If you have clicked on this leadership icon, I’m guessing that you have probably read a number of books on leadership – let’s face it there are thousands of them to choose from with more being published every day. One of the reasons for the plethora of authors putting pen to paper is that it is such a critical topic, whether considered in a political, economic, business or indeed personal sense. It is also the perfect gift that keeps on giving for authors since it is such a broad topic, and even the definition of leadership is hard to pin down and open to wide interpretation. When my clients ask my candidates about leadership, it may well be that they have a crystal-clear idea in their own head as to exactly what competency they are exploring, but if you asked 100 business leaders to define what leadership means to them, there might well be hundred different answers with not much overlap. No wonder then that tackling a question on leadership is quite tough and answers can be rather haphazard, vague or downright weak.
The confusion stems from the fact that in order to be a great leader in the commercial world requires a blend of skills and leadership is a convenient, catch-all term to describe them. Over the years I have seen many complex diagrams which aim to show the interlocking skill sets and all have variations which enable the author to claim a unique insight and charge a few quid for their new book. However, if I had to distil the areas my clients tend to be probing under the leadership banner they fall into the following categories:
• the ability to set a strategic vision and communicate it to a team
• the ability to shape and lead a project to successful fruition
• thought leadership encompassing innovation and bold decision-making
• Strong people management
• inspiring the people around you (including, but not limited to your own teams)
This is not a comprehensive list, but when boards asked me to find good leaders and I scratch beneath the surface to uncover what matters most to them, these are the most common themes.
No wonder then that interviewers often find the answers on leadership irrelevant or bland -if you are answering the wrong question your chances of hitting the mark are low. So, rule number one: when you are exploring a candidate’s leadership qualities, do be specific as to what you are looking for and give them the very best chance of dazzling you with their answer.
Whilst the first three competencies are all critical for a world-class CIO, asking about strategic thinking, project delivery and innovation are more likely to solicit relevant responses, so let me focus on the last two.
People management can be more easily summarised than inspirational leadership and revolves around good process:
Structuring your team to align with the business and giving people clear roles and responsibilities
Communicating with them regularly to ensure they are on track and moving forward
Performance management with clear metrics and feedback
Supporting their personal development
Good governance around people management is certainly important and many teams would be delighted to report to a manager that did these things well. However, at more senior levels what is expected is inspirational leadership and this is worlds apart from being just a good people manager. If you are being asked about inspirational leadership, describing your people management capabilities misses the mark by a mile.
Given the widespread recognition that the most firms believe their people to be their most precious asset, you would think that leaders spend a fair amount of time contemplating their own leadership styles, assessing others they admire to see what can be learnt from them and how they can improve. In reality, I suspect day-to-day operational (and occasionally strategic) issues consume the vast majority of the CIOs thinking space with little thought given as to whether they are, in fact, great leaders and if not, what they should be doing about it. The net result is, at interview, the ability to distil and explain what makes him or her an outstanding leader is often sadly lacking in even heavyweight technology leaders.
If you boil it down, the main purpose of good leadership is to get the very best out of your teams (getting them to be the best that they can be) so that they can deliver the business goals. Given that there are more of them than there are of you, inspiring them to greatness must surely be the most important task any CIO can undertake. This is true all of the time but particularly when goals are ambiguous, financial performance is weak, business cycles are shorter and the need for transformation more urgent.
For me, leadership is, bar none, the most important attribute of great CIO. So what makes someone inspirational?
If you think about the team you inherited when you first joined your organisation, how would you describe them? Common themes are: demoralised, siloed, operational, isolated, in fear of their jobs or ready to leave. Inspirational leaders can lift them so that they feel excited, challenged, supported, committed and secure. If this article prompts you to do only one thing, I am hoping you will think about your own leadership style and ponder how you can be a better leader. You might like to consider, for example:
How will you set a vision for them which unites them in a common purpose (or at least tells them what they are aiming for)?
How will you reinforce those messages as the pressure to deliver builds?
How have you broken the (bad) news about how they are perceived within the business and supported them as they change direction and rebuild their confidence?
How will you strike the balance between giving them autonomy (and space to make their own mistakes) versus being hands on getting them going in the right direction?
How will you encourage them to support each other so that you do not become a bottleneck for decision making?
How will you boost their confidence when they still have much to learn?
How do you break down the team silos and the blame culture that’s pervasive? How can you get teams which have previously been competitors or at loggerheads to work together collaboratively?
How do you make the guy in Poland feel like a member of a global team with a global mindset and goals when he has always felt like the Polish guy, working for the Polish business unit delivering systems for the Polish market and climbing the Polish career ladder?
Are you helping your team navigate the politics of your organisation and connecting them to the key stakeholders?
Are you trying to help them develop their own leadership styles which cascade good behaviours down into the teams?
Can you describe the emotional journey your team has experienced as they have learned, unlearned and relearned ways of working?
If I asked each and every member of your team why, on the worst ever day of their career, did they not simply walk away, what would they tell me about your behaviours and why you, personally inspire such loyalty?