I want to add my hearty congratulations to the 40 Leaders Under 40 recipients who are recognized in this issue. These leaders have already created a difference-making impact in their organizations and communities. I’ve been asked to make a few comments directed toward young, emerging leaders. And I will. But the thoughts that follow are, hopefully, relevant for even “seasoned” leaders.
Although the selection and development of emerging leaders is fundamental to organizational growth and success, many organizations are facing a troubling scenario—a striking gap between the leaders they need and the talent available to assume the mantle of leadership.
Two factors have driven the emergence of this gap. The first is demographically driven—the graying of our management ranks and the subsequent exit of leadership talent. In overwhelming numbers, seasoned leaders are poised to leave. Consequently, we face a talent drain whose collective knowledge and experience cannot be replicated, at least in the short-run.
The second factor is economically driven. In recent years of an uncertain economic outlook, many companies have chosen to “batten down the hatches.” While the ensuing cautionary approaches make financial sense, one victim has been training and development budgets—an occurrence most dramatically touching our younger, emerging leaders.
This demographic and economic double-whammy has left many organizations struggling to ramp up the growth of a new cadre of leaders. In fact, a number of business gurus suggest that the development of emerging leaders is one of the most critical challenges facing contemporary organizations.
So where do we turn? The evolving, incremental development of younger talent must be accelerated. These emerging leaders, still in their 20s or early 30s, will have opportunities for challenging leadership roles that only a generation ago would have been years in coming. And therein lies both the promise and the challenge.
Working with these emerging leaders, I’m consistently impressed by their talent. In general, they are bright, have superb technical skills and are quick studies. They are dedicated, energetic and spirited. While not eschewing hard work, they are committed to avoid the alienating and destructive images of work-life imbalance that have marked earlier generations. Good for them. They appear to be revved up for the task. Having worked on and led project teams, they are now asked to take the next step. And the landscape is different. Technical skill is still critical, but it is no longer enough.
In fact, if we are to believe research, the emerging leaders’ most significant challenges will not come in the arena of technical expertise. Their most critical challenges will come in the much fuzzier interpersonal arena. The outstanding record of achievement and sterling technical skills that garnered their leader roles must be expanded through a broader range of skills. These leaders must understand how to build and maintain relationships. They must become adept at managing conflict and dealing with difficult people. They must master the skills of communicating with clarity and respect. They must learn how to engage others to get results and win commitment. And, they must accept the most pressing demand of our times—leading needed change in a world where the added stress of change is the last thing that most people desire. These so-called “soft skills” will spell the difference between being in a position of leadership and making an impact.
As emerging leaders grow in self-awareness and confidence, they must extend beyond themselves, grasping that organizational success is about people. Largely, their challenge will be engaging and unleashing the talents of others to attain performance and reach higher levels of potential.
Meeting this challenge is both complicated and rather simple. It begins with a raw understanding of people. We all need to feel that we are significant—that is, we count; we make a difference; we’re important; we are needed; we are valued. We must feel that we are more than a link in the organizational array of activities. We must believe that we make a difference, and that we have an impact. Make no mistake, this sense of significance is a powerful motivator and provides meaning to our efforts.
We’ve all seen leaders capture the energy and passion of their people by offering an honest and sincere “thanks,” recognizing and affirming meaningful contributions and significance. And we’ve seen leaders crush spirits by their dismissive posture toward the hard work and dedicated effort of their people.
And so, I offer three concepts, ideas or themes—respect, significance and authenticity. These three words represent the essential foundations of successful interpersonal interactions. Perhaps even more importantly, damning interpersonal effects arise when any party feels they have been treated disrespectfully or when a dearth of communication leads to the sense that significance has been diminished. Such perceived threats generally elicit a “fight-or-flight” syndrome.
We’ve all seen this. In the face of disrespect or diminished significance, some of us assert ourselves—strongly—in essence demanding that the other party pay attention and accord us our just due. Or, we retreat and shut down, psychologically (and at times, even physically) slinking away to lick our wounds. Damage has been done and relationships have been tainted. Rare is the person whose ego can withstand the smacks of disrespect and cuts of insignificance. Piled on, time after time, people are remolded. They become confused. They become hurt. They become angry. And ultimately, they become disengaged.
In an era of high demands and challenging performance expectations, some leaders confuse the duality of possessing high standards and enacting respect and significance. Sometimes we fool ourselves. Respect and significance are often espoused, lauded for the fine imperatives that they certainly are. Yet, it’s often just words, void of depth and meaning and lacking any vestiges of tangible impact. Statements of core values may decorate the walls, but action is missing. Emerging leaders must build a foundation of respect and significance that differentiates your people, and ultimately, your organization from the rest.
Authenticity begins with communication. This has practically nothing to do with the audacity of air time. It has everything to do with focusing intently on others, listening to their messages, asking plenty of questions, checking appropriate courses of action, and clearly expressing your expectations. It involves listening to the resistance that will naturally occur and addressing the concerns and issues that arise. In this way, authenticity is shaped through action. In the end, authenticity thrives when others sense that the leader places others’ best interests and the team’s best interests above the leader’s own.
Authenticity involves a special level of commitment. In a recent workshop, participants asked an accomplished leader, still in his mid-30s, to provide advice for working effectively with and through others. He did not hesitate. “I meet with each of my people at least once a week for 30 to 60 minutes. Just them and me—one-on-one. I listen, and we talk.” When the group protested that such a drain of time was impractical in a fast-paced world, he simply shrugged. “Well, I still meet with them.”
There is a deeper, practical tone here. Decisions must be made, and often these decisions must take place without having complete information. However, ongoing, open communication provides the confidence to move ahead in the face of uncertainty. In the process of communication, you will build trust and engender a genuine touch with your people.
This will take time and energy. And, it will make a difference. People will recognize that you listen, follow up, and follow through. You will be seen as a person of authenticity and as a leader with credibility. iBi