The leadership balancing act

Oct 18th

A client asked me recently if I know any firms with high scores on leadership in their employee opinion survey. Their own leadership scores are stubbornly low and the Chief Executive was concerned.

I’m working with two firms that have recently moved the dial. They’ve done it through a strong and sustained focus on the importance of leadership across the business, active involvement by the Chief Executive and the top team themselves, and investment and effort in the leadership of the next tier.

Another firm is just starting to tackle the leadership behaviour required for the success of an organisational change and a move to a matrix structure. The top team is taking individual and collective responsibility for changing their own behaviour, as well as communicating much more visibly, actively and in person.

When firms dig down under the data, employees are asking for basic leadership skills: more personal contact, less email; more human language, less gloss and jargon; more two–way dialogue, less time on ‘transmit’; more visible signs of valuing and respecting people for their contribution (even when that needs to include honestly managing poor performance), less hiding behind HR process. A good place to start improving leadership scores can be to ask: what do followers need?

But it’s impossible to improve leadership scores in a climate where leaders are primarily task and delivery-driven. Managers in one global firm are told that 60% of their time should be spent talking to people, coaching, motivating, supporting, explaining and helping them to see their contribution to the success of the whole firm. This builds habits of trust and dialogue, enabling more effective delegation, in turn freeing leaders to spend less time on ‘doing’ and more on leading.

Senior leaders must balance their two key responsibilities for management (of numbers) and leadership (of people). Many are seduced by the challenge of mastery – pace, measurement, delivery and results – then wonder why their people aren’t inspired.

Whatever leaders say, if people’s experience in practice of the balance between management and leadership is 90:10 or similar, it’s no surprise when this is reflected in employee opinion surveys. The first step to improve leadership scores is for leaders to be willing to work on improving this balance.

Beatrice Hollyer

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