What matters most: people or ideas?

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To be innovative in business what matters more: people or ideas? This seems like one of those insoluble chicken-and-egg question, but it’s not.

People matter far more than ideas.

Pixar President Ed Catmull learned this simple but powerful lesson during the painful birth of Toy Story 2. He’d assigned an inexperienced “B-Team” to producing the Toy Story sequel because he figured making a hit would be easier the second time around. Half way through the production it dawned on Catmull he’d made a huge error – and he had a complete disaster on his hands.

Radical action was required.

For the first time in the company’s history Catmull removed directors from the movie in the middle of a production. He placed his trust – and the failing movie – in the hands of Pixar’s “Brains Trust” – the most talented team in the business which included legendary director John Lasseter.

The Brains Trust made important changes to the story, and the rest is history.Toy Story 2 became one of the few sequels in cinematic history to outshine the original and took $500m at the box office.

In his book Creativity Inc. Catmull sums up the lesson for leaders everywhere:

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”

If you want your business to be consistently innovative don’t focus on great ideas, focus on forming your best people high-performing teams with the right chemistry.

Ideas come from people. Therefore people are always more important than ideas.

If you like this try my bookThe Spark: How to Ignite and Lead Business Creativity’ (FT Publishing)  available on Amazon.

How leaders start Electric Conversations

Powerful tips to facilitate more creative team meetings

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Have you ever been in a conversation that takes on a life of its own? You lose track of time and become completely engrossed? Sometimes, it even makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end? In the The Spark, How to Ignite and Lead Business Creativity (FT Publishing) I coined a phrase for these special interactions that has chimed with a lot of business people: Electric Conversations.

After years of working with management teams in creative companies on leadership and change, I noticed an important skill that separates inspiring leaders from the rest: they facilitate meetings in which Electric Conversations are encouraged.

You’ll have experienced an Electric Conversation. They often precede important decisions and change in your life. Sadly, they’re often stifled at work. People clam up because they’re scared of sounding stupid – especially when the boss is the room. This kills off any hope of innovation.

Allowing creative discussions to flow couldn’t be more important to your business; these conversations are behind every profit-making idea you’ll ever have. They lead to that most precious of commodities: new ideas. Ideas change your future. Electric Conversations allow ideas to develop in the spaces between people.

You can tell when you’re having an Electric Conversation because they are:

Idea-Driven: Not focussed on hierarchy – all about the idea.

Brave: Constructive conflict is part of it – and the potential for failure takes courage.

Passionate: It’s not possible to be creative without caring.

Playful: No assumption of a “right way” – unpredictable, playful and fun.

Purposeful: The team can disagree – but share values and an inspiring purpose.

If you want to start some Electric Conversations here’s how:

  1. Find a Challenging Question: Think of one of the biggest or most intriguing questions facing your business. Something that makes you scared and hopeful all at the same time. Some examples: How could we improve our products to embarrass the competition? What are we really good at – AND really bad at (but have been too scared to admit it?) What new technology do we need to exploit before it makes us irrelevant?
  2. Pick a Diverse Team: Invite a group of people to a no-holds barred creative conversation – be careful to select them from all levels and all parts of your team or business.
  3. Drop Hierarchy: Make it clear you are all there “on the same level”. Listen more than you speak. Facilitate a flowing discussion where all are involved and then summarise what was achieved. This is a golden opportunity for you to demonstrate what an Electric Conversation should look, sound and feel like.
  4. Observe Carefully: Use your eyes, ears and instincts to make sure the conversation embodies the Electric Conversation characteristics listed above.

This blog is an adapted extract from The Spark, How to Ignite and Lead Business Creativity (FT Publishing, £14.99). There’s more information at gregorme.org/the-spark/. It’s available in all good book shops and on Amazon.

Copyright © 2014 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

Have you got The Spark in your business?

This article is a sneak preview of “The Spark – How to Ignite and Lead Business Creativity” (FT Publishing) now available at all good book shops

What is The Spark?book

Have you ever walked into a business and sensed something special in the air?  A glint in the eye of people you meet that speaks volumes about their passion for the job and the company they’re working for. A spark of playfulness, curiosity and potential. An exciting static charge of courageous creativity. Is that kind energy pulsing through your business?

The Spark is about how to lead an organisation, department or team in which creativity and innovation flourish. Accelerating global competition, disruptive technology and radical changes to employee expectations mean a creative culture is no longer a “nice-to-have”. To dodge these commercial bullets your business must be able to keep deliver new ideas. Fast.

Innovation is business critical because creative companies make more money. A burning passion to improve things – to make a difference to the world – is no longer an adornment to the usual success factors: reliable delivery, high productivity and outstanding service. If efficiency and execution are this year’s profits; next year’s profits – and the years after that – are driven by creativity and new ideas.

In over twenty years of working with creative businesses I’ve been privileged to experience an exciting energy in those studios, offices and meeting rooms. I call the crackling electricity in truly creative companies The Spark:

  • The Spark is the potential for creativity in a person, a team – or a whole business.
  • The Spark is a great idea that changes perceptions, drives innovation and makes money.

My mission is to offer you a practical tool kit to develop a charged climate in your team or business. To make sparks common place so your organisation can successfully innovate in a fast-changing commercial world.

The Ten Habits

The Ten Habits are designed to demystify the leadership capabilities needed to turn up the power supply: to create sparks in you, your team and your business.  They are numbered and will have a big impact if you approach them sequentially. But they also work together interdependently. To truly transform your business, practise all ten habits together over time.

10 Habits BIGGER

The Spark between two people is created when a person decides to:

Habit 1: Start an Electric Conversation… how to create The Spark in your business

Passionate People are the rocket fuel of any creative business. The three habits that help inspire passionate people are:

  • Habit 2: Break the Management Rules… how to become an Electric Manager
  • Habit 3: Lead with Creative Choices… how to choose to be an authentic and inspiring leader
  • Habit 4: Become a Talent Impresario…. how to fill your business with creative talent

An Inspiring Philosophy is your belief system. The twin habits that helps develop it are:

  • Habit 5: Know Why You Do, What You Do…how to find an inspiring business purpose
  • Habit 6: Connect through shared values…how to inspire passion in your people

An Energised Cultured is the weather system in which inspired people and teams work. The two habits that help make the weather are:

  • Habit 7: Build a Business Playground…how to electrically charge your creative climate
  • Habit 8: Balance Focus and Freedom…how to manage creative tensions

Collaborative Teams make the most of scale in your business.The habits that promote creative team teamwork are:

  • Habit 9: Break Down Barriers… How to dynamite the walls that block creativity
  • Habit 10: Encourage Collisions… How to spark Electric Conversations to power collaboration    

If you’ve linked this sneak preview taken from the book’s introduction and want to find out more about developing the Ten Habits you can find The Spark on Amazon and at all good book shops.

All Rights Reserved, © Copyright Greg Orme 2014

Be Like Steve Jobs: Offer Focus AND Freedom

Point to the mountain – but don’t tell people how to climb

Steve Jobs

First Focus…

When Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1997 he took his leaders on a retreat. On the final day he stood at the whiteboard and asked: “What are the ten things we’re going to do next?” His lieutenants fought to get their ideas on the board. As the discussion subsided, it displayed the list of ten. At this point Jobs crossed off seven. “We can only do three,” he explained. What he meant: we can only do three things brilliantly well (and better than the competition). Jobs obsession with focus has become the Apple motif. He once declared: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Focus should be a mantra for any business. But it’s particularly important for businesses plying their trade in knowledge and ideas. There’s precious little that’s tangible about a creative business: an office, some laptops and software, weightless intellectual property – and a group of creative, clever people. This imbues the business with an entrepreneurial spirit and a flexibility that’s exciting and full of potential. But agility presents an ever-present challenge: what to focus on – and what to say “no” to.
Creative people can do anything, and they often try. I call it the “Kid in a Sweetshop” Syndrome. Everything looks so appetising and interesting the business ends up doing too much. As a result what they deliver to customers is average. And they end up feeling a bit sick when they look at their profits – and the success of their rivals.

The key to offering focus is to be crystal-clear about:

  1. Purpose – Why you’re in business
  2. Values – What you believe in
  3. Focus – What you want to be famous for
  4. Vision – What your business will look, sound and feel like in the future

…Then Freedom

Paradoxically, once you have established clarity, you can empower your people with confidence. When Jobs found a person he trusted he offered latitude. He called his chief designer Jonathan Ive his “”spiritual partner” and organised Apple to offer him free rein. Creative leaders point to the mountain; but allow enormous freedom on how to climb it. By contrast, non-creative businesses offer the following prescription:

“First, put on your boots… 
“Second, use the handy and detailed map provided by your line manager.”
“Third, lean your body weight forward and swing your right leg. You are now what we call ‘walking’.”
“Fourth, ….”

You get the picture.

In 2013, the advertising business Ogilvy & Mather became the first agency to be awarded over 100 Cannes Lions for creativity, while also winning its first ever Creative Effectiveness Award. The Ogilvy corporate culture is expressed like this: “We don’t like rigid pecking orders. We give our executives an extraordinary degree of independence, in the belief that freedom stimulates initiative. We dislike issuing orders; the best results are produced by men and women who don’t have to be told what to do.”

This blog is an early draft extract from my book “The Spark – How to Ignite and Lead Business Creativity” (FT Publishing, 2014) an inspiring ‘how-to’ manual to boost innovation in your team or business - available in all good book shops and on Amazon

All Rights Reserved, © Copyright Greg Orme 2013

How to clarify your business vision

This blog briefly describes a 3-step process to create and share an inspirational vision for organisational change 

How would you like to change the fortunes of your business this year? To drive change you need to see the future. This isn’t a mystical gift. It’s about believing your business can deliver more for customers and clients – and then persuasively communicating the specific pieces of this picture to others.

Gordon SelfridgeThe ITV/PBS drama “Mr. Selfridge” tells the story of the visionary entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge who shook up the straight-laced British retailing industry in 1909. He pioneered a vision of shopping for pleasure, rather than just necessity – and injected “style, glamour and razzmatazz!” for good measure. Crucially, he was able to back up the high-flown rhetoric (“we are going to show the world how to make shopping thrilling!”) with a highly-specific picture of what this would look, sound and feel like for his staff: everything from how silk scarves should be enticingly displayed (slight messy, so they’re more likely to be picked up by customers!) to the creation of attention-grabbing window displays that portray an aspirational lifestyle.

But having vision doesn’t need to be about transforming an entire industry. It can also be useful in helping to change business culture (“the way we do things around here”) or turning around a specific department or team.

Dream, Create, Share

Here are three simple steps to develop a vision for change:

Step 1 Dream: Sit down in a quiet place with a blank sheet of paper. Throw yourself forward three years (or a time-frame relevant to you). In your mind’s eye walk into your business and describe what’ll be happening. What will you see? What will you hear? What will the place feel like? How will your people be communicating and collaborating? What will your customers be saying about the “new you”? What will you have achieved? What’s changed and improved? Write notes as you imagine what the future might look like. Don’t get hung up at this stage about it being “right” or even “doable”. Allow yourself to dream a little.

Step 2 Create: Flex your fingers and get creative! Write up your notes in the form of a short, first person story describing a perfect day in this ideal future. Keep the details and ideas from your note taking that strike a balance between aspiration and what you think can be achieved with some hard work, tough choices and focus.

Step 3 Share: Share this vision with your colleagues. Use it as a catalyst for inspiration  and as a way to ignite a high-quality, challenging conversation. Do they share your vision? Does it excite them? What could they add to this picture? And, most importantly, what do you need to do together to make it a reality?

This exercise can kick off a strategy development process to highlight the main areas that need attention. Or, it can be a way to creatively consolidate  your thinking in a more down-to-earth and accessible way after you’ve created a strategy and objectives.

A wise man once said: “”We think in generalities, but live in detail”. Writing a vision bridges the gap between the generalities of “strategy development” (dismissed by the disaffected as “corporate bullshit”) and the vital, detailed leadership conversation about how to win the hearts and minds of customers.

Copyright © 2013 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

Don’t Be A Crash Test Dummy – Please Ensure Your Culture and Strategy Are Fastened Securely

In brief: Four insights into organisational culture followed by three leadership tips to ensure you reach your destination – rather than repeatedly crashing your business dreams. 

A common response to the global downturn is: “we need a new strategy”! But there’s a problem.

New strategy = new structures and processes.

New structures and processes = new behaviours.

How people behave on a day-to-day basis is where strategy collides with culture. The new strategy gains impetus from engaged staff – or is bought to the sort of shuddering halt normally experienced by a crash test dummy.

Four Insights into Organisational Culture

1. What’s culture?

Culture is the water in the fish tank. It’s everywhere you look. And, if you’ve worked in a business long enough, virtually invisible . It’s “the way things get done around here”: values, language, symbols, stories, beliefs and habits – everything from the organisation chart to the bonus system, accepted behaviour in meetings to parking spot allocations. Like fish tank water, it needs regular attention to stay fresh – and to avoid the growth of green slime!

2. Why’s it important?

Culture is important because it’s the way people learn how to behave. Crucially, it’s stronger than any new, whizz-bang strategy.

3. Is there a “right” or “wrong” culture?

What is your business trying to achieve? The culture at a creative agency like Saatchi & Saatchi is different from the culture required to deliver Sainsbury’s success in retailing. Both vary from the “lone-wolves-together” culture at a newspaper or on a trading floor. The best test is: “Does this culture help us to achieve our objectives?” Culture is not right or wrong, but appropriate or inappropriate.

4. What’s the role of leadership?  

Cultures can go rotten without clear leadership. Relationship-focussed cultures become highly politicised. Task-focussed, performance cultures become harsh, uncaring – and even amoral. Great examples: the Barclays LIBOR-rigging scandal, the role of banks in the global financial crash – and don’t forget Enron. Leaders keep the water clean.

Three Tips for Leading Culture 

Here’s what you can focus on increase your effectiveness.

1. Take time to fully understand your culture

Cultures differ on the focus they put upon maintaining relationships versus achieving goals. Understanding where your culture is on this spectrum requires close observation of the physical environment, the way people spend their time and how they communicate. (PS, you can also use analysis tools to try to quantify what can be viewed as “fluffy stuff best left to HR”).

2. If you simply want to manage the culture – learn to swim with the current

Aligning your style to the prevailing culture is a powerful way to stack the deck in your favour. This might be about taking the time to get to know people within a relationship-based culture. Or, it might be about developing clear goals in a focussed, high-performance culture.

3. If you want to lead change in the culture be prepared for a tricky job – that starts with you

Good management swims with the prevailing cultural currents. But a leader’s job is to constantly evaluate what might need to change to make things better. Put another way: “Do we need to change the water?”

Changing a culture is possible. But it effects the beliefs and behaviours of everyone so it takes time, energy and focus. If you want to change a culture, lead from the front. Don’t simply mandate new behaviours, demonstrate them. Every day.

Summary

Whether you are changing a culture – or just ensuring it works – Oscar Wilde was right: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” It’s true for organisations, as with people. There isn’t one “good” culture we should all aspire too.

But on thing’s for sure. Whatever your unique situation, culture needs to wrap around strategy like a well-designed seatbelt.

Copyright © 2012 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

Carrots and Sticks (Why They Don’t Work in a Creative Business)

In Brief: Traditional management tactics of reward and punishment fail where the business is selling creativity – businesses like this need management to encourage people’s inner motivation.

Enormous amounts of time and money are expended to motivate employees to be creative. Sadly, much of it wasted because traditional management thinking is obsessed with external rewards in the form of carrots and sticks. This external (or extrinsic) motivational approach leads to carrots in the form of higher wages and bonus payments. The sticks are demotion, performance management and even dismissal.

But there’s a problem. External motivation works well for people who are naturally driven by wealth, or are in a repetitive, process-driven job. People drawn to creative fields are often driven by a purpose higher than money – things like challenge, learning and peer recognition.

I work with some of the world’s best companies in TV, film, games and advertising. They produce creativity to order – week in, week out. So, how do they do it? And, what can they teach the rest of the business world?

My research with creative organisations shows encouraging people’s inner motivation is far more successful in delivering sustained creativity. Intrinsic motivation comes from inside. It’s a person’s abiding love for certain activities and challenges: coding a website, designing a brand, developing an idea for an online drama. This form of motivational management applies to creativity and innovation in “non-creative” industries as well. So the person might equally be searching for a new way to organise business information or manage customer relationships.

Let’s be clear. Nobody wants to be starving artist. But above a certain level of remuneration, when reasonable market rates have been met, or slightly exceeded – or when personal finance has been “taken off the table” as an issue – more cash doesn’t equal more creativity.

In summary, the sorts of people who end up in complex or creative jobs are often most creative when they are intrinsically motivated—in other words, when the work and the work are stimulating.Here’s five tips to manage for intrinsic motivation – and hence creativity:

  1. Match People and Task: Select the right people to do the right work – all the way from hiring to team formation.
  2. Create Challenging Teams: Good ideas get better through rigorous exposure to different backgrounds and skill sets.
  3. Offer Freedom within a Framework: Tell people which mountain to climb, but not how to put on their boots and put one foot in front of the other.
  4. Give Generous Support: Offer great support in terms of time allocated and investment – too stingy on either is a recipe for disaster.
  5. Show Gratitude: Let staff know senior management place great value on what they are doing by showing your face from time to time – and saying thank you.

Copyright © 2012 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

Are Your Bad Habits Holding You Back From The Board?

5 Behaviours You May Have To Address To Be Promoted.  

In my work as a leadership consultant I occasionally work with senior executives who’ve stalled just below board level – or sometimes just short of the CEO’s hot seat. This isn’t normally because they’re lacking in intelligence, experience or drive. It’s often because they’ve failed to develop the values required of a true leader.

They need to unlearn some of the “me-centred” and competitive behaviours that, paradoxically, have propelled them up the ranks in the first place. As former General Electric CEO Jack Welch said: “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” Here are five workplace habits you might need to become aware of to take the next step in your leadership journey:

1. Always Being The Star

You are watching a movie of your own life. Part of developing your leadership ability is to realise a successful management meeting is one in which others are allowed to star, as well as you. Building the capabilities and confidence of those reporting into you is the hallmark of a good leader. When you become an orchestra conductor you stop playing the notes. When you become the team coach you stop kicking the ball. Instead, you create a situation where people play harmoniously, and in synch, based on your lead.

2. Telling, Not Asking

The empowerment of others starts with active listening. The ability to patiently use open questions (questions that elicit  explanation rather than “yes” or “no”),  to help people to find the answer for themselves, has a transformational impact.

3. Playing Judge and Jury

You learn an enormous amount in your career. You often know, or think you know, the answer to most of the questions that crop up. But, paradoxically good leaders often display notable humility. They’re prepared to hear people out before they pass judgement or offer their own opinion.

4. Ducking Responsibility

A leader doesn’t make excuses for poor behaviour by trotting out the lame excuse “that’s just me!” They realise leadership is about making conscious choices about how you respond to what work throws at you. Let’s face it. There’ll always be cock ups and irritating clients or colleagues. Leadership starts with the conscious choice of how you proactively respond to people and events. Leaders take full responsibility for their words and deeds.

5. Forgetting to Say Sorry

This may sound like leadership is some unattainable nirvana for people with super-human self control. Untrue. Most people like leaders to be as flawed as the rest of us. The important thing is this. If you’ve displayed some of the anti-leadership behaviours above, apologise immediately. Being a leader doesn’t mean you never say sorry.

Copyright © 2012 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

Self Awareness: the first step in your leadership journey

What is Self Awareness?

Self awareness is the ability to observe yourself as you go about your day-to-day life. It’s the invaluable knack of dispassionately monitoring your own mental, emotional and physical states as you interact with the world around you.

It has transformative potential for everyone – especially those who need to lead others. It’s so important because by examining your thoughts, as they happen, you can influence how you perceive the world. This makes self awareness the first step, not only in your leadership journey, but also in creating your own reality – rather than allowing life to create it for you.

Developing self awareness is vitally-important for anyone who wants to manage their own life. And by managing and leading yourself more consciously, you’re able to more effectively inspire others.

The Dance Floor of Life

Most people spend their lives firmly on the dance floor of life. Modern jobs and domesticity, like a packed, heaving dance floor, are absorbing places to be. You’re encouraged to move in time to music that’s often cued up by other people and external events. The alarm clock goes off in the morning like a starting gun propelling you into frenetic activity. Sometimes you’re dancing alone, wrapped up in a particular issue. At other times, you’re fully engaged (sometimes too engaged!) with those around you.  Either way, there’s little time or opportunity to observe how well you are dancing, or living.

When you have a “good day” it feels exciting, positive, even uplifting. But too often “bad days” provoke anxiety and stress, as well as strong emotions you struggle to master (or even fully understand). Self awareness helps you to more fully relish the good days, and to eliminate the angst of the bad days. It’s the ability to step off the dance floor; to walk to the balcony overlooking the throng, to observe your life.

To use self awareness effectively you need to be aware of the distorting lense of your own mental models. These mental models – the beliefs and prejudices you’ve adopted, learned and created throughout your life – are themselves unexamined. So, if you fail to take them into account you cannot understand how they are helping, or hindering, you.

Self awareness is not just thinking about life; it’s thinking about how we think about life!

Mentally getting off the dance floor is the only way to truly understand what’s going on in your life – and to do something about it. It can happen in two ways. The first more traditional route is to reflect on your life issues in the few quiet times you can find: train journeys, the shower or while at the gym.

The more powerful pathway off the dance floor is far less understood. It’s a type of minute-to-minute self awareness. This requires the ability to do two things at the same time; to be on the dance floor living life to the full; and to be simultaneously observing life from the balcony. This is what I call Simultaneous Self Awareness – and its implications for your life are truly astounding.

Observation changes things

The power and importance of Simultaneous Self Awareness is derived from a simple truth. By observing the running commentary that takes place in our heads about the people and events around us we can take control of our existence, or at the very least influence it.

In other words, if I can observe a thought pattern, belief or mental model I have the power to alter it. If I am not aware of it, I can’t.

For example, if you have been asked to give a big presentation at work you’ll no doubt immediately start to think about it. For some people the thoughts will be empowering. Sarah might think: “This will be exciting and a bit nerve wracking but I’m sure it will go really well – there’s so much I have to say! My boss must think a lot of me to give me this big opportunity.”

For others in the same situation the mental chatter and emotional state will be very different, and very negative. Dave might think: “This is my worst nightmare. I’m bound to screw this up; how embarrassing will that be? My boss clearly wants me to trip up and make a fool of myself.”

The astounding thing about working with people to help them reach peak performance is the “reality” of the situation is not always connected to the negative or positive thoughts. The boss could be the same for both Sarah and Dave; the potential presenting skills identical. The only difference is the self-generated mental models: the beliefs of how the presentation request came about from the boss, and the imagination of how the presentation will go in the future. You can guess for yourself who will deliver a good presentation, and who will not!

The important point is self awareness is a powerful friend to both Sarah and Dave. For Sarah, it offers a way to acknowledge and build on her enthusiasm to deliver a truly outstanding performance. For Dave, it offers a chance to re-examine his disempowering thoughts – work out why he feels that way – and to try to change his mind set to one that’s more likely to achieve a good result.

Self Awareness over time

Self awareness has been referenced as a powerful approach since the dawn of human civilisation. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tse wrote around the 6th century BC:  “He who understands others is learned, He who understands himself is wise.” A few centuries later Buddha wrote: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make our world.” And, in the First Century AD the Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

Self awareness continues to be the cornerstone of modern leadership thinking – all 360º feedback exercises, executive coaching and leadership development programmes have self awareness as a key objective because it’s crucial for developing an authentic and effective leadership style.

Simultaneous Self Awareness can be used every minute of every day to allow you to observe and change your limiting beliefs and linked emotions. It allows you to be aware of the effect your own thoughts are having on you, as well as the imbedded beliefs behind many of the unacknowledged decisions you take every day.

By simply observing your thoughts and emotions you have more power over their direction. As you practice it daily you realise your “reality” is something you create for yourself every day. And if you are creating our own reality – how you perceive the world – self awareness offers a powerful route to change the world, and yourself, for the better.

Copyright © 2012 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

The ‘4C’s of High Potential Leadership Development

In Brief: The vast majority of companies don’t feel confident about the number and quality of management successors in their organisation. High potential leadership development programmes are a key weapon to help businesses win the war for talent. Without a rigorous well-designed focus on the next generation of leaders any organisation is heading for trouble. This article outlines the “4Cs” for the successful delivery of High Potential Leadership Development Programmes:

1. Clarify Goals
2.  Collaborate on Development & Delivery
3.  Choose Carefully
4. Communicate Honestly

The War for Talent Rages On

Even in these tough economic times winning the war for talent continues to be a crucial objective for businesses. Recent Harvard Business School research shows fewer than 30% of European companies felt confident about the quantity of talented, qualified management successors in their organisation. Creating and filling a management talent pipeline has become a business critical issue for forward-thinking leaders.

In fact, there is a good argument that the ability to attract and develop leaders becomes even more important when the economy is in turmoil; businesses have fewer chances to “get it right”, and to take profitable opportunities. Beating the competition requires good leadership at board level – and the level below. Even more true when times are tough.

What’s more, finding and retaining good leaders will get even tougher for western-based international players in the coming decades. This is because most have to focus, in part at least, on emerging markets for growth such as India and China. Here the supply of experienced managers is even more limited than it is in the west. So, what can companies do to put them ahead of their rivals?

High Potential Leadership Programmes

More and more companies are recognising the value of high potential leadership development programmes as a powerful weapon in the war for talent. But it can be tricky to get right. And even trickier to ensure there is a genuine long-term return on investment. If the design and delivery of these programmes is mishandled there can be serious damage to staff morale – quite apart from being a huge waste of time and resources.

This article is a collection of insights and best practice in attracting, incentivising and transforming high potential management into true leaders. It’s based on experience. I spend a lot of my time working with creative businesses to design and develop leadership programmes to transform great mid-level execs into influential board-level leaders.

The 4Cs which follow are guiding principles to help you to design interventions in this area that have a far greater chance of transforming both your high potential people – and your organisation.

Experience plus Research = Best Practice

Over the last few years I’ve worked with advertising agencies like Ogilvy & Mather and BBDO; content creators such as Shine Group – as well as other global concerns such as the recruitment giant Randstad, and the well-respected World Economic Forum. Before this I ran the Centre for Creative Business at London Business School which delivered leadership development to executives in the UK’s creative industries.

I’ve blended my first-hand insights and experience with rigorous research. Harvard Business School joined forces with the global executive search firm Egon Zehnder to conduct a large-scale cross-sectional and longitudinal analysis* of how companies manage their rising stars. They also interviewed executives from 70 companies which had all taken the decision to run high potential leadership programmes. The research essentially asked: “what worked for you; what didn’t work for you?” The “4Cs” for Successful High Potential Leadership Development is my summary of both.

Why invest in leadership development?

The business rationale for investing in leadership development is strong and growing. Firstly, top talent gravitate towards companies that have strong development opportunities. Secondly, a well-managed talent pipeline increases the odds the company can continue to appoint great leaders in important positions – which increase its chances of success.

Fortune’s Most Admired Companies – the likes of Coca Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble, IBM and Mars – have known this for decades. They consistently spend more time and energy on developing leaders than average companies do – and they have better share price returns to show for it.**

Alan Lafley, former P&G CEO, said: “Nothing I do will have a more enduring impact on P&G’s long term success than helping to develop other leaders. I think the most important thing we do is that we are a continuous selection machine”

1: Clarify Goals

Let’s be clear: there is no generic leadership programme that works for all companies. Like any good investment, leadership development needs to align with organisational purpose, strategy, values and culture. A transformational leadership programme perfectly aims the right content, at the right people, to address the right questions. In practical terms this involves clarifying two sets of leadership development programme goals:

1. What’s the programme trying to deliver for the organisation?

2. What’s the programme trying to deliver for participants?

The answer to the first question needs to be linked to strategic objectives and culture change; the output of the answer to the second question should always involved leadership attitudes and behaviours.

For example, if you are working in a creative content company that has grown fast through acquisitions in a market-place that values creativity and innovation, you might need a programme that encourages highly-collaborative leadership – and which has cross-disciplinary organisational development projects as a key output to help knit the emerging  organisation together.

On the other hand, if you are working in a restaurant chain, which needs to grow through a well-established franchise model; the leadership behaviours and outcomes required will probably be more focussed around operational and productivity improvements.

In summary, a key point to clarify is how much of the leadership programme goals are around changing the organisation – and how much about changing participant behaviour. Clearly, these two goals are inextricably interlinked; but for the sake of clarity it’s vital to produce separate and mutually-supporting goals for each.

2: Collaborate on Development & Delivery

Like any intervention to try to change an organisation thorough groundwork makes a successful outcome much more likely. It ensures a leadership development programme will better deliver in the areas most needed by both participants and the company. It sounds like simple common sense, doesn’t it? But it’s surprising how easy it is for poorly-focussed programmes to get blown off course by pursuing content and objectives not directly linked to actual need. Even worse, when a leadership programme is not tied to agreed goals it can degenerate into the worst kind of corporate political football.

Collaborating on development and delivery means gathering input from as wide as possible – both inside and outside the organisation. Well-targeted programme content can then be co-designed and delivered by the senior organisational sponsors and whichever external learning and development experts are involved.

Senior-Level Engagement

The best way to deliver a transformative leadership programme is to ensure it has the buy-in and sponsorship from the most senior people in the organisation. There’s an old saying that “marketing is too important to be left to the marketing director”. The same is true for developing high potential leaders. Talent management strategy is a not an area that should involve only the HR Director.

Of course, it can be tricky to get the CEO involved. But it’s vital. This high-level sponsorship ensures the programme is not perceived by applicants as a frivolous “sheep dip exercise”. I’m sure you’ve come across the sort of fluffy, arm-waving away days which often give management “training” a bad name.

The perception of non-applicants and personnel at all levels across the company also changes. Having a CEO or similar senior figure onboard signals “this is important”. It immediately encourages other senior people to give freely of their time. This guarantees participants are exposed to the key people, in charge of the important issues, which are engaging the executive board.

Finally, senior-level involvement “raises the stakes”. This emphasis transforms what could be mere information and skills training into transformative experiences that can change behaviours permanently. Because of the massive difference senior involvement drives on all the programmes I direct, I push for one or more of the sessions to be run by the CEO – and ideally other sessions are run by other senior players from finance, operations, marketing and sales.

A learning organisation – not classroom training

A leadership programme has failed if it’s only about what happens “in the classroom”. Training is passive and centred in “someone else”; learning and self-development is active and based on what “I” can do.

Transformational interventions need to be about instilling a passion for self development and learning beyond the set-piece group sessions which usually form the core of a programme.

A holistic, multi-strand approach works best: group sessions supported by on-the-job development, mentoring, coaching as well as real-life projects and job rotations. Clearly, reinforcing group work with one-to-one support requires a larger investment in planning and coordination. It’s worth the additional effort and expense because the organisation is then not offering mere training, but designing a transformational experience which will play a crucial role in creating a genuinely learning culture.

3: Choose Carefully

Who chooses?

High Potential Programmes are a significant investment in time and money, so it makes a lot of sense to ensure the right people are sitting in the room on the first day. Having now tried both open application processes (perceived as “more democratic” in internal communications terms), and manager-nominated approaches (perceived as “more accurate and targeted”) I’ve come to the conclusion neither works very well on their own!

Research backs me up. Across the board the data shows that people often overestimate their own potential, or feel they are ready earlier than they really are for leadership, so applicants can’t be relied upon to put themselves forward at the right time. And untrained managers are often subject to serious prejudices and blind spots. Again, research clearly illustrates as a group managers are poor at reliably spotting potential leadership talent in their direct reports.

Because of this I recommend a combination approach which has a better chance of getting the right people as programme participants. Start with a tight, well-explained brief on who can apply in the first place. Then manage the process carefully to involve input from senior management, line management as well as output from annual appraisals, written applications, references and interviews. Anything less than a thorough multi-stage approach risks wasting time and money on the wrong people.

Understand Potential

Another necessary step is to create a shared definition for “potential” around the basic idea that it’s “the ability to handle responsibilities of greater scale and scope”. Participants need to be chosen with an understanding that potential is measured (and developed) on a number of different levels.

In my programmes I use the metaphor of an iceberg with visible behaviours above the water, and deeper layers, like identity, motivation and purpose, below the surface. The following diagram illustrates a model of executive potential (that combines my experience with the Harvard/Egon Zehnder Research) to demonstrate the importance of selecting, and then delivering programmes, to address the “easier to change” and “harder to change” aspects of people.

Inside-Out Programmes

Programmes which seek to engage participants at the core “Purpose” and motives level (“Inside-Out” Programmes) are incalculably more powerful than those which seek to work “Outside In” – i.e. focussing on skills and knowledge and hoping for the best on the more powerful Identity, Assets and Purpose.

4: Communicate Honestly

Senior executive sponsorship of a leadership programme naturally leads to a high profile within the organisation. This is to be celebrated, not avoided. A study of 225 companies in 10 industries found that while 78% of the organisations did not inform high potential people they were labelled thus; 90% of the employees knew anyway!

My approach, as it is in all my organisational development work, is to deliver the greatest degree of transparency possible (“transparency” being the corporate expression for what we call “honesty” in the rest of our lives!). Of course, an honest approach is not without risks. To mitigate this risk there needs to be careful management of expectation for those chosen for high potential programmes – as well as for those that are not.

Copyright © 2011 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

*How to Hang on to your High Potentials, Harvard Business Review, October 2011

** Hay Group, Develop Your Leaders, 2011