People tend to think of a leader as someone who can set the agenda. But the real value of leadership lies in execution. The key difference between a great consultant and a great leader is in the ability to turn ideas into reality. What’s more, while ideas can be generated by an individual, execution can be accomplished only by a team that works together.
In my previous column, I talked about the key competencies for CIOs to be able to create a compelling business-technology proposition: Great pattern recognition, street smarts and technical savvy. An additional set of competencies is required to build a great team that is skilled and loves to get up in the morning and go to work. These competencies are more like qualities than intellectual or managerial traits. They include character, leadership development, passion and influencing skills. Although these qualities are seldom emphasized in executive performance objectives, I have found them to be the “secret sauce” of great leaders with whom I have worked over the years.
Character: Doing the Right Thing
Character has been described as ethical behaviour, intellectual integrity, openness and honesty. These terms have come to the forefront over the past few years-the attention spawned by corporate excesses. Although Sarbanes-Oxley, corporate governance and ethical guidelines are top-of-mind these days, they are simply table stakes.
My definition of character is much more fundamental. It is what you do, not what you say. I’ve worked for and with many terrific leaders over the years in various corporate cultures. Some of these leaders were collaborative, others were directive; some were relaxed, others intense; some had “command presence,” while others were quiet and calm.
As a young man, I found it very curious that I was attracted to so many diverse leadership styles. As the years went by, though, it became clear to me that style had little to do with it. The common ingredient all these leaders possessed was the substance of their character. No matter what the issue or the struggle or the possible personal gain or loss, they always-not just occasionally-did the right thing. Not only the right thing from a business or economic aspect, but the right thing including social and philosophical dimensions.
This consistency of character is hard to describe but easy to recognize. People will rally around leaders who do the right things consistently. They know they can count on their leaders to be open and honest at every fork in the road and to take a stand regardless of the personal risk. When people feel their leaders are erratic, political or detached from them, they will become cynical. They will generally do their work but won’t be committed. Their trust can only be built over time, so don’t become discouraged if people take a “show me” attitude.
Leadership Development: The Most Important Task
The second competency required for great execution is developing the leadership skills of your team. Organizations are seldom led by a single person, no matter how charismatic. The team at the top determines the environment and the culture. The team decides what gets rewarded, punished, recognized and ignored. Although they don’t run all of the plays, they call the plays.
For CIOs, it’s important to remember that the team at the top represents and reflects your character and agenda. Regardless of what you say you believe, who you choose for your IT leadership team speaks more loudly. So choosing and developing your leadership team is the single most important competency of a leader. This is a time-consuming task. Many great leaders talk about spending up to one-third of their time on leadership development. Since no one is perfect, everyone needs help and coaching.
Developing leaders means that you can articulate the requirements in a clear and thoughtful way. Without a basic framework of leadership skills, it’s hard to evaluate and give people feedback-and without constructive feedback, most people will not change and grow. When I was at PepsiCo, developing others’ skills was a major part of the life of an executive. The role models were plentiful, leadership competencies were well-known, feedback was continuous and growth was expected.
Unfortunately, most people deliver feedback only once a year in a performance evaluation, rather than conducting an ongoing structured development effort. I encourage you, as a leader, to make the investment in sustained leadership development. It will pay tremendous dividends and help give you and your IT organization leverage and continuity.
Passion: The Organizational Energy Level
Passion for the job is hard to manufacture, but when present, it is contagious. Enthusiasm from a leader enables people to sustain themselves through demanding times. The energy level of an organization is set at the top.
It’s hard to be great at something you don’t enjoy, and very few great things are accomplished without great passion. We see it in sports, communities, businesses and individuals. Don’t underestimate the value of passion.
Influence and Persuasion: Better than Power
CEOs, CFOs, CIOs and other CXOs have inherent positional power. When I had just become CIO at Frito-Lay, I would sometimes say something without much thought. The next thing I knew, people were actually beginning to execute on one of those remarks-or worse, I had hurt someone with an offhand comment. I began to realize how much weight my positional power carried.
Executives tend to think it is much easier and less time-consuming to just tell their direct reports what to do. Part of leadership, however, lies in spending time to explain a directive, in giving employees perspective and in helping them understand the “why” behind the direction. This is influence-the flip side of positional power. It is easy to rely on positional power and forget the usefulness of influencing skills.
One caution on the use of influence: There’s a presumption that you have all the answers — and you will set out to persuade everyone else of that. But a great leader will create an involvement with his staff and a dialogue on decision making because the door swings both ways. It’s possible that you are wrong and your managers have a better idea. Understand, however, that an open dialogue doesn’t relieve you of the leadership responsibility to make a decision and move the team forward.