The missing puzzle piece (Executive Series)

When it comes to effective leadership, accountability is key

The missing puzzle piece (Executive Series) 
When it comes to effective leadership, accountability is key

By Liz Bernier

Are you enabling mediocre leadership at your company? 

It’s a loaded question and undoubtedly a difficult one — but it’s also critical, according to Vince Molinaro. 

“It’s a question we really need to think about because I think it’s at the root of some of our challenges that we have with leadership — not just in organizations, but in society as a whole,” said Molinaro, global managing director, strategic solutions at Lee Hecht Harrison in Toronto.

Molinaro, a speaker at a recent Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto, said the concept of leadership has changed dramatically over the past few decades, to the point where there’s a need to frequently re-examine what it means to be a good leader.  

“What it means to be a leader today is very different from what it was a generation ago — probably even five years ago. And we really need to pause and think about: What’s our answer to this question organizationally? But also: What’s the answer to this question personally?”

Good leadership is essential to creating a strong, vibrant organizational culture — but what does it entail?  

Being a visionary, being authentic, driving results, being accountable and building strong teams are just a few bullet points, said Molinaro. 

“The list goes on and on and on. And that, I think, is why ‘What it means to be a leader’ is a question we all need to answer because it really matters today, more so than ever before.”

But most organizations are not keeping up with the evolving definitions and roles of a good leader, he said. 

“At a time when we need leadership to be as strong as it can be in our organizations and even our society, we’re faced with that theme of ‘leadership is in crisis,’” he said. 

“The experience of leadership, for many, has become disappointing — both in terms of the employee experience of their leaders, and even leaders themselves. And this is something that we have to really explore.”

Disengaged leadership
What is the cost of a bad boss, manager or leader? For most employees, a bad boss is the worst part of their job, said Molinaro. 

But what in particular are the factors, lapses or actions that make a leader disappointing?

Leaders who fail to inspire, who accept mediocrity in themselves and others, who lack vision and direction, who don’t collaborate, who are not team players or who lack integrity can all cause feelings of disillusionment and disappointment among their direct reports, said Molinaro.
But the leaders themselves are often just as disillusioned with their roles. 

“We have to understand that, for many, the experience of leadership is not where it needs to be,” he said.

 “Leaders are disengaged.”

Up to 65 per cent of managers in a survey of more than 12,000 respondents are either disengaged or extremely disengaged, said Molinaro, citing a 2015 Gallup survey from the United States.

“But they go on to say that it’s not just that they’re disengaged — they don’t care about their companies. And what they’ve been able to find now, finally… is that there actually is an impact to employee engagement. They call it the cascade effect. Disengaged leaders create disengaged employees,” he said.

“I find that interesting because employee engagement has been the same no matter how long we’ve been looking at it, and I’ve been looking at it for over 20 years. It’s the same story globally. Only 25 per cent of employees are ever fully engaged, and the rest are mildly disengaged or extremely disengaged.”

The problem is a key piece of the puzzle is missing.

“We’ve been paying attention to those things, and not paying attention to the quality of the leadership and leader engagement.”

Often, surveys will show the leadership group is the least engaged group in the population, and people are shocked by that. 
“Leaders are disconnected. We talk to leaders every day who feel isolated — lonely in their roles,” said Molinaro. 

“So the old adage that it’s lonely at the top is actually true, but it’s not just at the top — it’s lonely at the mid-level, it’s lonely at the front lines. And it’s understandable because some of the things we do as leaders do cut us off from our employees. We have to make unpopular decisions — that’s part of the territory.”

Few employees report having trust and confidence in their senior leaders — only about seven per cent, according to one survey cited by Molinaro. 

“How can we be successful when less than 10 per cent of your employee base has trust and confidence in your senior leaders?” 

So, what is the key to solving this? What’s the missing puzzle piece? For Molinaro, it’s accountable leadership.

“This idea of a leadership contract is what I think is missing,” he said. It is human nature to hold anyone in a leadership role to a higher standard of behaviour. That is hardwired in people, regardless of what the leadership role is.

“And when they don’t live up to that standard of behaviour, they kind of let us down. We kind of get disappointed. And, to me, that kind of holding someone to a higher standard of behaviour implies that there is a contract. When you take on a leadership role in any realm of our society, you’re actually signing up for something really important,” said Molinaro. 

“But a lot of leaders aren’t really aware of that. We take on leadership roles for a lot of different reasons.”

Sometimes, an individual is an excellent technical performer so that gets noticed and she gets thrown into a leadership role, he said. 

“And the management track often has cooler titles, the management track pays more… so those are all legitimate reasons (for taking on the role). But if you take on those roles without really thinking about what you signed up for, I don’t believe you’re going to be successful.”

A lot of leaders have clicked ‘agree’ to this leadership role — but they didn’t read the terms and conditions, said Molinaro.
“That’s what’s going on. We clicked ‘agree’ — maybe for the title, maybe for the money, maybe because we were pushed into the position — but we have not read the terms and conditions of what it really means to be a leader today.”

Terms and conditions
There are four terms to the leadership contract, said Molinaro: leadership is a decision, it’s an obligation, it’s hard work and it’s about community. 

“The first (term) says that leadership is a decision, and you actually have to make that decision,” he said.  

“We find this over and over again in our programs — leaders who realize this, but they haven’t made the conscious decision to define themselves as a leader.”

They continue to define themselves by their technical expertise.
Also consider the point that leadership is an obligation, not a power or a prize, he said. 

“A true measure of a leader is: Have you left your organization in better shape than you found it?”

Being a leader is hard work and a lot is expected of you, said Molinaro.

“One of the laments we hear over and over again is our managers struggle giving candid feedback. Our managers struggle managing poor performers — they sit on them for months, never doing anything. Our leaders struggle making a tough call, a tough business decision, when it really matters. And when we hear that over and over again, the cynic in me says, ‘Do we have leaders, or do we have wimps?’” said Molinaro. 

“Leaders need to understand that leadership is hard. It comes with the territory… And if you’re not up for it, maybe you need to decide that it’s not for you.”

Some individuals might actually add more value by sticking to their technical expertise, and making that call is a leadership move in and of itself, he said. 

“When we avoid some of this hard work, we weaken ourselves and we weaken our companies. But when we have the courage to tackle the hard work, we make our companies stronger and we make ourselves stronger.”

Filling in the blanks in the leadership contract

By Michael Clark

Vince Molinaro, author of The Leadership Contract, confirmed what we see all around us: Leadership is broken and we’re not able to fix it. To deal with this, Molinaro is proposing his “leadership contract:” Adopting four tenets to create the accountable leader. 

The contract is a fine idea — though not so common sense, actually — but the “what and how” of it was lacking in Molinaro’s brief presentation. Importantly, he missed the opportunity to discuss holding leaders accountable to be effective leaders of people. 

Accountability (and the application of positive and negative consequences) is ultimately the mechanism for making any behaviour stick in an organization. Subsequently, there already is a leadership contract and it’s called “role clarity:” The accountabilities and authorities a role must have to achieve that role’s portion of strategy. So, let’s add some meat to Molinaro’s bones:

Leadership is a decision
“Today’s leaders must make the deliberate decision to lead.” Great, but what does it mean to lead? In my experience, there are four principles to which all leaders must abide: 

• Managerial accountability: All leaders are held accountable by their leader for the output of their direct reports. If an employee fails, it is her leader who is held to account. 

• Judgment and discretion: All leaders must make decisions, even the hard ones. A leader is expected to put his neck on the line.

• Dialogue: All leaders must lead their team in dialogue, being willing and able to elicit advice and feedback from their directs while providing the same through coaching.

• Trust: All leaders must create environments of trust by being rational, consistent and fair.

Leadership is an obligation
“Leaders must step up to their accountabilities as a leader.” Agreed, but what are those accountabilities? All leaders are accountable to their leader for the following:

• The outputs and working behaviours of their direct reports.

• Leading their team to the accomplishment of team goals.

• Building an increasingly capable team.

• Practising continuous improvement regarding products, polices, processes and procedures.

• Having commensurate authorities to fulfil these accountabilities.

Leadership is hard work
“Leaders must resolve to tackle items they may normally avoid.” Absolutely — and how do you make that happen? See the principles above but also consider role clarity. If an organization has done the heavy lifting of determining exactly who is accountable for what, and with what authority is to be used in which situations, then “hard work” is less about moral obligation, courage and difficult conversations, and more about accountability, the work and dialogue.

Leadership is a community
“Today’s best leaders actively participate in leadership communities.” Sounds good but the priority should be ensuring every employee turns first to her manager for coaching on how to be a better leader. Support groups of peers are always a good idea, but if every leader of people is actually being held to account to be a good leader, then there will be a cascade of leadership ability. 

Michael Clark is director of business development at Forrest & Company. Forrest is an organizational transformation firm, with over 25 years experience in developing the organizational and leadership capacity in organizations.

Are you prepared to be a great leader?

By Trish Maguire

“How can you expect your organization to succeed if you are enabling mediocre (lame) leadership?” is the challenging question from Vince Molinaro, global managing director of the strategic solutions practice at Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge. 

But I wonder if the question needs to be even more specific. For example, what do you think would be the answer from any CEO or HR leader if I asked, “How is your barely adequate, inferior, low to moderate quality, second-rate leadership team working out?” Come to think of it, I have never seen these descriptors in any leadership performance plan. Neither do I believe any HR leader incorporates any of these descriptors in their talent management strategies.

Molinaro uses three critical statistics to reinforce his belief that “Mediocre leadership is the root of the challenges we have in companies” and:

•65 per cent of American managers are disengaged in their jobs

•65 per cent of employees would take a new and better boss over a pay raise

•only seven per cent of employees have trust and confidence in their senior leaders. 

These statistics are even more disconcerting when you compare them to Deloitte’s 2014 Corporate and Learning Factbook that indicates “of the total global corporate training spending of $130 billion, leadership development accounted for as much as 35 per cent.” 

Unmistakably, many leadership initiatives continue to fail in achieving the end goal of building better leaders. I’m curious as to how many HR leaders are shocked and prompted into immediate action to turn these statistics around. What is it that leaders and HR leaders are missing?

If you think about the neverending supply of leadership books, articles, studies, assessment tools, 360-degree leadership surveys and executive training programs, people know what leadership is. So what’s the essential element that prevents “better leadership” from happening?

For the largest part of my career, I’ve observed and experienced an extensive variety of so-called innovative approaches to leadership. At the end of the day, I believe the reason better leadership is not happening is because too many of the approaches are focused on leadership training, not leadership development. It’s not achieved by a standalone webcast or half-day or week-long workshops. Neither is it accomplished through special and fun wilderness team exercises. 

Leadership development is a relentless learning experience. Leadership development is about changing personal behaviour. 

If as an HR leader you believe, like Molinaro, “leadership is in crisis,” now is the time to act. Every single HR leader, regardless of title or level, has a pivotal role in driving the needed change. 

Ask yourselves and your HR team: How would we describe our leadership development program? Is it action-oriented, focused on the individual and not his title? Does it maximize our leader’s future needs and growth potential? Does it encourage our leaders to move out of their comfort zones and change old habits? 

How many of our leaders described their leadership program as being a transformational experience versus a transactional process? What’s the possibility our programs teach leaders about leadership and not specifically how to become and be a better or great leader? 

Everybody can learn leadership as a concept, but the question every leader needs to ask is: “Am I willing to actually commit to doing things differently, take ownership of my own transformation journey, take action with authenticity and courage, set the pace for the change my company really needs?”

One thing I know for sure is no leader can become a better leader if she “keeps doing what she’s always done.”

Without any hyperbole or rhetoric, with the leadership contract, Molinaro helps conscientious leaders understand the fine print of what it means to be a truly accountable leader. The four terms of the leadership contract provide a no-nonsense, purposeful framework that facilitates a convincing leadership culture, a leadership culture designed to develop “great leaders” not just “better leaders.” 

This is not a flavour-of-the-month intervention for the run-of-the-mill, titled or chosen few. Molinaro is not interested in just reframing a leadership concept — his challenge for leaders everywhere is to meet an ever-rising standard of performance and become “great leaders.” 

I leave you with a quote from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” 

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions in Nobleton, Ont., focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and OD in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial firms. She can be reached at [email protected]

Leadership: Why is simple so hard?

By Karen Gorsline

Strategic capability is often thought of as requiring sophisticated analysis. For many facets of business, such as marketing and operations, this may be true.  However, when it comes to building strategic leadership capability, it may be as simple as being clear on what is expected and holding leaders accountable.  

The “leadership contract,” presented by Vince Molinaro, is deceptively simple.  Few would argue with its basic premises:

• Leadership is a decision.

• Leadership is an obligation.

• Leadership is hard work.

• Leadership is a community.

The leadership contract draws on many concepts from publications on leadership, and it also brings to mind concepts such as accountability, trust, integrity and learning from others. 

Two messages contained within the four statements above provide food for thought for organizations, leaders and aspiring leaders.

The concept of a contract with “terms and conditions”: You may immediately think of executive contracts with their provisions for stock options and golden parachutes; it’s not that kind of contract. This contract focuses on the expectation a leader will actively work to make an organization or business successful. It applies both to those who come into an organization and to those already in the organization.  Employees who accept leadership roles must understand it is more than a promotion, a stepping stone or title.  It is not something thrust upon a high performer, a technical star or someone exhibiting high potential for leading. It is a commitment on the part of an individual with related obligations. If the individual is not willing to accept these responsibilities, it is not the role for him. That the individual actively decides whether leadership is for him or not is based on the assumption the organization makes its expectations clear and supports the leader and its leadership community.

The concept that leaders “work”: Leading is not just standing on a rung of the hierarchy ladder and pointing a direction for followers. Leaders must get their hands dirty with the job of leading. This includes tackling tough problems and dealing with things they would prefer to ignore or pass on to others to solve. They must think beyond their own preferences and comfort level, their team and their department and look at what needs to be done and then do it. Like other “workers,” leaders are not all-knowing. They must be aware of their knowledge limits and look to others for ideas, information and personal learning and support on how to deal with stress and tough issues.

The leadership contract provides a straightforward, understandable and intuitively appealing framework.  However, it is by no means simple. What appears simple and intuitive is often the hardest to achieve. It requires organizations to demonstrate greater clarity and discipline around building their leadership capability and in supporting their leaders with tools and community. It requires leaders to actively work at managing and leading for company success, even when it requires them to go outside their comfort zone.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, a consulting practice focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. Toronto-based, 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 [email protected]

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