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Leadership Traits Can Be Taught

Healthy Leader Project Closes on a High Note


The Healthy Leader Project, initiated by the 2017 WorldatWork Work-Life Advisory Council (WLAC), has completed its primary mission: to help managers learn bottom line-boosting leadership behaviors and actions — and adopt them into practice.

Executive thought leaders interviewed for the yearlong series, each with a one-page profile featured in Workspan, generally agreed: Leadership traits can be taught, and one small behavioral improvement can lead to a giant leap in healthy leadership.

But if rewards professionals want to gain desirable habits, they must pay their dues in the form of long hours, in-the-trenches work, an often-painful acceptance of making peace with reality, and a sometimes-sizable monetary investment. (See “Healthy Leadership Traits.”)

A Six-Part Process

The WLAC spent more than a year on the project discussing which — and how — leadership traits can be taught, said Delta Emerson, who served as chair of the WLAC and is chief people and strategy officer at Bullseye Engagement, a cloud-based employee engagement software company.

Finding potential leaders is a complex process that focuses on the individual, she said. “It is easier to identify competency skill sets than whether someone has the values and characteristics to be a good manager of people,” Emerson said. “It takes time.”

And, it’s crucial. “There are two practices that make a company better — hire slow/fire fast and make sure managers are good people managers,” she said. Emerson identified six key points in developing leaders:

  1. Realize healthy leadership is not a natural skill. “With rare exceptions, people aren’t born leaders.”
  2. Assess the person’s skills when hiring or promoting someone into a leadership role. “Don’t go with your gut feeling. There are tools, such as behavior-based interviews and assessments, you can purchase where you can tell how people will react to different situations.”
  3. Teach and develop leadership skills. “Start a People Management 101 leadership development program. Don’t identify potential leaders and leave them on their own. Focus on leadership skills in high-potential programs.”
  4. Monitor people leaders. “There are lots of ways to monitor. Use metrics such as turnover and 360 reviews. Are they really succeeding?”
  5. Hold people accountable. “Some companies are tying incentives to people-leadership skills, using such metrics as employee-engagement surveys, turnover and 360 reviews.”
  6. Model leadership at senior management levels. “Healthy leadership should prevail throughout the company. You’re not exempt when you hit a certain level.”

Good leadership focuses on the “stay factor,” Emerson said. “It’s a sense of stewardship, especially with new hires. It’s day-to-day reinforcement. Coaching/teaching/mentoring is a two-way street. It’s not about just getting employees’ heads and backs but also their hearts and minds.”

Four-Way Wins

HR professionals teaching leadership traits have a leg up over their predecessors — coaching has become a desirable rather than demonized practice — pointed out Stew Friedman, Ph.D., who founded the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School Work-Life Integration Project in 1991.

“There used to be a stigma to coaching but now it’s a sign of prestige,” said Friedman in Workspan’s August 2018 column, “Nice Guys Finish First: Work-Life Effectiveness Increases Productivity.” The piece describes how academic studies are supporting the concept that healthy leadership can boost the bottom line.

Creating and maintaining boundaries between work and personal life has become harder, causing greater stress and strain, he pointed out. That’s led to an understanding that leadership training needs to focus on a person’s entire life, just not time on the job.

Friedman, who’s been conducting Total Leadership workshops since 2000, leads participants to create individualized experiments designed to produce what he calls “four-way wins,” with tangible results for work, family, community and self (mind, body and spirit). For example, if a person pursues an experiment to become more timely and transparent in communications with team members, that could improve communications, and relationships, with family members.

The Wharton School’s follow-up research with Total Leadership workshop participants during the past 18 years demonstrates healthy leadership, in the form of work-life integration, can be taught. Researchers have tracked and measured positive changes in: improving leadership skills; working smarter; increasing confidence as a leader; and bolstering well-being in all parts of life.

The Scientist’s Approach

When trying to correct a manager’s damaging leadership traits, don’t take the cheap route, urges Brad Harper, who’s been coaching problem managers since the early 1990s. He had been a principal in an outplacement firm but realized too many otherwise talented managers were being thrown to the street because they had difficulty dealing with people. “There is a common theme among most of my clients — there is a big difference in their self-perception and how people perceive them,” said Harper, executive director of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Trigon Executive Assessment Center and partner in the Fahrenheit Group, a national business-consulting company.

Most of those clients have issues in areas such as communications, delegation and teamwork, he said, and 95% are receptive to being more effective.

Assess the person’s situation before pursuing any corrective action. “I am inept at putting people in boxes,” Harper said. “Approach the assessment like a scientist, asking questions like ‘Why do people think you’re. . .?’ You need to be direct and speak from the heart with no filters,” Harper said. “A prescription without a diagnosis is malpractice.”

There are many assessment tools on the market. In addition to curriculum offered by Trigon, Harper also recommends Marshall Goldsmith’s best-seller What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become More Successful, which addresses more than a dozen behavioral issues.

That assessment can come internally from the candidate and from colleagues with tools such as 360-degree reviews. “360 reviews can give you great external perceptions to compare to internal, but it doesn’t provide solutions,” Harper said.

Those solutions generally are realized through coaching and mentoring, which should be put in the hands of experienced, competent professionals, Harper said.

Trigon usually takes a client on a six-month contract and extends it another six months at 25% of the original fee. “It’s like providing overall, long-term health care. It’s not about patching up a bloody nose,” Harper said. “It’s very easy to teach behavior, but the question is how long people will follow it. The real test is when people are under pressure.

“Some HR professionals can handle it (coaching and mentoring) if they are competent in those areas, but if your expertise is in an area like comp and benefits, seek outside help,” he said.

“Don’t be short-sighted,” Harper continued. “Say you’re paying an executive $100,000 with pay and benefits. That means you’ll be paying that person a half-million dollars over the next five years but you’re not willing to spend $3,000 to $5,000 (for outside coaching) where the ROI is a minimum 5% increase in effectiveness? Or if you let the person go, it usually costs two times the annual salary to cover such things as severance, recruiting and training a replacement, Iost knowledge and damaged morale.”


The Lone Genius

Some problematic leaders fall into the “lone genius” category — technical wizards who are well-meaning but lack basic interpersonal skills. You probably have one in your shop.

The best route may be to make sure the person’s responsibilities match his or her talents, asserted Todd Davis in the first of 10 Healthy Leader profiles, “Relationships: The Heart of HR,” which appeared in the January 2018 edition of Workspan.

“An organization’s greatest asset, its competitive advantage, is the ability for every employee to build and sustain great relationships,” said Davis, FranklinCovey’s chief people officer and author of Get Better: 15 Ways to Improve Relationships at Work. With a lone genius, “you have to make sure they are not damaging the spirit of others,” he said. “More often than not, when they are doing damage, they don’t realize it. It’s important they are in the right role. They need to be comfortable in a position with less leadership, where their technical skills are emphasized.”

Keystone Habits

Studies since the 1950s have identified two types of leadership — results-oriented (taskmasters) and relationship-oriented (people leaders). While the best leaders have both people and task skills, coaching and habit development needs to concentrate on one area, said Martin Lanik, an organizational psychologist who is CEO of Pinsight, a leadership development company.

Lanik utilizes “keystone habits,” which concentrate on one behavioral change that can lead to a chain of changes. In The Leader Habit: Master the Skills You Need to Lead in Just Minutes a Day, he describes how daily five-minute exercises can improve a skill and develop into a whole set of desirable habits.

He points to a pizza delivery company that emphasized seat belt usage with its drivers. As more drivers used their seat belts, they began to exhibit safer driving habits. However, the drivers’ improvements in those task-oriented skills wouldn’t translate into people-related skills, such as customer relations.

The first step is to identify the behavior you want to change and what that change should look like, Lanik said, adding it’s easier to change a person’s behavior than personality, which can take a decade. For example, if you want to improve organizational and planning skills, set up a behavioral exercise that teaches the person how to utilize metrics to track progress, then go over their to-do list at the end of the day.

Lanik said the most frequent question he receives from HR professionals deals with how to track the progress of the person being coached. His company is among those that have developed software, which includes initial diagnosis, a development plan and a phone app that provides and tracks daily exercises.

The 10% Rule

The war for talent plus newfound employee empowerment may be curtailing the boorish behavior that underscores much of unhealthy leadership traits, said Dale Dauten, a business author and consultant who has written about leadership and the humane workplace for more than 25 years.

“It’s my hope — I have no evidence — that a good labor market has helped,” Dauten said. “The wages aren’t reflecting the tight labor market but maybe the competition for talent is helping managers behave.”

To turn around a bad leader, you “have to convince a person to make a small change,” said Dauten, who writes “The Gifted Boss” blog. “It takes a lot of awareness to know when you (as a manager) are annoying someone, because we’ve been taught, at least until the emergence of movements such as #MeToo, to cover up our feelings in the work environment,” he observed.

Dauten proposes a 10% rule, which would provide enlightened leadership and behavior from throughout the workplace, not just from the management ranks. “Operate under the assumption that every 10th person you meet is a jerk and you’re a jerk one-tenth of the time. Things would go a lot better if people followed that and weren’t afraid to tell someone that ‘you’re being a jerk’ or admitting ‘I’ve been a jerk.’ It’s about looking the other way, turning the other cheek.”

Jim FickessJim Fickess  writes and edits for WorldatWork.