By Roger Dean Duncan
People often ask me what’s the most common issue I’ve seen in four decades of executive coaching. The answer is easy: inadequate preparation for leadership.
Too many “leaders” reach their positions through attrition. They’re shifted into leadership roles because somebody else retires or otherwise moves on. They may have been competent in sales or engineering or some other role, so it’s assumed they can lead. But they often can’t.
An instructive example comes to mind. Frank, a new client, invited me to his office. He had just become CEO of a global energy firm. The founder, in his mid-80s, had finally decided to “step aside.” (He couldn’t bring himself to use the word “retire.”)
Here’s our conversation—
Frank: “I want you to write a speech for me.”
Rodger: “I don’t write speeches anymore.”
Frank: “But you can do it, can’t you?” (He knew I could do it, because earlier in my career I wrote speeches for presidential cabinet officers, U.S. Senators, and others.)
Rodger: “Yes, I can write speeches. But that’s not what I do now. I coach people on leadership and performance issues.”
Frank: “Well, I need you to write a speech for me.
Rodger: “Who’s your audience?”
Frank: “Well, I don’t have an audience yet.”
Rodger: “Then why do you need a speech?”
Frank: “Because in my new role I’m sure I’ll be called on to give a speech.”
Rodger: “But, Frank, a good speech is prepared with a specific audience in mind. The message should be tailored to the needs and interests of the people you’re addressing.”
Frank: “Well, I’d just like to have a good speech in hand so I’ll be ready when I’m asked.”
I could see he was determined to have a speech for his imaginary audience. So I agreed to write a speech for him.
“So, what would you like to talk about in this speech to a hypothetical group that hasn’t invited you yet?”
“I want to talk about leadership,” Frank said.
“Okay, that’s a pretty broad topic. What do you want to say about leadership?”
“That’s what I’m asking you to tell me!”
Sometimes I’m slow, but it finally dawned on me. Frank wanted a speech, yes. But what he was really asking for was a dose of leadership coaching. He had been an officer of a multi-billion-dollar company for several years, but the title came with no meaningful grooming. All the decisions—even the relatively minor ones—had been made by the founder who was now gone. Frank was ill prepared for his new role, and he felt like a kid trying to ice skate barefooted.
Unfortunately, Frank’s predicament was not unusual. In his organization, title was often mistaken for competence. Position and tenure were mistaken for leadership.
Enter Scott Jeffrey Miller. He’s executive vice president of thought leadership at FranklinCovey, one of the world’s top people development firms.
Miller’s new book is Management Mess to Leadership Success: 30 Challenges to Become the Leader You Would Follow.
This book is aimed at people who feel they weren’t perfectly groomed for leadership. It speaks to leaders at all levels with a bit of “mess” in them. Miller can relate, and he openly acknowledges his own career missteps along the way to his current role.
Miller offers immediately usable advice on a wide range of issues like how to:
- lead difficult conversations
- inspire trust
- actively listen
- challenge paradigms
- create a clear and actionable vision for a team
- make it safe to tell the truth
- protect your team against urgencies
- lead through change
- make high-value decisions
I appreciate Scott’s candor, and enjoyed our conversation.
Rodger Dean Duncan: You’re very transparent in acknowledging your own past missteps along the way to leadership success. What role do you think self-awareness plays in a person’s development as a leader?
Scott Miller: Self-awareness is the linchpin to becoming a successful leader. Your position in the organization is inversely correlated to the level of feedback—truthful feedback—you receive. People don’t want to create a “career cul-de-sac” for themselves by telling their leader—let alone a member of the C-suite—how they dominate the conversation in meetings or how epically boring their last speech was. So, leaders must set up their own feedback loops with trusted colleagues at all levels, to prevent the inevitable insulation that surrounds leaders. Most importantly, they must make it safe for others to share their truth with them, without fear of reprisal. And leaders have to listen without becoming defensive.
Confidence drives humility. Humility flows from feedback. Feedback leads to self-awareness, and self-awareness can create vulnerability. Who doesn’t want to work with a confident, humble, self-aware, and vulnerable leader? I certainly do. Too many leaders think their intellect and instincts will secure their position at the top. They are sadly mistaken and often never see their ousting coming. Had they been more self-aware, they could have prevented the wave or at least had time to grab their surfboard.
Duncan: People are sometimes thrust into leadership positions with little or no training for their new roles. What’s your advice for getting up to speed while avoiding serious mistakes?
Miller: First, be sure that leading people is right for you. Become mindful of what validates and motivates you. There’s no shame in saying no to leadership roles. Frankly, not everyone should lead people. Leadership requires a vastly different set of skills and strengths than most high performers possess.
If you do choose to take the role, assess your paradigms about how you perceive success and the contributions of those on your team. As Liz Wiseman advises, great leaders are genius makers, not geniuses. Consistently ask yourself, “How can I shine the light on my colleagues, raise them up, and leave them better than I found them? Are they better or worse off because of my leadership?”
Remember, humility flows from confidence, not arrogance. Perhaps most importantly, remind yourself that your key role is not to be right or always have the answers. Your role is to create a culture where the smartest, most trustworthy people choose to collaborate effectively—the key to any winning team.
Duncan: Many of the 30 challenges you suggest for leaders seem to be common sense. But as Will Rogers famously said, “Common sense ain’t all that common.” Why do so many people seem to miss the common sense principles and practices that have been around for ages? What’s the attraction of alternate behaviors that produce less-than-stellar results?
Miller: We spend most of our formal education learning technical skills, refining our business acumen, and learning to be persuasive, convincing negotiators. But these skills have little to do with creating a winning culture, which requires the ability to build high-trust, effective relationships. A leader’s ability to do that is often the reason people choose to quit … or create lifelong careers inside an organization.
Culture is every organization’s most precious asset, and it can’t be left to chance. Either create it intentionally through the deliberate behaviors of your leaders, or let it devolve into something you can’t possibly control. How people communicate, share information, coach, collaborate, and partner with each other is the lifeblood of innovation and success. Woe are the leaders who forget this and neglect to understand that their number-one priority is to nurture and coach people. That requires high-courage feedback, straight talk, and clarity around goals, while setting a clear vision of success for every role.
Duncan: How can the principle of “Declare Your Intent” help a leader build trust with team members and other stakeholders?
Miller: Leaders who want to minimize confusion should deliberately declare their intent before every engagement, interaction, and conversation. As the old PR adage goes, “Absent the facts, people make stuff up.” It’s the same in any team, division, or organization. Invest the time to state your intentions to shareholders, vendors, leaders, and team members, especially before a high-stakes conversation when emotions may be running high and agendas are suspect.
When both your supporters and your detractors (yes, you have both) are clear on your intent, it’s less likely that you will be misunderstood or that your behavior will be met with suspicion.