“My people have never led through anything like this. In fact, neither have I.”
We hear this refrain almost daily in the management consulting and leadership development work we do at sr4 Partners. Seasoned C-suite leaders say it. Savvy people operations and HR professionals say it. Departmental directors in the prime years of their career say it.
Full disclosure: We say it, too. It’s simply the truth. We’re all coming to grips with the realization that the so-called “new normal” in the workplace is a lot more new than it is normal — the result of massive, sudden, and simultaneous shifts spurred by COVID-19 and the accompanying surge in remote work, the racial reckoning causing companies to revisit their policies and practices, and the onset of an economic downturn whose size and scope is unlike any in recent memory.
The increased sense of urgency around these issues also brings a renewed focus on the vital role of leaders. How else, if not with fully equipped and supported leaders at the helm, will companies push beyond the goal of sheer survival and find their way toward what business guru Seth Godin calls “transformative success”?
Develop your leaders’ competence and character
It’s one thing to identify the importance of developing a new kind of leader for our changing world. It’s another to identify what, exactly, that new kind of leadership might involve.
In our work over the past 10 years, we’ve helped a wide range of organizations — Fortune 100 companies, high-growth startups, and nonprofits — explore the concept of “holistic leadership.” Holistic leaders come to work ready to tap into a deep reservoir of both competence and character as they advance human and organizational potential to have a positive impact in society.
A holistic leader will approach a situation or decision in terms of both what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it. The ‘what’ requires competence in certain skills like delegation, communication and strategic thinking. The ‘how’ requires character.
A note of caution: We’ve seen some organizations fall into the trap of focusing solely on building competence. Character-driven traits like humility and self-awareness may seem unlearnable at first glance — qualities that people are born with or develop early in life. But we advise clients to question that assumption. We’ve seen, time and again, that character absolutely can be cultivated. And companies can’t afford not to cultivate it in their people, because it’s only when you put competence and character together that the potential for leaders’ impact is enormous.
The path to holistic leadership requires ongoing learning and development
Holistic leadership doesn’t happen by chance, or just because a leader is talented. There’s a strong foundation underlying their performance, one that they’re continuously building on and tweaking over the course of their careers — effective leaders need ongoing support to realize their true potential and take their organizations to new heights.
This need for ongoing support is critical to keep in mind as you revisit your organization’s infrastructure for leaders’ learning and development (L&D). The days of sending leaders to the occasional, one-size-fits-all training filled with lectures and a litany of PowerPoint slides are over. It just doesn’t work. What’s more, the people your organization needs most right now simply won’t tolerate that kind of check-the-box learning.
You have better options for developing your people. We recommend that you start with these three objectives:
1. INCLUDE LEADERS AT ALL LEVELS - AND OFFER A RANGE OF SOLUTIONS TO REFLECT THEIR DIFFERENT NEEDS
Top-down hierarchies aren’t well-suited to today’s rapid pace of change. And leaders at all stages of the journey — from individual contributors who lead others through informal influence, to early- and mid-level leaders managing their first or second team, to executives making high-level strategic decisions — affect business outcomes and contribute to organizational culture.
Given these leaders’ varying needs, a static curriculum won’t adequately prepare your people to lead with competence and character. Instead, consider offering a combination of virtual instructor-led training, community-oriented peer learning and connection, and individual coaching.
This type of multi-faceted approach will help you engage with your leaders — all of them — at every stage of their journey. They’ll grow with the organization, and the organization will grow with them.
2. PRIORITIZE AND NURTURE PEER COMMUNITIES
People learn as much, if not more, from their peers — those going through similar situations and tackling similar problems — as they do from experts. Those peers may be in the same or different organizations, the same or different industries. They can swap stories. Open up about mistakes. Share tips and advice grounded in lived experiences.
Peer learning also provides the motivation to keep growing and striving, no matter where you are in your career. The leadership journey is so much more meaningful when you have a community of people who care about one another and are committed to leading with both competence and character.
This dynamic play out week after week in our Ignite Leadership Community, which features year-round interactive trainings and discussions for leaders at all levels, representing a wide range of sectors. Participants might help one another build self-awareness by sharing a word or phrase that captures how they’re feeling about recent economic or political events, or offer feedback on their collaboration and listening skills by talking through a recent communication breakdown that they could have handled differently.
These peer-to-peer exchanges make it safe for leaders — who are typically under tremendous pressure to have all of the answers — to be vulnerable rather than right, to listen rather than fix, and to feel the discomfort of ambiguity rather than avoiding it.
3. PROVIDE EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES
Which L&D initiative do you think is more likely to inspire diversity-minded hiring: a one-off training on how diversity improves business results, or an experience in which hiring managers meet skilled immigrants and refugees, and then exchange stories about the hiring and job-search processes?
While both can be valuable, the power of the second approach — an example of experiential learning from sr4 Partners’ playbook — isn’t something that people are likely to forget. Teaching concepts has its place, but there’s nothing like an experience that widens your perspective and helps you formulate your own insights.
It’s also possible to weave experiential learning into online L&D solutions. One tactic that we find highly effective is to begin online sessions by using the breakout function of your online platform. Pair up participants and prompt them to share a story. For example, instead of asking, “What are your expectations for today?” you might try “Who has been one of the greatest cheerleaders in your life? What did they do, and how did they make you feel?”
These three objectives aren’t easy to implement. But leadership isn’t easy, either, and its value to your organization cannot be understated — especially in today’s challenging business environment.
At sr4 Partners, we help organizations lead. For over a decade, our work has helped organizations cultivate healthy leaders, cohesive teams, thriving cultures, and inclusive change. We do this through our consulting services, our Ignite Leadership Community, and our Elevate Leadership Series.