Developing second level leadership

Most heads of organizations, founders and owners express that grooming engineers or professionals to be leaders is their greatest concern. Heads of organizations realize that they need to be able to groom these technically oriented engineers to become good managers and capable leaders, if they really want to grow and scale the business.

Most of the technical staff have an engineering or professional background and are very happy solving technical problems, and getting immersed in their own processes and functions. Interaction with teams across companies has revealed that 95% of them harbour aspirations to be highly skilled engineers or professionals. Although almost all of them work in teams, or at least appear to function as teams, they are pretty individualistic in their approach and thinking. Perhaps this is natural amongst Indians who feel comfortable melting with the crowd rather than standing apart, at least outwardly, even if they mentally harbour intentions to take out anyone who even has a semblance of leadership traits and could perhaps be a future threat. It is no surprise that team performance especially in the Indian context is really not exceptional. Team outcomes are rarely greater than the summation of individual contributions.  Given the upbringing of a typical middle class professional workforce, social risk taking is not really something they aspire to, and leadership with a high risk of failure would not be a path they aspire for. Most like to feel accepted and comfortable in their own social circles. Building technical and professional skills melds with their wanting to be part of the crowd. Their own peer groups provide them with the knowledge of opportunities and skills in the industry. They hence easily learn how to re skill themselves technically, stay abreast of technological change and even the art of political machination. Very few of them have the ability to visualize what it takes to be in top management.  Some of them might get themselves an MBA, and become managers, but fewer still are leaders in the making. Most rather prefer to remain on the technical side of the business.

From an organizational perspective, it is imperative that technically skilled people who know the technology and product scale up to lead the company. It takes time and effort to groom and build a second line of leadership that will really bring scalability to a company’s growth. Leadership can be learnt and comes from exposure and practice. The organization can create the environment where technical professionals ease into managerial roles, and later into leadership roles. This is where talent in middle management becomes crucial. Talent here can be cultivated by training staff to manage work, manage people, set goals, schedules, review, follow up, evaluate performance of self and others. Getting them to practice these skills, is the key to embedding it. The most difficult part is to imbibe a culture of performance among teams. As they become good managers, they learn how to recognize individual talent and skills among team members, and how best to utilize those unique skills to achieve above average performance. They learn to accept the eccentricities of people around them, evaluate them, coach them, and help them in performing better. As this is done, a culture of leadership starts getting embedded in the organization. Employees learn that leadership is not bad; it does not mean stepping over others; it does not mean bossing over others; there is nothing wrong in following a leader. Since most teams are close knit groups of friends, it is useful to get team members to be open and accepting, whenever a friend amongst them is elevated as leader.  This is a role where HR and top management can strongly play. They really need to influence and advocate such a culture and get the employees to adopt such a culture. This elevation to a leader also needs to be done carefully. The newbie leader should not be set up for failure. The environment needs to be managed carefully and small steps need to be taken. Companies could allow experiments in contained environments of real life projects, where the newbie leader can be given the reigns, and helped through. There are companies that regularly conduct training in the form of offsite exercises, where they send out teams to work on social issues and causes. There is work to be done, and certain objectives to be achieved. They allow staff to take on the mantle of leadership and execute. But to be sustainable, this has to happen within the organization in the course of regular work. Future leaders need to learn how to be performance oriented, when to be authoritative, when to be considerate, when to teach their team members. They need to exhibit high levels of integrity and get the team to trust them. Integrity is assessed by team members in a number of ways. People knowingly and unknowingly can pick up even the most subtle signals that demonstrate the lack of integrity, and this could prove fatal and undermine the leader and the team. Team members are driven by faith and belief rather than anything else. We all work in corporate environments to make a living and improve our material life.  We sometimes act like mercenaries – we give and expect commensurate rewards. But a real leader emerges only when an individual can overcome his petty selfishness and biases and work for larger goals. The more selfless the goal, the higher the ideal, the more all encompassing it becomes. People around no longer feel threatened and behave defensively. Organizations need to enable this by providing the environment/systems and sensitize staff to better ways of working than just being crabs that pull down one another. Once this culture and change is managed, half the battle is won and we might start to develop better managers and more importantly, leaders who can take us to the next level.