Ed Cohen

Ed Cohen is the Executive Vice President of Nelson Cohen Global Consulting.

Top Eight Ways Leaders Derail

Ed Cohen

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Having spent more than 20 years in global leadership roles for companies like Booz Allen Hamilton, the erstwhile Satyam Computer Services (now Tech Mahindra), and HCL Technologies, I have witnessed the full spectrum of leaders from best to worst.  My career involved conducting business in more than 60 countries, including spending seven years working full time in India with the remainder in the U.S.  When posed with the question why and how leaders derail, I was asked to comment on Ramalinga Raju, founder of Satyam Computer Services whom I worked with while Chief Learning Officer from 2005 to 2009.  My immediate reaction was not to want to revisit something that was such a painful experience in my life and the lives of thousands of others. My next thought was it wasn’t appropriate to single out one person because there are as many ways to derail and focusing on just one would be a disservice.

For every bright side, there is a dark side.  Our research shows that leaders, more than ever, need to concentrate on creating trusted, transparent, people-oriented cultures.  They need to build teams that surround themselves with intelligent, functionally capable leaders rather than thinking they should be brightest or the most functionally proficient.

Leadership as a spectrum of behaviours that range from success to derailment. Most often, we define the success. How leaders derail also needs to be defined.  While leading Booz Allen Hamilton’s corporate university, we created the development framework. For each step in the career ladder, we defined success and derailment. We did this by conducting surveys, analysing appraisal data, and by reviewing promotions and exits. After consolidating the information, we conducted focus groups with leaders at different levels to validate the outcomes before publishing them. We followed a similar approach at the Satyam School of Leadership to isolate the two ends of the spectrum.

Our research over the past 20 plus years shows, the number one way that leaders derail is difficulty with interpersonal relationships.

This could manifest itself by the leader displaying too much ego, not nurturing long term relationships, or not getting along with others well.  I am sure everyone reading this article had known a leader who, while fantastic at his or her work, was critical of others. Or they chronically complained about the organisation or was simply not a nice person to be around.  Earlier in my career, I worked for an excellent operations leader. However, every single time we met, he never had an encouraging word; all he did was tell me what I was doing wrong.  During one meeting, I actually kept track of how many times he cursed, and in less than an hour it came to over 100 times.  I considered leaving the company, and was about to when he ended up getting fired for violating copyright laws and got caught.  Derailment usually happens in more than one way, it is definitely not a single item that does a leader in.  Let’s take a look at the rest.

A close second, is the lack of ability to grow and lead a high performing team.

Leaders who do not make it safe for people to speak up and speak out, who suppress conflict, attempt to force decisions, do not demonstrate equity and fairness, or create unnecessary competition end up with teams that are unable to produce the right outcomes at the right time. According to Patrick Lencioni, author of ‘5 Dysfunctions of a Team’, teams cannot be successful when there is:

– Absence of TRUST where members are unwilling or unable to be vulnerable within the group.

– Fear of CONFLICT, demonstrated by seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate.

– Lack of COMMITMENT where feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity
throughout the organisation.

– Avoidance of ACCOUNTABILITY by ducking the responsibility to discuss counter-productive behaviour with peers which results in low standards.                  

– Inattention to RESULTS where members focus on personal success, status and ego before team success.

When we work with companies, we conduct a survey to see how the team is doing in the five areas – trust, ability to have conflict, commitment, accountability, and result.  We ask them what excites them about working for the company, what concerns they have and what advice they have for their leader.  The eye-opening results, which are shared with everyone in a workshop, let the team and the leader know how they are doing.  For the leader, it opens up any potential blind spots.  Recently, I conducted this survey with an internet company.  The results showed that while everyone believed the intentions of the leader were good, the implementation of people policies was incongruent.  As the CEO, he was stunned to see this.  We discussed how he might have sent this message to the team and then developed a plan to change the perception of the team by having them develop their own team agreement (with him as a participant).  The result was an entirely new focus on everyone being consistent rather than just him.  For a short period turnover went up, as people who were not aligned to this new Team Agreement either chose to or were asked to leave.

2 webThe third area where leaders derail is not having a futuristic view of the organisation when making decisions.

Companies that are publicly traded tend to exist in three month cycles making decisions that benefit the organisation in the short term but ultimately not in the long run.  While the vast majority of the organisation is dealing with the day to day operations of the business, successful leaders always consider the future when making primary decision.  The lack of long term orientation can also manifest itself by the leader blurring ethical lines.  This type of derailment not only had the potential to damage the leader’s reputation, it can also throw the organisation and its people into a major crisis. (Enron and Satyam are two companies that come to mind here).  So, what does it mean to have a futuristic view?  The answer: it depends.  If you are leading a start-up, then the long term view might be one year.  Organisations in rapidly changing industries and/or experiencing rapid growth might look out two or more year.  If the organisation and the industry is more mature and experiencing relatively steady growth, then long term could be 5 to 10 years.

Coming in fourth is the failure to build a strong second team.

The consequences of not having a strong second team will be felt around the world over the next 13 years as 66M baby boomers in the U.S. alone move into retirement.  By comparison, there are less than 50M Generation X members (those born from 1965 to 1980) in total.  We will experience three times as many retirements from Baby Boomers than the generation prior.  Canada, Japan, and most of Europe have similar relative numbers of retirements expected.  We are going to experience a leadership drought that is expected to last for at least a decade.  Organisations with leaders having strong second team willing and able to pass the torch too as they retire will be able to keep up with the increasing complexities of global competition while the others will quickly flounder.We are working with an organisation where the CEO has seven out of nine leadership team members planning to retire in the next three years.  When we reviewed the succession plan with him, we found only three of the roles have successors. Even among those three, not all will be ready in time.  Having to go outside the business to find a successor is sometimes a good thing, especially when you want to take the organisation in a new direction or make a substantial quantum leap.  That said, turning over four out of nine leadership team members at the same time from outside the business will surely have an impact that will, at least for the short term, impact the stability of the company.  Strong seconds teams share these characteristics:

– More than one potential successor.

– Team is capable of functioning together and separately, without significant intervention from the leader.

– High levels of collaboration.

– Respect for each other.

– Leaders capable of working out their differences without the need to escalate.

The fifth derailer comes from communication.

Style and substance, combined with lack of transparency, simplicity, inspiration, timeliness, and frequency are all gaps leaders (even some of the best I have observed) must close. Communication needs to be immediate because in a world dominated by social media, there is no such thing as a secret anymore.  Communication needs to be frequent.  The average person receives hundreds of emails every day.  To ensure frequency, communication needs to come in multiple forms.  While working for a large multi-national corporation as their CLO, I coached the leader of a business unit to communicate her vision on a regular basis.3 web I explained that her message was competing with all the other messages everyone received on a day to day basis.  Her response was, “People may be getting blasted with messages but they better listen to mine.”  I explained that people were not ignoring her message, it’s just that frequency is needed to ensure they process it, personalise it and begin to speak the language.  I walked the halls that day and asked several people if they could tell me Sue’s (not her real name) vision for the company.  Out of 12 people I spoke with, only two could articulate even a small amount of the vision.  When I went back to Sue with this information, she responded by sending one more email.  This is not enough.  Leaders need to blast their message over and over.  They need to put it in emails, get posters hanging on the walls and repeat it every single time they speak to a group.  I would rather have people annoyed because I repeat the same message over and over, than not knowing.

Coming in at number six is failure to listen to others. 

This is a BIG one! Leaders who listen to their stakeholders have a far better understanding of what it takes to meet their needs.  Stakeholders include employees, customers, suppliers, investors, and society. So, the more senior you are as a leader, the more people you need to pay attention.  Practicing listening skills, including paraphrasing, are paramount. A good tip, provided to me long ago my by mother, is to realize there is a reason why you were born with two ears and ONLY one mouth.  Failure to listen to others is probably the most common derailer, and everyone has at some point experienced a leader like this. Enough said.

Number seven; lack of understanding of the business of the business. 

The best leaders are not type-casted to a specific industry.  That said, in order to be successful it is critical to understand the business of the business.  This includes the markets where the organisation competes, company financials, and other key indicators for success.  Ram Charan defines leadership as functional acumen + people acumen + business acumen.  Your functional acumen gets you into a leadership role.  Your business and people acumen is what allows you to success.  This is common in the IT work.  We take a solid individual performer and promote the person to a leadership role.  Then without any further training, we expect that person to be able to do the new role.  A year later everyone is scratching their heads asking “What happened to her, she was doing so well as _________?”  Of all the derailments, this one is the easiest to fix.  While Chief Learning Officer at HCL Technologies, we developed a one year leadership immersion process where leaders learned about the business of the business as they built their people and business acumen.

And, number eight is inability to keep promises and commitments. 

Leaders need to say what they mean and mean what they say.  Too many times, I have witnessed leaders making promises they could not keep, and commitments they knew were not possible.  This impacts leadership credibility resulting in reduced trust, a major ingredient for leadership success.

4 web“If you join in this role, you will get promoted next year.”  That’s what one of my leaders told someone he was recruiting for a performance consulting role.  When the year was up and the leadership team reviewed the progress of the person, we could not support the promotion.  “But I promised,” my report (subordinate) told me in a private meeting that followed.  When I asked, “Why would you make a promise knowing that’s not the way we do things around here?” he had no response.

In the end, he told his employee that he had fought for the promotion but it was not approved (implying the rest of the leaders were the culprits).  If you make compelling promises, then you better be sure you can keep them.  In this case, the employee left the firm within six months.  Shortly after, I was faced with the difficult task of asking the leader to leave as well.  He had broken the trust and then played the blame game to take the focus off himself.  As I said earlier, derailment usually happens in more than one way.

For every dark side there is a bright side.  We have concentrated on ways leaders derail. However, if we flip the equation, we have the answer to how leaders succeed:

Successful leaders:

– Build strong and ensuring interpersonal relationships.

– Grow and lead high performing teams.

– Have a futuristic view of the organisation when making decisions.

– Build a strong second team.

– Communicate with transparency, simplicity, inspiration, timeliness, and frequency.

– Listen to others.

– Understand the business of the business.

– Keep promises and commitments.

There are many more areas for leaders to succeed and fail. However, these eight are the primary areas where leaders find themselves either succeeding by heeding the warnings and avoiding them or trapped in a downward spiral.

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