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What separates high-performing leaders from average ones

November 12, 2015
Borderless Leadership

Research shows that employees dislike their jobs, don’t trust their leaders, and aren’t engaged. If you’re a leader — or aspiring to be one — you should be frightened.

Are organizations in the modern world built for leaders to fail? Or can you overcome these leadership challenges, and if so, how? How can you become a better leader, if not a great one, in this environment?

For decades, the answer to those questions has been “competencies,” a psychometric-based method of assessing and developing leader behavior. Organizations figure out the competencies that leaders need to be successful, help them develop those competencies, and then measure those competencies in the organization. Competencies represent a multibillion-dollar industry, where armies of management consultants enter with their competency libraries to help define the “right” collection of behaviors and attributes required for leaders to be successful.

The problem is that this logic is inconsistent with how work actually gets done. Leadership does not happen in a vacuum; leaders are always acting within a larger organizational and social context. A leader who possesses the “right” competencies has no assurance of success; I’ve seen dozens of leaders who were competency tested to extremes, matched to roles, and failed — social context almost always trumps psychological poo-bah when it comes to leadership success. Leadership is messy, it is relational, and it happens in millions of interactions every day around real work. The lesson for leaders? If you want to be a great leader, the “box ticking” approaches your organization takes to develop you aren’t likely to help. You have to understand the social system you’re working in first.

A recent piece of research highlighted here on HBR focuses on the emerging gap in performance between the technical competences of leaders versus their leadership charisma or assertiveness. But this is only part of the puzzle. You have to know your stuff, technically, but you also have to refocus on the social system you work in.

I learned this while leading the learning function at BHP Billiton. We decided to approach the development of our leaders differently, and used a collection of sociological and behavioral economics lenses instead of the traditional competency-based ones. While we had already suspected that our best leaders were not defined by the presence of certain competencies, what we found surprised us: Our best leaders were defined by the execution of a collection of very discrete day-to-day routines, such as how they planned for meetings. We made leadership development discussions about application, not abstraction.

Leaders want to get better in the here-and-now, not to be judged against a competency map or be sold an abstract theory about what leadership should look like. If you want to become a great leader, become a student of your context — understand your organization’s social system — and mind your routines. Leadership development is more about application than theory.

As we pursued our work at BHP Billiton, six routines (for example, how leaders spent their time in the field, in one-on-one meetings, and in cross team meetings) were identified which, when executed well, appeared to differentiate the highest-performing supervisors from average performing ones (the routines we discovered are context-specific to BHP Billiton; the routines that are right for you depend on your organization).

Like market researchers studying consumers buying Fruit Loops, we focused on the bizarre interplays that occur in real day-to-day context, not on a list of attributes. The leaders who executed the routines exceptionally well had better performance, more engaged teams, and safer track records. While we undertook a fairly full-blown analysis of routines to understand the difference between the best leaders and average ones, this isn’t necessary to benefit from the practice of developing better routines. There are a series of simple things that you can do to get better as a leader through routines. When you focus your development on getting better in applied ways, and in the social context of your real work, you’ll find that you have lots of allies and that the problems cited at the top of this article start to go away. Here are some good ways to start:

Self-Assess: What are your routines? Assess where you’re at: Chronicle your own routines. Where do you spend your time, what do you focus on? These habits define your effectiveness as a leader. The routines of good leaders tend to be social events, undergirded by personal habit. Closely scrutinize your routines in your one-on-one meetings, your team meetings, and your meetings with clients. These routines will reveal opportunities for you to get better. The personal habits that inform these routines are equally important: What is planned and what is emergent? When do you collaborate, and when do you execute? How do you listen, and to whom? Honestly assessing your routines and habits as a leader is the critical starting point to improvement.

Study high-performers. Talk to high performing peers, or better yet, shadow them. What are their routines? If you can, ask them what their most important routines are — most people know their routines, but assume that these routines are implicit. People want to talk about their routines. At BHP Billiton, as soon as the concept of routines was laid out as the differentiator in performance to our line leaders, the lid blew off the pot. Operational leaders could not stop talking about their best routines and where they struggled; they shared ideas about what makes a great routine; and they grasped the concept that leadership is an applied craft immediately. There is real power in focusing on differentiation on-the-ground, and in your context, rather than seeing it as an abstraction.

Create a conversation about routines. Leadership is a contact sport. Begin a conversation with your peers, your boss, and your team about the routines that will really raise performance. Shift the conversation about leadership to application and improvement, and away from discussions about scoring well on a 360-assessment or an employee survey once a year. At BHP Billiton, routines enabled a shift away from the judgement associated with competency assessments to a focus on improvement. This helped leaders own, in a very personal way, the mantra of “getting better every day.” By focusing on local conversations about what a great routine looks like, development can really start to happen, on the ground, every day.

Tolerate imperfection and get feedback, regularly. A focus on competencies leads us to believe that there is a secret formula for great leadership. There isn’t. Leadership is applied in many different ways in many different contexts, and the idiosyncrasies of leaders seems to work. Routines reveal that there are patterns to how leadership shows up to make a difference. Back away from the idea that there is one way to be great, and focus on building effectiveness in the applied ways that make a difference in your context. Pick one or two routines, and get focused feedback from people on those routines, weekly.

The focus on routines has led to some interesting signs of impact at BHP Billiton. Parts of the business saw their Employee Perception Survey scores jump by 21 points in one year, and the approach was chronicled, in detail, in the company’s 2015 Annual Report. As a pragmatist, my greatest pride is to watch people gravitate toward embedding learning in their day-to-day work. Organizations are jungle gyms of learning opportunities, the key is to build the approaches and appetite that make people want to “play.”

Routines work. While there is an important place for competencies in how we can impact peoples’ performance, this should be a step in the process, not the end state. As the world grows more complex and things move more quickly, leaders need more than a list of characteristics; they need practical ways to see their own performance and better understand where they can impact it. Maybe employees’ dissatisfaction with work and leaders is amplified by the abstracted, inauthentic ways in which organizations have been trying to develop leaders. Understanding key routines is a key step on the way to greatness.

Source: HBR

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