Experience is not what happens to a person; it’s what he or she does with it that matters—Aldous Huxley.
Discussions about leadership in business are too often limited to the role of a charismatic CEO at the helm of the organization. However, in modern, complex, global organizations, leadership is more a capability than a position. And in difficult economic times, companies need people at all levels to exhibit leadership behaviour, not just the CEO.
Deepak Malkani (left) and Jayesh Pandey.
As Indian organizations scale up and globalize, their need increases for a pipeline of future leaders whose competencies are aligned with the strategic agenda of the business. Against this backdrop, leadership development can indeed be an instrument that unleashes the untapped potential energy of an organization.
It is no exaggeration to say that today’s economic crisis is a leadership training and testing ground, under the most stressful conditions. Leading a team and an organization through this environment requires learning new rules and practising new behaviour and skills. Every organization must step up and use the current economic situation to test and develop its next generation of leadership. At the same time, it must also make sure it is looking after its current leaders, communicating with them and supporting them.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Recent research by our colleague Robert J. Thomas on the fundamental question of how men and women learn to lead provides some interesting insights on the opportunity to nurture more leaders during difficult economic times. Thomas’ decade-long study, interviewing successful leaders across the corporate world, sports, performing arts, non-profits and government, shows that what matters most in leadership development is not just innate capabilities or a sterling resume, but what one makes of experience. That is, when asked to describe the events or relationships through which they learnt how to lead, none of the accomplished executives in Thomas’ study mentioned an MBA programme or a formal leadership development workshop. Instead, they talked about the traumatic and unplanned events that challenged their identity and place in the world and their understanding of how people work.
The research termed these experiences “crucibles” after the vessel used by alchemists in ancient folklore to convert base metal to gold. Challenging economic times, as well as stretch objectives such as aggressive global growth, constitute crucibles for many individuals to grow as leaders. As Thomas writes, “The ability to find meaning and strength in adversity distinguishes leaders from non-leaders.”
One of India’s leading private sector utilities invested in a crucibles-based programme to aid in the development and grooming of its second level of leaders, and prepare them for their next roles. The continuous doing-reflecting loop enabled participants to develop new behaviour and dramatically improve performance. A deeper understanding of how their style, teaming and decision-making processes shaped their daily work outcomes has created significant business value through targeted action learning projects.
Leveraging leadership crucibles to transform talent can be a powerful approach to sustainable leadership development. Master sportsmen and performers hone their skills with practice, and this model applies to the workplace as well. To help leaders transform their crucible experiences into lessons that will make them more effective, Thomas developed the “personal learning strategy”. This tool offers practical, step-by-step guidance, complete with self assessments and exercises, so that leaders can understand how they learn best and extract more insight from their daily work and life experiences.
Based upon Thomas’ research, as well as our experience with corporations, the graph (see Elements of a leadership development process) outlines critical themes that form the basis of a sustainable and effective leadership development process.
Investing in leadership development initiatives, especially during a downturn, is often relegated to the back burner. However, using a “crucibles” approach ensures a return on investment. A pay-for-itself, project-based process ensures tangible returns on investment and in a longer time frame, works as a powerful hedge against future downturns.
One of India’s leading chemical companies implemented an experiential learning leadership programme focused on how leadership teams can be more effective. After expanding with global acquisitions, this organization faced a liquidity crisis as the global economy weakened. Building a more collaborative leadership team, getting rid of its silo mentality and improving decision making became a critical challenge for survival. We crafted a team-learning project that included the design and implementation of a long-term incentive plan for the group as a team.
Long-held biases had to be discarded, inter-departmental trade-offs approached with a new lens, and new behaviour that encouraged negotiation and optimization had to be practised. The leadership team emerged from this crucible with a distinctly different perspective and understanding of its role in the organization.
While organizations can neither teach people to lead nor compel them to aspire for greatness, they can provide an environment where leadership can develop and thrive. Leadership development challenges can be met by leveraging organizational history and turning crisis into opportunity. Organizations striving for success can find unique ways of creating powerful crucibles to convert talent into leadership gold.
This is the second in a five-part series on innovative talent management. The series looks at various facets in the human performance process that need to be worked upon by companies to turn the economic crisis into an opportunity.
Deepak Malkani is a partner with Accenture India and leads the talent and organization performance practice. Jayesh Pandey leads the organization effectiveness practice in Accenture India. Both are based in the firm’s Mumbai office.