Saturday, November 22, 2014

Leadership+: From Mentoring to Nurturing

Leadership is well researched and well written about. The ability to lead teams and organizations, or even lead oneself, in terms of vision, strategy and execution to accomplish sustainable, and in some cases transformational, business growth defines leadership. Leadership involves proactive recognition of opportunities and diligent overcoming of challenges. Leadership involves convincing, motivating and inspiring the team to follow his or her articulation, enabling the organization to move from the charted to the uncharted, and from the known to the unknown. Leadership rarely is singular; a leader typically requires a team of leaders to support him in the vision-strategy-execution paradigm. Typically, the leader contributes the most on an individual basis in sculpting a vision, but draws upon his leaders largely for crafting the strategy and relies upon them almost wholly to execute the strategy.

Given the huge responsibility and accountability of leadership, the qualities of leaders and leadership have been extensively studied and modelled. Several technical and behavioral competencies detail the desired characteristics of a leader, positioning leadership in management folklore as almost a superhuman capability. Equally, there is a theory that leadership is largely contextual and the required competencies could vary based on the organizational and business contexts; for example, leadership required for turnaround and growth needs could be vastly different, as would the needs for companies in generic space and innovation arena. The author has posted a number of posts in his Blog “Strategy Musings” in the past focusing on the different standalone and contextual aspects of leadership. One of the important components of true leadership is the development of leaders who can take on the leadership mantle but more importantly to persevere to grow the institutions.

Leadership dynamics

It is for this reason that leadership development has become a very important component of talent management in large organizations. Reputed organizations go an extra mile to showcase their leadership teams, executive councils or management groups by whatever name they are called. Such teams or councils are seen an institutionalized way of enabling leadership succession. Companies like GE were able to have leaders in-house. In several cases, however, the leaders in several organizations tend to come from other organizations. The cases of Tata Conglomerate or Infosys which had to scout for and zero in on external leadership talent in Cyrus Mistry and Vishal Sikka respectively are cases in point. That probably is not bad in itself. Had Steve Jobs not hired Tim Cook a few years ago and given him significant leadership responsibilities, Apple would have been without a timely leader upon the unfortunate demise of Jobs. At the same time, emergence of multiple internal leaders in an organization leads to succession tussles and eventual movement of the denied leaders to other firms, the case of GSK leadership succession being a classic case in point.

The role of an apex leader, the chief executive officer or the CEO, in preparing the other leaders in his or her leadership team to assume higher responsibilities of apex leadership is significant. Typically, the leadership team tends to be diverse in terms of key businesses, functions or regions depending on how the organization is structured. In the middle levels of an organization leadership development seems to be one of natural selection; however, at leadership team level which comprises leaders with well-honed capabilities and well demonstrated accomplishments, leadership selection tends to be synthetic and complex. In addition, the relations between members of the leadership team tend to be taut with competitive pressures, even though they may work collaboratively in pursuance of organizational goals and strategies. The role of the apex leader optimizing leadership dynamics to support current performance while enabling competitive superiority for leadership succession is easier said than done. The CEO is expected to be not only a leader but also a mentor to his team. N R Narayana Murthy popularized the title of Chief Mentor when he was at the helm of Infosys (that has not, however, helped in internal development of an apex leader in Infosys).   


Mentoring is the process by which an experienced person advises a less experienced person over a period of time. Mentoring is mentioned in the organizational leadership practice as an excellent process by which the wisdom and expertise of senior leaders is passed on to young professionals who tend to be capable but are yet to be attuned to the rigours and challenges of industrial and business life. Thomas J. DeLong et al in a Harvard Business Review (January 2008) article (“Why Mentoring Matters in a Hypercompetitive World”) extoll the virtues of mentoring not only for leadership development but more fundamentally to help young leaders develop roots to the organization. They propose that mentoring is a personal customized process, which is well merited. In the contemporary world, a full six years later, the concept of reverse mentoring whereby leaders can be mentored by youngsters having new and agile approaches has also come about. The core of mentoring is provision of positive and constructive feedback to transform others and the acceptance of the feedback to transform oneself.

That said, it has been a moot point if mentoring is effective in the C suite, which tends to be a leadership bench of equals, by and large. The experience with Infosys where N R Narayana Murthy being the Chief Mentor by title (and a mentor anyways regardless of a formal title) has not helped the other C suite founders adapt new styles or the ones below scale up to C suite positions. It seems a fair hypothesis to consider that mentoring is most effective when the knowledge, experience, expertise and wisdom levels of the mentor lead those of the mentee by a clear margin. The concept of mentor-mentee with the wise senior leaders anchoring and shaping the development of young aspirant leaders is well established in the Japanese system (‘senpai’ being the mentor or senior and ‘kohai’ being the protégé or junior). The seniority and experienced based Japanese organizational system seems to be particularly well suited to mentoring. The number of leaders who have the time and inclination to mentor seems to be reducing across the globe, unfortunately. 

Beyond mentoring

There is a need to develop a construct beyond mentoring; not merely because mentoring may not impact peers with close competencies but because mentoring does not go beyond developing personal leadership competencies. Exceptional Indian leaders like V Krishnamurthy, S V S Raghavan, A N Haksar, N Vaghul and H C Parekh mentored many young professionals who served as their executive assistants or young managers in their respective companies and helped them become better leaders. Evidently, but for the mentoring by such stalwarts their successors would not have been able to scale up their competencies and in some cases even step into their shoes. However, not every leader so developed continued in the parent organizations. A classic case is that of ICICI Bank where following the elevation of Chanda Kochhar to the CEO position to succeed K V Kamath, the other two mentees of Kamath, Shikha Sharma and Kalpana Morparia left the Bank to become CEOs of Axis Bank and JP Morgan India respectively. In contrast, the entire C Suite of Infosys headed by NRN Murthy preferred to be associated with only Infosys or be on their own (but not join any other firm).   

The insight is that mentoring can make a lot happen in competency related development but there is something beyond mentoring that can make leaders and managers stay together. Aggressive mentoring can make firms CEO factories but may not create an ecosystem of high-competency peer co-habitation in a firm. Such a phenomenon of continuous co-habitation is mostly visible in the academia where scholarly professors tend to spend their full careers in their institutes whether or not they become deans, directors, rectors or chancellors and whether or not they deserved Nobel Prizes better than their co-Professors who received. There are four variables in any ecosystem; the individual, the institution, the respective values and the respective performance. Exceptional leadership does not merely mentor the individual but more importantly nurtures the relationship amongst all the four variables. The interesting aspect of nurturing is that unlike mentoring which is highly selective, nurturing can be, and needs to be, a more inclusive and natural process of organizational ecology.

About nurturing

Nurturing is the process of caring for and protecting something or someone as they are developing or growing. Nurturing also involves enabling a feeling, idea, plan or relationship sustain for a long time and encouraging it to develop continuously. Mentoring enables development of individual leadership competencies. Nurturing, in addition, develops the whole gamut of relationships between the individual and the institution as well as between, and with, the respective value systems. In a well nurtured leadership model, the institution (and not any particular leader) remains the anchor around which individual leaders not only develop themselves but stay united and stay together in the institution to take it to greater heights. In the newly independent India of 1947, relationships nurtured by Mahatma Gandhi enabled stalwarts such as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Babu Rajendra Prasad and C Rajagopalachari as well as B R Ambedkar grow not only as leaders in their own right but stay together to bring the best of their faculties for India’s governance.  It is the love of these leaders to the nation more than the leadership positions that bound them together in the governance.

Nurturing, as contrasted with mentoring, sustains and develops not only competencies but also relationships. Nurturing facilitates leaders, whether they are mentored or self-taught, to respect and develop lasting relationships within, and with, the organizational ecosystem. This involves bonding the individuals and the institution mutually and inclusively based on certain values which are distinctive. Values such as serving the customer, acting with integrity, being a corporate citizen, empowering employees, for example, are generic foundation values that are, and ought to be, universally applicable. More precise values such as getting the best to the customer, extending integrity to all internal and external stakeholder relationships, dedicating part of business to social service platforms, enabling employees incubate their ideas, for example, are more differentiated values that nurture lasting individual-institutional relationships. Institutions such as Stanford and Karolinska abroad and the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institutes of Technology (to an extent in India) have succeeded in evolving such higher purposes as the basis for nurturing of leadership relationships. 


Leadership’s ultimate frontier, therefore, lies in going beyond the vision-strategy-execution paradigm, and even beyond mentoring of future leaders; it lies in focusing on nurturing an organizational ecosystem in which everyone feels attached to the ecosystem with a sense of pride, ownership and oneness in a culture of competency, performance and mutual relationship. This is a unique interconnected paradigm. An individual cannot have the pride of existence in an organization unless he or she has a sense of self-worth, which in turn cannot come about without competency, which again is of little benefit if it is not translated into performance. An individual cannot have a sense of ownership unless he or she becomes a part of the thought, expression and action processes in a project; integration of strategy and execution helps ownership. A culture of oneness cannot be institutionalized unless a sense of relational belonging is first created in the organization, and with the society.

Nurturing as a leadership task involves increasing proportionality with increasing scale and scope of organizations. Start-ups and entrepreneurial ventures almost invariably are founded and scaled up on nurtured relationships. Management thought (more so, the Western thought), somewhat impersonally and clinically, advocates substitution of relationships with structures and processes as a firm evolves and grows. While structures and processes are important as an institution grows, the relationships remain even more critical. Denying the importance of relationships in organizational evolution would tantamount to unnatural self-denial. It is, however, important to reinforce the institution building relationships (based on growth and service) that are critical, and eliminate any cartel building relationships (based on biases and cronyism) that are erosive. The ultimate leadership legacy is an unshakable individual-institutional relationship that outsmarts competitive needs, outlives business exigencies, and outlasts career tenures.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on November 22, 2014

No comments: