Copy Cat or Born Leader
There has always been pressure on corporate leaders to perform well. Some have stretched and improved their competencies by learning more about themselves. Most have chosen to adopt best practices of those whom they respect to improve their own leadership style. So, which is the better method to develop leadership skills --- improve your innate signature talents or copy what others have developed and used successfully?
The short answer is don't jump from one leadership fad to another but do engage in authentic conversations and self-assessments to know you better.
Throw out the Cookbook
Cook bookish leadership doesn't work when you are following someone else's recipe. Perhaps, the quote from Dr. Maxwell Maltz of the Psycho-Cybernetic Foundation, about the need to focus our internal energy to make the changes we desire, says it best …
"Trying to implant a goal that is incongruent with the self-image is like trying to plant grain by dropping seeds on rock hard bone-dry ground. This happens when a person tries to make a goal that they are not. No one can consistently out perform his or her self-image. No one can long overcome it with willpower. No one can sneak past it and perform in an incongruent manner. The bottom line is that you cannot 'do' things without 'being' the kind of person who does those things. You must 'be' to 'do.'"
Something that works well for a leader in one company is not easily replicated in another. Many leaders are rejecting benchmarking -- the practice, promoted by many big consulting firms, of adopting the best-practices from high-performing companies such as General Electric Company.
Leadership transition does not happen by simply taking someone else's leadership approach and using it as a template in one's organization. When Jacques A. Nasser, Ford Motor's ex-CEO, quickly implemented a General Electric-style performance evaluation system in the late 1990's, the new forced-ranking system resulted in a $10.5 million settlement of two class action suits with the company slipping into a crisis management mode of operation. By attempting to copy Jack Welch's performance management system without a clear understanding or building the foundation for implementation, Nasser and Ford experienced unintended consequences that sent the company reeling.
At Enron, CEO Jeffrey Skilling meant to encourage risk-taking through a new peer-review system (adapted from his former consulting firm employer) where a performance review committee (PRC) ranked more than 400 vice presidents, directors and managers. The decisions of the PRC greatly affected the bonus and stock option grants of the person being reviewed. In practice, the management evaluation system bred a culture in which people were afraid to get crossways with someone who could screw up their reviews. Just like at Ford, Enron's copied employee evaluation system rewarded highly competitive people who were less likely to share power, authority or information-which undermined any teamwork or institutional commitment and created unintended corporate consequences.
Ignorance Will Always Outpace Knowledge
Peter Drucker's fundamental belief is the environment outside the business is the source of business results and opportunities, and so there is no way of isolating the study of management from other academic disciplines.
Given the unprecedented speed of change and heightened complexity of events, every advance in knowledge is now accompanied by a similar increase in ignorance. Consequently, ignorance will always outpace knowledge in the analysis of problems because there is always so much more of it.
The key to dealing with this problem, Drucker says, is to identify the future that has already happened but whose real impact has yet to be felt. Unfortunately, most leaders feel more comfortable taking a "cookbook approach" to their challenges of the day---blocking out their ability to explore new possibilities.
What happens When the "Recipes" aren't There?
Marketing leadership can be very mysterious to engineers and other technically oriented people. This is especially true when it comes to the commercialization of a new product or the startup of a technically driven business venture.
Many technical leaders think that the key to marketing success is to learn and implement the appropriate secret marketing "recipe" or "template." So, they may take a marketing course at a business school or they read some books on marketing. But they still don't get it because the "recipes" aren't there. In fact, they aren't anywhere. Marketing leadership is much more an "art" than a science. It's simply a mistake to look for recipes or formulas within the field of "art".
Successful commercialization combines the "science" of formulating a winning physical product or process with the "art" of marketing strategy and implementation. In a way, this combination of product science and marketing art emulates the craftsmen of yesteryear who applied crude tools within a system of methods and principles resulting in skillful performance that could not be learned solely by study.
In today's complex world, most product developers would be well advised to seek out a marketing artist to work with -- rather than try to become the all-in-one craftsman.
Market Leadership Happens When You Marry Technology with Marketing Art
The development of xerography back in the early 1960's is a good example of the combination of product science and marketing art. Chester Carlson, a physicist and patent attorney, obtained a patent on xerography and searched for a way to commercialize it. He happened to be an attorney for a client of Battelle (a research organization in Columbus, OH) and sent a copy of the patent to them for review.
Battelle was interested. For 55% of the patent rights, Battelle agreed to invest in the technology, with Battelle research making three technical improvements. However, it was the little Haloid Company (a market-oriented 100-employee company in Rochester, NY) that figured out how to commercialize this expensive and very-service-intensive machine ($15,000 cost). As a result, in 1963 the Xerox 914 was born.
Joe Wilson, Haloid Company's president, is given the credit for the marketing leadership that led to the success of xerography -- "Lease the Xerox 914 copier for only $100 a month, but pay an additional penny per copy made on the machine."
It was Haloid's addition of marketing "art" to Battelle's solid product "science" that created a winning product. The marketing-oriented Haloid Company changed its name to Xerox Corporation, and technically oriented Battelle received $350 million of Xerox stock.
Increased Self-Awareness Builds Leadership Capability
Your natural talents are gifts at birth. You had nothing to do with them. However, you have a great deal to do with becoming aware of them and developing them into strengths. It is up to you to discover your natural signature talents and transform them through focus, practice and learning into consistently high.
Leaders' first awareness of a signature talent comes in late childhood or adolescence. They then build on this competency in their first job or when some other transitional situation occurs that demands they use this signature talent more purposefully. Focusing on what matters helps them reach clarity.
As the years go by, they regularly practice developing their signature talents into strengths. The progression from a person's first awareness of their signature talents to the point of mastery offers a clear picture of how leadership excellence is achieved.
When we are conscious of our identity (our assumptions and beliefs, values, vision and guiding principles), we can make choices on how we wish to act in certain situations-rather than just defaulting to our unconscious behavior. As the leader transitions to a higher level of personal development, s/he is able to create more productive corporate cultures.
To some degree, we all have an innate talent for leadership. By focusing our attention on building strengths within our individual and enduring talents (while applying damage control to our weaknesses), we can choose to move from satisfactory performance to excellence. When we know what our signature talents are and how we might apply them, the application of attention allows our focused energy to push us toward success. Individual and corporate transformation happens when the leader truly understands who s/he is through increased self-awareness that leverages innate talents into leadership strengths. Knowing who you are and what you are meant to do makes all the difference in moving from good to great.
John Agno is president of Signature, Inc., a leadership development firm based in Ann Arbor, MI. He can be reached by visiting www.CoachThee.com .
Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives