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Nurturing executives for long term success

Dr Andy Brown
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Successful leaders are the sum of many parts, and successful leadership teams are the result of a combination of complementary sums that play to individual and team strengths. Contributor By Dr Andy Brown, CEO – ENGAGE.

Nurturing these strengths is critical, not just at key business moments, but using a sustained, long-term approach that allows teams to evolve to meet new challenges, and to support seamless succession planning. Leadership nurturing can be addressed in a number of ways, but most critically businesses needs to focus on:

Defining individual leadership roles to create clarity of purpose and focus for each executive; Structuring the senior team to help deliver the specific strategies of the business; Crafting the nature of the relationship between leadership team members to optimise performance at a firm level; Defining and continually improving leadership behaviours for the senior team as the organisation evolves and matures.

Delivering in all these areas can be a tricky business and is certainly not something that happens overnight. In particular, success relies on a balanced foundation of detailed, accurate data and a clear understanding of both short- and long-term business strategy. These form the essential building blocks for targeted interventions such as coaching, workshops and individual actions plans to be put in place.

Steering leadership through growth
We’ve seen exactly how this approach can work in practice, most recently with a specialised financial provider that had experienced a range of challenges that go hand-in-hand with rapid expansion. Having quickly grown its global footprint from a small team at its foundation to 150 employees distributed across four continents in just seven years, the organisation needed to evolve the structure, behaviours and capabilities of the leadership team to match.

But doing this internally can be a difficult, if not impossible, task. Leaders are too close to their business to take a step back and identify potential problems objectively and are usually too entrenched in established behaviours to understand how even subtle changes can open up new opportunities.

By recognising the need for outside expertise, our financial services client had already taken the critical first step towards securing future leadership success. Acknowledging the need for external leadership support can be a hard thing to admit for many organisations, suggesting some sort of weakness or lack of capability. But the reality is very different – every organisation can benefit from gathering insight externally, whether that insight is about teams, processes or any aspect of the way the business runs.

To address the organisation’s challenges, we implemented a three-stage approach, focusing on initial assessment work, the development of a Leadership Blueprint, and a programme of coaching and development.

Taking an objective view
For us, the assessment phase is always the most critical. Without this, there is no data or evidence on which to build a successful programme of development. Starting with a clearly defined brief from the organisation’s CEO and President, we then used a specific set of objective leadership assessment practices combined with 360-degree feedback data as well as executive self-assessment.

These carefully co-ordinated assessment exercises enabled us to identify each leader’s strengths and evaluate areas for development. The 360-degree data was particularly informative, providing a wealth of information about each leader: how others rated their overall leadership effectiveness; how they would describe their leadership style; what they saw as their leadership strengths and areas for development; and how they were seen to perform in relation to the firm’s three main values.

At the same time, the exercises also allowed the team to be more open about the challenges they face, individually and collectively. As a result, the need for a different type of leadership could be discussed, and new-found collaboration allowed the team to create a shared and agreed vision of future leadership.

A Blueprint for the future
The data produced from the assessment process then allowed us to create individual ‘Leadership Blueprints’ for each executive. These are detailed, bespoke strategic and tactical development plans that pinpoint the action required to drive leadership effectiveness and organisational success. They allow organisations and individuals to measure the ROI of their leadership, both on its own and in relation to wider organisational data, goals and KPIs – making them an essential tool for keeping programmes aligned with the objectives we set at the very beginning.

These Blueprints are used to guide each executive in their coaching and development sessions, addressing both their strengths and how to build on these, and the areas in which they need to develop. During our coaching programme, the Blueprints acted as a guide to success, and we quickly saw that desired outcomes were being delivered against them, including: Creating clarity around job specifications, performance expectations and acceptable behaviours; Raising self-awareness amongst all leaders on the coaching programme, helping them understand their relative strengths and development areas; Improving confidence levels amongst leaders in the second layer of the management structure.

Reducing some less desirable leadership behaviours

Improving perceptions of leadership in the firm and the quality of day-to-day people management and team leadership.

Enriched coaching, enriched outcomes
But achieving these initial results was only the first step. To cement the learnings we’d embedded, we guided the team through a residential programme, with 30 executives taking part in a diverse range of activities from physical, team-based challenges to more specific reflection exercises.

While we know that some organisations are sceptical about the real value of team-building activities, our experience shows that organisations and teams can be transformed as a direct result of these exercises – with change sometimes happening right there, in the moment.

In this instance, with many of the 30 leaders being dispersed globally, the off-site provided a chance for the team to meet as one unit, in full for the very first time.  This helped to deepen relationships and create bonds which continued to have a lasting effect once people returned to the ‘day job’.

From a business perspective too, the effect was invaluable. Until this point, leadership behaviours in the firm had evolved over time rather than being specifically planned – as happens in many rapidly-growing organisations.  The off-site allowed individual executives to express what they thought was desirable and what was deemed unacceptable in terms of leadership behaviours for the future. This meant the team as a whole could share a unified approach to achieving the goals of the organisation as a whole.

Leadership for the long term
To date, our financial services client has reaped a raft of measurable benefits across the organisation as the result of the time and energy invested in leadership development. As well as the positive impact on individual and the executive team behaviours, the programme has generated a positive impact on talent retention and customer service.

As a result, the firm has experienced revenue growth rates of over 100 per cent in the last financial year and plans to expand headcount by over 25 percent in the year ahead. But the benefits go far beyond statistics. As we’ve seen, the softer skills of the leadership team have been transformed to drive better, more cohesive organisational leadership.

These skills, from collaboration and team management to better communication, have just as much impact on corporate success as core financial and operational measures.  For us, thought, it’s the willingness of an organisation’s leadership to recognise the need for external support and accept the sometimes harsh truths about current behaviours that is the biggest catalyst for change – and the most important contributor to successful, long-term leadership.