Sunday, October 21, 2012

The ABC of Leadership for Youngsters: Performance-Focus-Capabilities Model

In today’s information driven world, leadership is no longer an aspiration sought after by only a few. It is the new generation’s aspiration to be in charge of its destiny through entrepreneurial enterprise or become empowered to transform by heading a business or a company. And, it is no pipe dream. India’s growing club of entrepreneurial entities and the increasing tribe of graduate trainees becoming the chief executives of their corporations do indicate that becoming a leader is a dream worth having. It is, however, not clear whether the young generation understands what it takes to become a generation of leaders. This blog post addresses certain foundational factors that could ensure a successful transformation of the leadership dream into reality in terms of a performance-focus-capabilities model.    

Theories of leadership, covering the A to Z of leadership abound. Many bring out how personality attributes, knowledge base, skill levels and behavioral propensities influence leadership development. Many theories also provide inputs on how the ability to craft a vision, draft a strategy and ensure execution is an essential triad for successful leaders. Unfortunately, however, many of these are applicable or can even be only appreciated, only when the young entrants reach a particular stage, often mid-career, in the organizations. Many times, it becomes too late for most professionals to change at that stage. Lack of an appropriate model for the entrants to absorb and institutionalize is a glaring gap which this post addresses. The model presented herein is simple and uncomplicated and is relevant all through the four decades plus of an executive, managerial and leadership career that a youngster would coast through.
ABC of leadership
It is indeed feasible to capture the ABC of leadership in terms of nine foundational factors, symbolically driven by the three starting alphabets equally. These are Aspiration, Analysis and Achievement, Balanced, Binary and Buoyant, and Competence, Communication and Collaboration. These, however, need to be observed with caveats that are contextual and which mentor the youngsters on the complexities of leadership with the right perspectives. This enables the youngsters to be directionally incremental but resolutely focused on their goals. The caveats prevent the youngsters from diffusing their energies, and instead help them conserve and regenerate their energies. Leadership achievement is a step by step marathon race where the strong and steady are bound to reach the zenith.
Leadership journey typically takes place under competitive conditions with different organizational ecosystems providing different enabling and disabling environments. The organizational ecosystems themselves are shaped by the nature of the industry and the business, the life cycle of the organization and the overall socio-economic opportunities that India as a rapidly growing emerging nation offers. Irrespective of whether the culture of an organization explicitly promotes leadership development or not, organizations committed to growth require not only leaders at the top but also grassroots leadership at the bottom of the organizational pyramid. The three sets of factors can be viewed as the foundations of performance, focus and capabilities, all equally important and mutually enabling.
Performance factors: aspiration, analysis and achievement
Aspiration is at the core of any leadership drive. Typically, the new entrant would have been able to enter the organization based on the educational aspiration and the domain aspiration that he or she would have pursued. Particularly in the Indian educational system, aspirations are set high from the early schooling as a result of which aspiration as a drive is not a new phenomenon to a fresher to the corporation. Aspiration, however, needs to be exercised in moderation in an organizational setting. It would be inappropriate for a fresher to set for himself the goal of becoming the chief executive of the organization. On the other hand, an aspiration to grow in career as fast as the organization would permit would be a feasible goal. Another desirable goal would be to be differentiated and credible in performance. The more plausible and realizable the aspirations are in the short term, the higher would be the motivational levels to succeed with greater challenges later. One of the dictums of good leadership behavior is that if one does the right things the right results would follow.
Analysis is the bridge that connects aspiration with achievement. The ability to analyze a problem and develop a structured solution enables a professional to be efficient and effective in his or her job. Analysis does not happen in vacuum. Proper analysis requires a thorough knowledge of products, processes and business in a holistic sense to be able to grasp, size up and address a challenge. Good organizations enable this knowledge in their graduate and postgraduate trainees by rotating them in all the departments for a sufficiently long duration of two years. By combining the capabilities of scientific, technical and business analysis taught in educational institutions with the knowledge of products, processes and customers acquired in the organization, the fresher can reinforce his or her analytical capabilities meaningfully. Successful organizations in India are differentiated by such structured trainee programs.    
The fundamental lesson for any fresher in an organization is that an activity does not represent an achievement. In fact, several activities need to be routinely performed and several others non-routinely (and creatively) performed to lead to an achievement. An achievement is a distinctive accomplishment that transforms several inputs into a desired outcome. Individuals and corporations need achievements, not mere activities, to stay competitive. Holistic knowledge, insightful analysis and dedicated application enable a fresher to become capable of differentiated achievement. Credibility is an important component of achievement. Alignment of expansive deliveries to stretched commitments tends to be the hallmark of a credible executive.
Focus factors: balance, binary and buoyant
Life is a balance of attributes and objectives. Career life is even more so. Just as a corporation needs to titrate each of its goals and strategies in terms of the rewards and risks, the individual employee needs to develop an innate orientation towards rewards of high performance and risks of poor performance. Such balance emerges by supplementing knowledge with skill, experience with intuition, aggression with thoughtfulness, analysis with decisiveness, objectivity with empathy and task orientation with people orientation, to identify a few. A balanced way of performance reinforces credibility.  Industrial life requires fulfillment of multiple objectives seemingly in dissonance with each other, harmonization of which is the true test of a balanced executive.
Focused and timely decisions and actions are required for an organization to stay aligned to effective performance. Fresh entrants while learning a whole lot of inputs and absorbing a whole set of options need to be decisive. Like a computer that achieves efficiency and effectiveness through a binary language (on-off, and nothing else), executives need to appreciate that they need to believe in one way or the other, and aim at one outcome or the other. The ability to review multiple options quickly and narrow down choice helps executives become decisive and timely. Successful executives see activities and outcomes in clear right or wrong lenses and not in may-be or could-be lenses. Acquiring binary processing capability (ethical or non-ethical, technically correct or incorrect, for example) early on in careers helps youngsters with a critical element of leadership.
Buoyancy is that creative and energetic ability of a person not only to stay afloat but let the system stay afloat. Both the internal and external environments that an executive encounters in an organization are likely to be replete with unpredictable developments. It is not always a perfect environment that a fresher encounters in his or her career span. It is always inspiring to recall that some of the best scientific and technological developments, including the Nobel prize winning achievements, were accomplished by passionate inventors with makeshift equipment and laboratories. A fresher entering the portals of the institution should never have a sinking feeling that what he expected of his organization of choice, be they material necessities or technical tools, is not available. Rather, he should focus on delivering individual and team buoyancy through creative functioning and innovative use of resources.
Capability factors: competence, communication and collaboration
Competence is the core of career sustenance. As technologies develop and businesses become competitive, an organization needs to be at the leading edge of science and technology as well as managerial processes to remain relevant. Archaic educational and professional knowledge needs to be updated and refreshed continuously by professional executives. While great organizations have robust programs of continuous education, executives need to continuously be on a self-driven mission to upgrade their competencies as a personal commitment. Executives must never lose their scientific, technical and management core capabilities in pursuit of generalist approaches, required as they are as they move upwards. Core competencies are the ultimate key differentiators in leadership journey.
The second essential capability relates to communication ability. In today’s globalized world, an ability to correctly and perceptively represent and absorb each other’s viewpoints is critical to the success of business. Communication ability should not be confused with language ability. The best of language would fail if the flow of technological, scientific and business thought is not well presented sequentially and perceptively. The Japanese knew little English but mastered global business because of their clarity in understanding and presenting the core issues. Indian executives need to understand that effective communication requires a grasp of the current and emerging issues and a delineation of proactive and responsive solutions in a manner that appeals to stakeholders from multiple environments and cultures.
Collaboration is the ultimate byword for individual and organizational effectiveness. Authority provides controlling ability but in today’s liberal world far less is amenable to control. Moreover, control prevents free expression and stifles creativity. In contrast, an ability to influence (but not lobbying to influence!) promotes creativity, which is essential for organizational competitiveness. Influence, in turn, is enabled by collaboration. An ability to collaborate with peers, juniors and seniors while competing for resources and striving for recognition is a challenge for fresh entrants. However, an investment of time and effort to understand the nuances of collaboration within the competitive framework of an organization is indeed a critical need for today’s young aspirants on the leadership journey.
Self-help is a relevant help
Talented and educated individuals daily join the multitudes of Indian corporations with the hopes and aspirations of making it big in their careers. While companies, on their part, make their efforts to train and develop youngsters, the needs of learning and development far outweigh what companies can realistically provide. It is in the enlightened self-interest of young executives to completely absorb what is offered on the job and constantly update and equip themselves beyond that too. The model of performance-focus-capabilities presented herein provides a relevant framework for young entrants to become young leaders, in the process contributing to business and corporate growth, and national wealth.  
Posted by Dr CB Rao on October 21, 2012               


1 comment:

Narayanan said...

Great summary of what it takes to become a leader in an organization. Although implicit in the article, two areas that have not received much attention include - ability to deal with ambiguity and constructive conflict resolution for mutual benefit. Too often, influence is misinterpreted to mean lobbying (as rightly admonished in the blog) and one way to build this capability is to have young executives work in a matrix organization to help cultivate progressive outlook and habits to succeed in "accountability without authority" type of environment. With respect to conflict resolution, people instinctively tend to avoid conflict for various reasons (or sometimes are dealt with in the most inappropriate manner presumably due to lack of both hard and soft skills). Mentors can play a crucial role in coaching youngsters in dealing with such issues wherein success is not construed as a zero-sum game for self or the organization. As someone with cross-border experience, I would note that certain cultural aspects pose both opportunities and challenges in the Indian context some of which are being addressed at least in global organizations.