Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Re-Visioning leadership 8 – finding and bringing in the right people with the right skills

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on February 13, 2013

This is my eighth posting to a series in which I discuss leadership styles, and the issues involved in meshing the right leader to the right organization, and for their style and approach and their hands-on skills and experience, and for the organization’s current and emerging needs (see Business Strategy and Operations – 2, postings 345 and scattered following for Parts 1-7.)

I have written about specialized leadership skills and experience and of how they can be called for, there focusing on the example situations of leading startups, and leading through change management processes.

• See particularly Part 4 of this series, on startups, and
Part 6 and Part 7 where I turn to consider change management situations.

I have also briefly noted general managerial and leadership skills and how they related to specialized, context-requiring skills (noting here that I have been discussing general leadership skills and executive management on an ongoing basic throughout this blog.) And I begin this posting by noting that the two: general and specialized leadership skills form what can be seen as endpoints of a learning and professional growth continuum.

• No one is born knowing how to manage and lead. Some of us, by basic temperament and innate ability may find learning these skills to be easier, but anyone who can work effectively with others can learn how to effectively use at least some managerial skills, and anyone who manages and leads can learn how to do so better than they are doing now – if they approach this with patience and an open mind and with a willingness to accept the risk of making mistakes and learning from them too
• More generic leadership skills are ones that would apply and be needed in essentially any organizational management position and for most any type of organization.
• Specialized skills only come up as needed in specific types of context, and generally arise and develop through learning curve experiences – and for startups and effective leadership there this often means learning from first-try failures or at least first-try problem situations that could be limited or avoided, and certainly when launching a second startup.
• In between are skills-developing workplace experiences that arise and leadership needs that manifest, if not for any and every executive in any and every organization, then with varying but significant degrees of frequency and for addressing ranges of circumstances.
• And for any of these skills, some are picked up easily and quickly and can be mastered simply by observing and learning from the decisions and actions of others; some have to be mastered more step by step and through personal hands-on experience.

The question here is how do you know where longer learning-time and more specialized experience-based skills would be needed, and when all that is needed are more general leadership skills with ongoing learning of a type that any professional needs to pursue? The more general-business learning curve, I add, can be steep and trying too and it can come while addressing risk too. Simply consider the situation of a business and its executive leadership when they are seeking to gain and maintain competitive relevance and strength in the face of steady rapid innovation, and across their industry and from their principle competitors. The question here is when are truly specialized skills and experience needed in order to increase likelihood of long-term success?

• Effective leaders need to carry and convey a sense of confidence in what they are doing. This is essential if they are to organize others around their vision and approach for moving the business forward, and certainly where doubts and divisiveness hold risk of arising – in times of rapid change and challenge.
• But effective leaders always have to keep their eyes open and with an awareness that they do not know everything. Sometimes specialized knowledge is needed to gain and hold a competitive advantage.
• This can mean seeking out a mentor and learning how to do it yourself that way; this can mean bringing in a consultant to help organize and manage specific tasks- oriented functional areas in filling executive team knowledge gaps, or bringing in a new and full-time executive team member. In times of leadership transition, as noted in my change management leadership discussion this can mean the board bringing in an explicit special skills expert and if not for long-term executive leadership then for interim and transitional leadership.

I am going to finish this posting with a brief discussion of leadership succession, here focusing on the decision criteria that a board would consider.

• The first and most obvious set of candidate selection criteria that a board would think of is that they would seek out a new CEO from the same industry and the same size and type of company that they represent and are hiring for. This is often and even usually a good starting point and certainly when the business in question and its industry are not in turmoil and facing change and uncertainty.
• Next come questions of similarity or difference between a new leader who would be brought in, and the outgoing or already out leader they are to replace. If a new leader is being searched for to continue a pattern of ongoing success, or at least perceived success it is likely that the board is going to look for someone similar who can maintain leadership skills and style continuity. If the board is hiring for new and different and looking for a problem solver who can course correct – either in a crisis management situation or simply to improve competitiveness or fix internal organizational problems their search will focus on finding someone explicitly different. But either way, after adding in the industry and business-fit criteria to their wish list they will want to search with outgoing leadership as a benchmark and yard stick. This and the first bullet point of this list are both at least primarily continuity oriented – and in practice even when someone explicitly different from the outgoing CEO is being sought out. The old pattern determines the search criteria here, that would be considered when looking for new.
• Next comes thinking outside of that box. This can mean looking for leadership who can bring in completely new types of skill and experience in addressing fundamental problems for some specific functional area of the business (e.g. bringing in a new CEO who has leadership experience in social media marketing and social media and online-driven sales to open up a retail business in new directions, where it has failed from using the same old tired industry-standard approaches to that.) Alternatively, this can mean looking for someone with explicit general-purpose and company-wide change management skills.
• Mostly if new leadership is looked for from a widely divergent background that “tried and true” that is because the people doing this candidate search seek to address what they see as a game changing challenge or opportunity. And they see responding to this need as holding greater weight than that of any risk that might come from bringing in a less known new leadership. Here, greater perceived difference from tried and true, is at least as a background assumption equated with greater risk, and even when new would be brought in to address ineffectively managed risk already in place.
• In practice, an eye should always be open to the potentials available from seeking out new and different as well as tried and true, and certainly if a time of leadership transition is to be seen as an opportunity to bring in truly new blood and new ideas and approaches.
• Whether a board or other decision makers look for tried and true or new and different, they will probably look for candidates with a significant track record of prior success. Even there, an up and coming rising star quality manager who is transitioning into senior leadership can be a worthwhile and even potentially leading candidate, if they have the right skills and experience and temperament for the company and its leadership needs, and they look to be the right person for the business’ here and now and for moving forward. So that open eye can ultimately be the most important search criterion in general.

I am going to conclude this series here at least for now, though I am certain to come back to the issues discussed here in future postings and series. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations – 2 (and also see Business Strategy and Operations.)

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