Why Great Leaders Constantly Ask Their People This One Question

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When moving from executing tasks to managing others, leaders find themselves one step away from “the action” and risk becoming detached. Unless they get regular, honest feedback from their followers about their abilities as managers, leaders can’t expect to become stronger leaders.

They can get it by asking… How can I improve?

When a startup grows into a midsized company, its executives should be spending more time leading those below them and less time executing tasks that they should now be delegating. For example, a chief human resource officer who still interviews every job candidate is not spending time wisely. Likewise, a sales manager who comes along on every sales call won’t likely have time to set grand sales strategies.

Of course, in moving from executing tasks to managing others, these leaders will find themselves one step away from “the action” – from doing the recruiting, selling, writing of marketing copy, paying vendors, checking invoices before they go out, and another minutia in which they had to immerse themselves as founders.

Yet there is a potential downside to this. Because they become one step removed from the daily hubbub of the business, the leaders of any mid-sized company risk becoming detached. And the danger here is not only being out of touch with what’s going on with customers, potential customers, recruits, products, services, payments, and so on, it’s becoming out of touch with the people who report to them. I’m talking about their followers.

Unless they get regular, honest feedback from their followers about their abilities as managers, leaders can’t expect to become stronger leaders. Leaders who aren’t clued into how their followers perceive them are managing blind. And the few who do solicit feedback often don’t use it to improve their leadership abilities. Yet those who do – like the CEO of a mid-sized insurance company whose story I will tell in a moment – can become highly effective leaders.

It must begin with the CEO. One of CEOs’ most important tasks is to mentor other leaders in the company about why and how to take feedback from their direct reports and adjust the way they lead based on that feedback. But if a CEO doesn’t have visibility of their direct reports’ leadership reputation, how can they be an effective mentor?

Relying on “corporate whisperers,” “moles” or “birds” is undependable and encourages corporate politics. The whispers come only in moments of crisis, in reaction to a problem. No one whispers about a leader’s strengths. What whispers do come through are confidential, leaving the leader unable to tackle the problem clearly and directly. Sometimes the whispers are not representative of the impact on the whole company. At other times, they are simply false.

Likewise, relying on the boss’s personal observations falls short too. In mid-sized and larger firms, much of the work is done in teams and without the boss’s direct involvement. When the boss is there, everyone is usually on their best behavior. The boss’s experiences are rarely the same as everyone else’s experience.

In my prior Forbes post, I outlined the powerful case for doing 360-degree reviews regularly and properly (i.e. not a part of HR oversight, perceived (and real) anonymity for raters, and used for development purposes only). In this post, I’ll dig into how the best leaders continually improve their leadership acumen by using their own 360s and the 360s of the leaders they mentor.

Consider the case of Scott Diener, CEO of NORCAL Mutual Insurance Company. When he was the CEO of a NORCAL subsidiary, Diener recognized that developing his leadership acumen to higher and higher levels would have a powerful impact on company results as well as his career. He retained Dale Rose, Ph.D., president and founder of 3D Group and an Industrial-Organizational psychologist, to conduct 360s and to help him interpret the findings. After debriefing his first 360 with Dr. Rose, Diener knew right away he wanted more time working with his coach to think through his development.

This led to an ongoing coaching engagement with regular meetings focused on areas from the 360 and exploring current issues and challenges in the business. Rose says, “Scott was fully engaged in the work. At every coaching session, he’d have questions, interest, and a focus in mind. Some of it would flow from a 360, if taken recently. Other times he would frame up observations of leadership situations for us to analyze and reflect upon. I always felt that he was on a mission to develop, and I was simply his navigator.”

Diener exemplifies the state of mind that is critical for success? knowing the importance of leadership acumen. For senior leaders in midsized or larger companies, task performance and management don’t matter as much as leadership. They must commit to leadership development as a primary responsibility that is capable of producing business results. Delivering powerful leadership personally and through teams of leaders is a priority.

Here’s how leaders can commit to leadership development:
Block time on the calendar for leadership development and commit to specific action items. Common elements of leadership development are training/learning, coaching/mentoring, and experiential learning.

Next, get the data. Do a set of 360s– one for the top-most leader, and one for each person reporting to him or her. Use best practices such as keeping the assessment outside of HR, using benchmarking data, using an assessment created by experts, and completing the 360 in conjunction with external coaching. Even one 360 brings a lot of information. While reading the report might take only an hour, reflecting on the input, discussing it, and deciding where to focus your development takes a lot longer if done well.

Don’t rush it. An hour session with your coach isn’t nearly enough. Allow 2-4 hours per session, and it might take several sessions. The tempo of the session should be slow, unhurried. Don’t look for solutions too quickly, and don’t try and pull “answers” out of your coach. Understanding is the first goal, and that takes patience and focus. Then repeat as you understand how the leadership of each of your direct reports is perceived and how you can best help them step up.

Does this sound crazy? Going slow in a go-fast world? The important things in business take real time. Reading a contract can take many hours. Negotiating a big business deal can take dozens of hours. Courting a key client can take a hundred hours or more. Hiring a key executive takes hours and hours. Redesigning the incentive program takes hours and hours. Your leadership underpins all these business activities and it deserves as much time or more.

Once you feel like you understand the message being sent to you, identify your action steps, and lay them out. They should be time-based and managed like any other high-priority project. It should be clear when each action should be complete, with some approach to assessing effectiveness. No doubt along the way, there will be new behavioral observations, which can be shared with the coach to understand them and decide what to do (if anything). At some point, often a year later, enough change has taken place that a repeat 360 becomes helpful.

Diener reaped the rewards for his focus on his own leadership development. He was promoted to COO of NOR˜CAL (the parent company), then CEO three years later, and continued to work with Rose over a 5-year period, to help him transition through two leadership promotions into the CEO job at the parent company. Diener says, “I spent, and continue to spend, a lot of time every month thinking about my leadership and my team’s leadership and taking actions to improve the way we work together to serve our customers better. Working with an outside coach helped me stay open to input from employees and focus on improvement.”

Good leaders find themselves leading growing businesses. As those businesses grow, they demand more and better leadership. Good enough isn’t good enough. Stay in front of your business by purposefully and actively understanding your followers and their perceptions of you so that you can become the great leader your business deserves.

Written by The One Page Business Plan Company


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