When was the last time you or your company’s leadership team asked that question?
At Blackmore Four, we are passionate about effective leadership and meaningful outcomes so we consider it critical to have an objective validation of leadership needs to stay focused on assessing and developing leadership capability that will deliver business results. We have developed our approach to analysing leadership needs by coupling thorough study and research with our typical pragmatism and simplicity.
If you are thinking this topic is straightforward, then maybe ponder the following questions:
- What are the factors that influence the need for leadership in your business?
- What have you done to understand those factors and formulate an understanding of your needs?
- How do you know the answer is right or specific enough to action?
- What are you doing to fulfil those needs?
Whilst many businesses are trying to work out what will make them effective in the uncertain market conditions that unravel before us, we thought it would be helpful to lay out the case for reflecting on leadership needs as part of your organisational reset, looking at what happens if you don’t and offering some guidance on how to conduct a leadership needs analysis.
What is leadership?
In our recent article When you say Leadership, do you really mean Management?, we explored what leadership is really about, and whilst nowhere in business and academic literature is the term pinned down with any consistency, what we propose is that leadership is ‘a distinct set of capabilities and behaviours that determine and drive the purpose, values and direction of the organisation’. We also state that effective leadership is:
- Contextual: dependant on the operating environment or circumstances of the business.
- Relational: influencing behaviour of others requiring an understanding of the leaders and followers.
- Destination-focused: based on a purpose, a vision or specific goals – a shared reason for being.
- A shared process: requiring nurturing from different sources as an organisational attribute.
Context changes, relationships change (people leave, join, grow, engage, disengage), aspects of our destination change and certainly the things that inspire collective behaviour change. The requirement for leadership is therefore subject to ongoing and complex change which makes the notion of ‘good’ leadership fluid not static. So how on earth do you figure out what leadership your business needs?
Simplifying your leadership needs to a generalised set of skills and behaviours assumes there is either ‘one best way’ of leading or that people expected to lead within your organisation can determine the specifics themselves. In some cases, effective leaders emerge with no pre-identification or planned development – that can happen – but we don’t think leadership is something that should be left to chance, no more so than you would leave the future success of your business to chance.
There are still so many credible sources that offer help identifying the most important leadership skills or behaviours but how do you know how relevant they are to your business and what they would look like in practice? In answering the question, ‘what makes an effective leader?’, the below summary was published as a summary of the research undertaken.
It is hard to argue with the outcome of well-managed research but before swallowing this whole, let us just take a critical look at what it is telling us. There seem to be two sets of questions that immediately come to me that I can’t answer in the absence of localised insight; firstly, why would we trust the responses of the people who participated and secondly, how would we make meaning of this in practice?
Why would we trust the participant responses?
Respecting the research approach and the validity of the participants involved, the outcome suggests some clear guidance on what makes effective leaders. However, how do we know the people providing the answers (business leaders) know what makes themselves or others effective? Do answers change based on the circumstances or audience? What if we asked your colleague who shares the leadership table, would we get a consistent answer? How can we be sure that of the hundreds of leadership competencies defined, and 74 provided in this research example, these 10 are going to be necessary to steer your business to success? It is extremely hard to accept one set of competencies being fit for every business’ purpose.
How would we make meaning of this in practice?
In my experience of dealing with the topic of leadership, one of the frequent challenges I see business leaders facing is turning what seems like academic content into practical solutions. I am painstakingly passionate about practical application so when I see a list of leadership competencies identified as ‘the most effective’, my response is ‘how?’. How can someone take this and apply it to their business? Typically, business leaders we work with want to take this type of content and either assess themselves and their teams against these competencies and/or invest in developing leadership in their organisation. So, let us take no.1 on the list: ‘Has high moral and ethical standards’. I don’t know what the benchmark is for ‘high’ in this case – I could make my own determination of that but to be fair and consistent in my application, I really need to be more specific about what this needs to look like in my own business.
Let us look at another example: ‘Clearly communicates expectations’ (no.3 on the list) – of course, absolutely essential! But how do we know if someone can clearly communicate expectations? If they have the ability, how do we know they will act on that ability? As a leader within an organisation, I know I need to clearly communicate expectations but for the group of people I am leading, what style, format, frequency of communication is effective? What level of detail should expectations be set at? The headline makes sense; I cannot think of a business leader who I have spoken to who would say that clearly communicating expectations is not necessary. However, for this to be actionable and effective in context, there needs to be further consideration of what your organisation specifically needs.
I have picked out these two competencies to exemplify the challenge – you can play the rest of that game on your own. Of course this research is insightful and it helps frame universal leadership competencies, but the challenge you have as a business leader is taking this list, along with every other piece of research conducted on leadership, and determining which leadership attributes are most relevant for your business and why, and how to apply that within your own business context.
Why ‘leadership needs analysis’ is critical?
Leadership is variable and subject to complex change so identifying the specific needs of your business requires some objective analysis. If you intend to assess current capability and develop leadership to help enable your business strategy, then it is worth taking some structured time to get the needs analysis right.
Many businesses will invest relatively large amounts of money in leadership development but without specific identification of your leadership needs, an understanding of the context and how leadership changes can be applied, it is often of little value. This Forbes article written last year, Leadership Development is a $366 Bn Industry: Here’s why most programs don’t work, gives a good insight into some of the issues that are created out of insufficient localised needs analysis.
Why wouldn’t you analyse your leadership needs?
Like most aspects of business, leadership requires some focus and effort to get it right and there are plenty of other priorities competing for your personal and collective time. The absence of time (capacity) to spend on identifying the specific leadership needs of your business is often cited as a reason for not doing it. However, leadership is not optional for many people involved in running a business. Whether you focus on it or not, the way in which your thoughts and feelings spill out into what you say and do is being watched and is influencing the way in which others in your business think, feel and behave. It’s happening, so you can either hope that every leader in your business is getting it right (and possibly spend time on the consequences of getting it wrong) or you can invest a small amount of time upfront making sure you have an accurate identification of leadership needs.
Once you have accepted the need to invest some time on this, the question is when?
Not now, of course, because you need to reorganise post COVID, and not next month because it’s the start of Q4 and you really need to focus on meeting revised revenue targets, and not after that because it’s nearly Christmas and nobody cares and we definitely need to redo our 2021 forecast … and it’s raining … and … there will always be something else to do. If the nature of leadership is important to the future success of your business then you have to make it a priority and if not now, then at a very specific time in the near future … not when everything else is done, because it never is. If you do not then it is not that important to you, and if it is not that important to you then other people will know that because they look to you for leadership.
The final two reasons for not doing this are relevance and cost. With some fear of getting repetitive, show me a business that relies on people to run successfully and I’ll show you a business that relies on effective leadership – it is simply incongruent to explicitly or implicitly say identifying the leadership needs of your business is not relevant if you separately accept that leadership is a critical organisational attribute. The magnitude of this exercise will depend on the scale and complexity of the organisation – your approach to leadership needs analysis should fit the context – but the core principle of understanding what kind of leadership is necessary for your organisation is relevant wherever there is a social group expected to work coherently towards common goals – a team. The cost involved in conducting this analysis might simply come down to the cost of your and your team’s time. That is not insignificant, but it is already budgeted. The cost of not focusing on this is even more intangible but is borne through misalignment of effort, reduced productivity, efficiency or engagement (task and business).
As with any other investment, it is important to be clear about the costs and benefits of investing in leadership, or not investing in leadership, or not investing in the right kind of leadership.
In practice: what kind of leadership is useful for your business?
I find it useful to break this down and apply a logical sequence to ensure you develop an objective, accurate picture of what your leadership needs are. It is important to listen out for and distinguish between genuine leadership needs and a generalised assessment of current leadership.
- Start with a framework
Use a leadership model broad enough that you do not exclude business-relevant leadership competencies but something that is based on valid research. If you are a member of a professional membership body, then they might have something you could use, or we could point you in the right direction if you need guidance.
- Base your analysis on a clear and consistent understanding of what you are trying to achieve
We are framing leadership being anchored on a destination – possibly a moving target – but your company’s stated vision or purpose, coupled with business plans or specific business objectives, often form a good basis for ensuring all participants of your analysis have a shared understanding of what you’re trying to achieve.
- Invite input from all stakeholders – do not assume
As I suggested earlier, perception of what kind of leadership is required might vary depending on your vantage point and circumstances. If the people you are seeking to lead do not have a voice, then you are missing a critical source of input. This is not a democratic process, but it is important to understand various stakeholder perspectives.
- Be objective – do not make it personal
We have suggested leadership is an organisational attribute, treat it as a set of skills and behaviours that can be acquired and developed by anyone. Keep needs analysis separate from assessment to avoid personal interest skewing the input. It is natural to identify something as being necessary if you have it, especially if others do not.
We are passionate about the critical role that leadership plays in any organisation and the necessity of relevant leadership skills and behaviours in developing the most effective organisation. We are also passionate about being able to apply the idea of leadership in real terms, in a way that makes sense for your organisation and has direct impact on your business performance. Identification of the leadership skills and behaviours that are directly relevant to your business is a fundamental component of making sure you develop a leadership approach that is fit for purpose. To do that, it is useful to include a range of stakeholders in identifying your leadership needs and defining them in a way that is meaningful in application.
Blackmore Four are a management consulting company, offering specialist advice and tailored solutions to businesses looking to sustain or improve the effectiveness of their organisation. Our approach is based on a deep understanding of human behaviour at work and an ability to identify and address the specific leadership and organisation development needs of your business. We work with ambitious business leaders to achieve outstanding levels of performance through periods of growth or significant change.