization attend these meetings with you. You will always recruit better as a “welcomed guest” than an outsider. (Aside: Don’t assume that as an internal or corporate recruiter this personal and active recruiting it is not a necessary and critical role in your development as “the solution of choice” for your business partners’ staffing problems. Far too many internal recruiters shy away from developing their skills at active, non-computer-based recruiting techniques. These are the critical skill sets for a successful recruitment leader. It expands your network, connects you with players in your chosen industry, identifies you to your prospect pool, and serves to make you a more extended and outgoing person. In essence, it marks you as a leader. It is also enjoyable and, unlike locking yourself in an office all day reading resumes, doesn’t lead to paper cuts or eyestrain. When you interviewed for your current HR/staffing job didn’t you say, “I like working with people.”? Isn’t it time you started?) You should also be encouraging referrals from those managers and non-manager leaders you have identified in your organization and network. Some cliches are true: birds of a feather do in fact flock together. The identified leaders in your company probably know the names of their leadership candidate counterparts at other firms, by reputation if nothing else. Although they may not have enough data to qualify for your company’s current referral program (shame on you if you don’t provide a “partial referral lead” program!), they can give a good recruiter the information needed for an informed recruiting call. But you have to get out of your office and ask, educate, encourage, and motivate. You know, lead! Magazines and other publications are constantly giving you the names of potential leadership candidates or sources for leads to leadership candidates. Look for names that appear above the horizon of their chosen profession. Who was that speaking at that last meeting you went to? Did you get their business card? Leaders are always approachable. By placing themselves out there, it happens to them all the time. If they wanted to be isolated and cloistered, they would not have chosen to become leaders. But as a successful leader in recruiting leaders, there is another place for you to look for candidates: Under your nose! The most obvious source for leadership candidates for your organization is within your organization?? that is, if your organization truly wants to discover, develop, and promote true leaders and leadership candidates. Don’t assume they do. But to further complicate and confuse and confound, if they truly do find and develop leaders, do not assume they know how to, or what to do with them once they locate and train them. Usually one of the biggest roadblocks in identifying potential leadership candidates internally is the candidate’s current “non-leader” manager. Non-leaders often fear, misinterpret, distrust, or fail to understand those members of their staff who show real leadership potential. We may all admire mavericks in the abstract, but all to often that admiration does not translate into promotion and success. There are not yet enough leaders and visionaries in the system to tolerate mavericks. To refute the rules, make alternative suggestions, or merely question orders in many companies is to be labeled a troublemaker and a non-team player. But with thinking like that, on a baseball team of “singles-only hitters,” anybody cable of hitting a homerun would be kicked off the team for not being one of the gang. It is also difficult for current managers and executives to accept the fact that the organization they belong to is not already doing an absolutely fantastic and best-practices-showcase job of identifying, training, and utilizing leaders. After all, the existing process identified and hired them, didn’t it? It must be working, right? Sort of like trying to pitch upgrading the HR/staffing management job descriptions to your current HR/staffing manager in your current place of employment to avoid further bad management hires in your department. Your mission must include developing and enforcing a “Corporate Leadership Identification” program managed outside the traditional management chain of command. Otherwise, you’ll lose potential candidates due to jealousy, revenge, pettiness, and the most frequent of all reasons: the desire on the part of managers not to voluntarily identify and give up their best people. That is something only leaders are willing to do. But why would the executive and management staff resist real leadership development programs? Fixing an issue means having the courage to admit the issue exists. The courage to admit faults and accept corrective change is often lacking in corporations that don’t seek out leadership candidates. The irony is that those organizations that need to upgrade their leadership most are those that are least likely to do so. Those that accept the need are already halfway to fixing the problem when they accept the mission. It is also difficult to sell subjective concepts such as leadership. They lack the obvious form and substance of a good objective argument supported with identifiable and defensible numbers, charts, graphs, and slides. A hypothetical argument can always be refuted by a hypothetical counterargument. The problem with the hypothetical is that it has a limitless potential to be expanded upon, bound by neither fact nor science (hence the age-old debate: “If Spiderman and Batman were to fight, who would win?” Batman, duh!) Traditional non-leader executives and managers tend to be report bound, open only to data that can be tracked and reported. For example, the report on the real saved dollars of cost per hire will always strike a stronger chord than the subjective value of quality-of-hire retrospective. Many executives and managers think “strategic” is a term that only refers to the current quarter; anything beyond that is “pie in the sky” thinking. Executives and managers realize that most companies will measure their success by their ability to generate short-term results during a given reporting period rather than be judged on how well the corporation or department functions two years from now. Finding champions for a leadership development program requires finding those who are willing to project need and solutions to that need, along with funding, into the future as measured in increments of years. Non-leader executive and management thinking is driven by the basic, enlightened self-interest to enhance their careers. Not unlike all of us. They didn’t write the rules, but they were promoted because they followed them. That means your first justification efforts need to be aimed at the highest possible level of your executive management team. Those members of the executive management team with the least amount of judgmental oversight. You have to develop and champion a new generation of goals for the executive management team to consider: “The need exists to incorporate long-term programs for leadership development to protect gains made in the present into the future by developing a strong, dependable and well-trained future leadership pool of employees imbued with the knowledge, skills, presence, and integrity that incorporate the best practices and principles of the current leadership team. Good future leadership insures the current teams legacy.” You have to be willing to “pitch” leadership development programs to levels you usually probably try to avoid. The more senior a person becomes in their career, even if they were never truly leaders themselves, the more they begin to want to make certain that they are well thought of and remembered in the future. Their legacy! This is your audience. But what are you going to sell them, other than the principles of leadership as a subjective goal? Is it possible to identify, acquire, develop, and insert leaders into an existing organization without the greater whole diluting the “chosen few.” Can this be done without insulting or threatening the current executive and management team? Yes, it can. It used to be done all the time. I am always amazed at the persistence of the delusion that all the problems we face in business today are unique to now. We appear oblivious to the fact that not only have the problems existed before, but so have the solutions. The solution to creating leaders was once called “management training.” You see, forty years ago, “manager” meant “leader.” Next installment: “Elements of a Management Training Program for Leadership Candidates.” Excellence, as discussed in other articles, is a goal that self-fulfills or self-defeats, based as much on your commitment as on any other overt act. If a company establishes itself as a entity that actively seeks potential leaders, at all levels, to be developed and trained as a long-term resource, then the recruiting issue is already half resolved. An oasis in the desert attracts life simply because it exists in an environment that doesn’t readily offer what the oasis has in abundance: water. Those who aspire to leadership roles in their career will recognize and seek any company that openly commits to developing true leadership programs. “If you build it, they will come.” Have a great day recruiting!

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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