Shift in strategy requires new leadership skills

As economy improves, workers looking for more security
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/31/2011

Aligning skills with strategy: Jackie Greaner, North American practice leader for talent management and organization alignment at Towers Watson, spoke in November at a Strategic Capability Network event about how organizations need to refresh leadership capabilities to ensure they align with the organization’s new business strategy.

Shift in strategy requires new leadership skills

Do you want to lead? (Strategic capability)

Blind spots in managing organizations (Organizational effectiveness)

Is leadership just too complex? (Leadership in action)

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Shift in strategy requires new leadership skills

By Shannon Klie

Over the past decade, Toronto Pearson International Airport has undergone major building and renovation projects. As those construction projects have wrapped up, the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), which operates the airport — the busiest in the country, handling about 30.4 million passengers in 2009 — switched its business strategy from one of growth and building to a customer-centric focus, according to Kelly Neri, general manager of human resources and talent management at GTAA.

With a new strategy, vision, mission and values, it was time to step back and define expectations of its 1,200 employees to ensure they could meet the new business objectives, Neri told a group of HR professionals at a recent Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto.

“Ultimately, we needed to focus on how we do what we do and reach out through our leadership to bring our employees aboard,” she said.

The GTAA brought together 40 managers from across the organization, introduced them to the new strategic direction and asked them to come up with a list of core competencies employees needed to drive results. The leaders identified and defined the 10 most important competencies, said Neri.

“The ownership that was generated throughout that process was unbelievable,” she said.

HR established a level of proficiency for each competency for each position at the organization and created a curriculum to ensure employees could reach the required level.

Over two years, HR completed 360-degree feedback sessions with all employees based on the new core competencies. The management assessment revealed most leaders were falling short in several areas.

“We needed to clarify expectations of our leaders and provide the skills and the tools that they need to lead,” said Neri. “We needed to define the type of relationship we wanted them to have with our people.”

This includes reinforcing collaboration and accountability among employees, inspiring commitment among staff and empowering them to make decisions, she said.

A modified version of the competency curriculum was rolled out first to managers to address the identified shortfall.

“We hope, through our core competency training and this investment in our management, that we will see a more consistent and effective leadership across the organization,” said Neri.

Like GTAA, most organizations have experienced a shift in strategic direction, mostly due to the recent recession, said Jackie Greaner, North American practice leader for talent management and organization alignment at Towers Watson in Atlanta.

And there needs to be a corresponding shift in leadership competencies to align with the new strategy and drive results, said Greaner, who spoke at the same event.

The Towers Watson Talent, Management and Rewards Survey 2010 found most organizations have shifted their strategy to focus on growing and competing by developing innovative products and services.

To execute this strategy, talent management in organizations needs to ensure there is the right talent for critical roles, increase investment in building the internal talent pipeline and create more development opportunities for staff, said Greaner.

“There’s a concern that we don’t really have the right people available for the right roles,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of the leadership skills we need to propel us into the future.”

Sixty-two per cent of the 1,176 companies surveyed by Towers Watson said ensuring the readiness of talent in critical roles is a top priority going forward, and 77 per cent plan to invest in leadership development over the next three years.

While leaders will still need strategic vision, business knowledge, global perspective, adaptability, integrity, customer focus, creativity and collaboration, there are two main competencies leaders need in the new economic and technological reality, said Greaner.

The first skill is vaulting or the ability to quickly take bold steps to solve problems and create new strategies. It’s also about making connections, identifying complex trends and nimbly changing course as required, she said.

The second skill is around social media. Leaders need to embrace this new communication tool, including Twitter, Facebook and blogs, said Greaner.

Communicating with employees through social media is one way to boost engagement, which has been hit hard — mostly because 44 per cent of the companies surveyed took four or more cost-cutting measures such as hiring and salary freezes, reduced bonuses and layoffs, said Greaner.

While there has been a nine-per-cent drop in engagement among all employees since the recession, that figure is 23 per cent for top performers, according to the Towers Watson 2010 Global Workforce Study.

Coming out of the recession, companies need to ensure they have competitive pay and benefits, as well as opportunities for growth and development, to boost engagement and retention, said Greaner.

“We have to keep focusing on getting the basics right,” she said.

But there’s a gap between what organizations think employees are looking for and what employees actually want, according to the Global Workforce Study. This is shown by the 86 per cent of 22,000 employees who identified a good pension as a top reason to take a new job compared to just 30 per cent of employers that thought the same.

Also, 86 per cent of employees identified job security as being important compared to 43 per cent of employers, and 82 per cent of employees cited flexible work hours as important compared to 48 per cent of employers.

Basically, employees are focused on security and making more money as the economy continues to slowly improve, said Greaner. Even young workers want job security, with 34 per cent of employees under 35 saying they want to work for one organization for their entire career, she said.

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SCNetwork’s panel of thought leaders brings decades of experience from the senior ranks of Canada’s business community. Their commentary puts HR management issues into context and looks at the practical implications of proposals and policies


Do you want to lead? (Strategic capability)

By Karen Gorsline

One of the most compelling questions that can be asked of a leader is: Do you want to lead people?

People often move into leadership roles because it is expected or they want to advance their career with reward and recognition. They don’t really want to lead anyone anywhere — they may not even be sure where they are going themselves.

They may not be willing to “think outside the box” and may see leadership as repeating the corporate vision, mission and annual objectives or scorecard. Leaders who can set a course, and who challenge existing thinking along the way, represent a key strategic resource for organizations.

One of the most striking things to come out of the presentation by Jackie Greaner and Kelly Neri was a slide titled “Maximizing talent: Leadership.” It contained the underlying assumption that leadership is about driving engagement and effectiveness to impact business and results. The slide also illustrated leadership as a strategic capability is about maximizing talent and provided a basic framework for understanding how leaders can mobilize talent.

Inspiring commitment is the first test of leadership — can the leader successfully develop followers? Obviously, many leaders have direct reports but this in no way implies the people have an emotional connection to the leader and the direction. Without a level of energy on the part of “followers,” efforts to change or meet a challenge are at risk. A leader must do more than point the way. He must elicit a willingness from others to participate and to facilitate the journey.

There are three ways leaders can provide support to those they lead:

Empower individuals and teams and let them know how they can actively participate: Tap into the wealth of knowledge held by people in the organization. Give them permission to contribute ideas and to think differently about work. Celebrate the extra effort individuals and teams contribute to making their ideas come to life.

Monitor and manage the environment: This takes many forms. It can be as simple as assisting in sequencing demands for more even workflows, being aware of personal situations and stresses, making sure tools and information are available or juggling resources in a flexible way. It also includes adapting and realigning efforts as circumstances change while keeping the focus on the overall direction. These are not glamorous tasks but it is the infrastructure that enables empowerment.

Structure for success: Look at process changes to improve effectiveness and reduce duplication or non-value-added work. Leverage existing resources and knowledge rather than reinventing. Break down team boundaries where appropriate. Focus resources on the desired outcomes or results.

This type of leadership is about the ability of a leader to mobilize people and resources and to provide support and structure to the overall effort. Many of the skills and competencies to support a leader can be obtained through learning and development and honed through practice.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. She has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at

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Blind spots in managing organizations (Organizational effectiveness)

By Tom Tavares

It makes sense that consultants and HR focus on talent management. Consider a packaged goods company that feverishly acquired brands and rationalized operations until its business plans had to be put on hold due to talent shortages and people burning out.

It’s a common tale, especially with so many firms having slashed costs after the 2008 financial crisis. It’s clear — leaders should focus on managing talent.

Or is it? What about the experts who make a strong case for employee engagement? How can organizations stay competitive if, on average, 50 per cent of the staff is disengaged? Clearly, managers must do more to engage employees. But what about the need to manage culture, innovation, teamwork and coaching?

For leaders with no time, can the list be shortened? The answer is yes.

While organizational consultants use different labels, they generally point to the same underlying issue: Most leaders neglect to manage the internal environment at their companies. As change accelerates, this gap in managing internally is taking an ever increasing toll on the capability of organizations to perform.

We have seen buckling in national security, regulatory agencies, health care and disaster response capability. In the private sector, Toyota, Manulife, BP and Nortel immediately come to mind, and the decline of domestic automakers and the meltdown in financial services also have been reported in detail. Neglect in managing internally is behind this institutional crisis, and isolation is the systemic factor.

Everyone in an organization occupies a job and jobs keep attention focused on a narrow field of activity. As a result, people work in isolation. As change speeds up, confusion spreads, priorities shift rapidly, silos slow the execution of changes and stress levels rise. Working in isolation, the 10 per cent of people in management end up trying to solve 100 per cent of the problem, which is impossible.

With leaders moving at warp speed in fixing things, nothing could be more counterintuitive than taking time to talk and listen. But consider the benefits: Listening builds a respectful culture and the ideas of the 90 per cent of people not in management increase innovation. Reducing isolation among departments speeds the execution of changes. Engaging employees in solving problems accelerates talent development while improving how businesses perform.

With public and private sector institutions crumbling around us, it feels as if the sky is falling. However, this crisis is also a unique opportunity to root out a systemic flaw in the business management model. Managing systematically to reduce isolation creates the potential to increase the problem-solving power in organizations by a factor of 10. As the pace and complexity of change continue to increase, that is a hard number to ignore.

Tom Tavares is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on organizational effectiveness and a senior organizational psychologist. In addition to managing in large corporations, consulting in varied industries and coaching executives, he is also the author of The Mind Field, published by Carswell. He can be reached at

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Is leadership just too complex? (Leadership in action)

By Dave Crisp

Listening to two practitioners — one who brings a broad leadership development program to the other who tailors it to an actual organization — you pick up one key point. They’ve done a serious job of trying to simplify something that is exceptionally complex and far-reaching.

Both discussed models (one a tailored application of the other’s general model) with at least 10 “most important” competencies for leaders with four levels or factors within each — for a total of at least 40 different skill sets leaders need to be trained on. Notice this number doesn’t cover all the competencies a leader may need, only the most important ones.

Kelly Neri set up training for all of these at the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), which is quite an undertaking and who knows if the managers can find the time to learn them all.

It brought to mind a discussion a few weeks ago with 14 senior vice-presidents of HR about management guru Henry Mintzberg’s recent book Managing. For him, leadership (he prefers the term managing but it’s a slim distinction) has about 52 competencies — and it’s too complex to be learned on the job or in training programs. He’s set up a method companies can use with managers, called “coaching ourselves,” so they can exchange real-life experiences and learn from each other to become better leaders or managers — practical, distributed learning people can do for themselves in the course of regular work.

That’s a different approach from the one Jackie Greaner of Towers Watson and Neri outlined in their SCNetwork presentation, but it’s effective.

One hesitates to suggest a guru is even partly wrong — but maybe wrong isn’t quite the right word. Greaner and Neri decided it was worth attempting to train 40 or more competencies, at least in sizable operations (GTAA is comprised of 1,200 staff). They aren’t giving in to the idea it’s too complex. Neither they nor Mintzberg are willing to reduce the number of competencies needed, and they’re not alone. A few years ago, when I was asked to offer leadership training for the Project Management Institute (PMI), it had a model with 81 competencies. So far everyone agrees — there’s lots to learn.

Thankfully, complexity science offers a different option or at least a complementary one. It suggests it should be possible to isolate a much smaller number of core concepts individuals can work to develop which, as long as they work together, supporting and constraining each other, would multiply into larger numbers of specialized skills naturally.

In other words, if we understood leadership at a fundamental level, we wouldn’t have to train all these large numbers of skills, but instead the ingredients that individuals would apply in varying degrees to address the needs of situations as they run into them.

This latter theory explains why some of the greatest leaders and managers are puzzled by massive competency undertakings. They find effective leadership to be “just common sense.” What they mean is they take to heart the advice we gain from so many great leaders, who emphasize just five or six (sometimes even fewer) “key ingredients” for leaders — with integrity and trust being common examples. They believe if people stick to those basics, they can address just about any problem they encounter with a high probability they will succeed.

If true, this slimmer approach would be more likely to provide the speed of decision and action a leader is supposed to exercise. Juggling 40 or 50 competencies to apply to a situation has to be slower than adapting five or six. Which route would work best for your operators — and which five or six core skills would you choose?

Dave Crisp is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on leadership in action. He shows clients how to improve results with better HR management and leadership. He has a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co., where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit

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