I was recently having a conversation with the CEO of a client organization about the current state of engagement and performance in the company. They were undergoing a significant organizational transformation. As we talked, he seemed to become gradually more frustrated – emotions were starting to boil up. Rather than make assumptions I asked, “So what do you feel the root causes are of low productivity and engagement?”
He exclaimed, “It just seems that the majority of our workforce is disengaged and even a bit lazy. They do their work, but do the bare minimum. There isn’t much collaboration either.”
I went on to ask what he felt the root cause of that was. Then, at the risk of really setting him off I said, “As leaders we generally get the behaviors and mindsets we tolerate. If the team is lazy and disengaged that’s usually a reflection of behaviors at the top. If the majority of the team feels that the bare minimum is good enough, then that’s what they will give you. Even those who initially came into the organization willing and ready to learn, grow and go all in. Those fully engaged employees can become infected by the disengaged.”
Thankfully, rather than telling me to go pound sand, he had an epiphany. This was his ah-hah moment and the beginning of a mindset transformation.
In order for an organization’s investment in leadership development to be successful, they must first assess the willingness and readiness of their current and emerging leaders to actually improve. And while more and more companies are finally beginning to realize that – when approached correctly – developing leaders does in fact drive profitability – most are still just providing basic management training. There’s a big difference.
The first step to generating a positive return on investment (increased engagement, efficiency and profitability) is to analyze the existing leadership landscape. Some people in leadership roles are those individuals that are life-long learners and crave constant opportunities to accept feedback, apply and grow. Others – maybe not so much. And some are willing but lack self-awareness so they assume their leadership performance is great – and directly linked to the company’s good performance. Or if the performance is lacking, they fail to see their role in that outcome.
In chapter two of their new book How Leaders Improve: A Playbook for Leaders Who Want to Get Better Now, John Gates, Ph.D., Jeff Graddy, Ph.D. and Sacha Lindekens, Ph.D. write about the RIPENESS of a leader – their readiness to improve.
In the Navy SEAL Teams, one of our core priorities was readiness. At the individual and team level. It’s a mindset that drives us to take the actions necessary to generate the result of readiness. And it starts the first day of training. Those not willing to accept feedback, learn, apply and grow didn’t make it far.
Elite athletes are no different. The best athletes in the world generally choose one or two key skills to improve during each offseason – and then train relentlessly knowing the results will be positive for themselves and the team.
In the SEAL Teams, you will train on new and existing skills for eighteen months before each six month deployment. Everyone is willing, ready and able.
And as I alluded to earlier, sometimes it takes just one eye-opening experience for a leader to transform their mindset – whether its through a more formal process like 360 review feedback or a casual conversation.
In their book, the authors identify seven leadership mindsets necessary for successful development.
While most leaders, when asked, would answer that they are definitely open to improving, assessing genuine openness to improve in key areas is important. But overall, their research showed that even a baseline level of readiness led to positive results.
Another mindset identified by their data was ambition. Leaders open to improvement are almost always driven by career advancement opportunities. If the leader resides at the very top of the organization, that ambition can be tied more closely to organizational growth, shareholder value and potential exit strategies. Another interesting piece of data points to managers of high-potential leaders. Good managers keep a close eye on their team members and know when the time is right to invest in their growth – before they are asked. This act alone increases trust and engagement.
3 . Desire for ROI
Any well-run organization understands the importance of ROI for everything they invest time and resources in. For example, it costs millions of dollars to train and acquire just one Navy SEAL. Then we continue to invest millions in their training and development over the course of their career. The ROI needs no explanation! When investing in leadership development, its imperative that both those paying for it and those participating (sometimes that’s both parties) connect to the importance of the ROI. And all are accountable for making improvements to ensure the ROI is a positive outcome.
4. Belief That its Important
In working with many leaders over the past years in my own companies and other organizations, belief in personal and processional development was always imperative to positive improvements – myself included. As CEO of my first company, I eventually realized it would be good to invest in a 360 degree review process for myself, other C-level executives and our middle managers. The results from my first review weren’t quite as good as I had hoped! And I quickly realized three things. First, I needed to embrace the feedback and believe that improving in a few key areas would help the company. Second, I had to let the company know that I had “heard” what they had communicated and planned to take immediate action. Third, I knew that the worst possible outcome would be to invest in the 360 feedback process and then do nothing with the data.
5. Fear of Consequences of Inaction
The most improved leaders usually also have the mindset of fearing the consequences of what might happen if they don’t act. If those leaders are at the top, it’s the fear of damaging trust with those beneath them. In my experience, the most driven to improve are exceedingly proactive about addressing specific feedback with their manager by saying, “I seem to be falling short in this specific area so I’d like to make this a top priority as it relates to how my performance is measured.”
6 . Soul-Searching
In their research, Gates, Graddy and Lindekens also discovered that many of the most improved leaders were also in a period of soul-searching when it came to their careers and life in general. Timing seems to be important as it relates to individuals emotionally connecting to the desire to improve. In my experience, this is definitely true. Some of the best leaders in my companies always exhibited this mindset. And some eventually moved on to start their own companies once they felt they were really ready to lead and build a business. Believe it or not, I actually saw this as a positive outcome!
7. Commitment to Self-Improvement
This might seem obvious, but the best leaders see leadership excellence and a constant journey as opposed to a destination. They are never truly satisfied with the status quo always asking, “How can I improve?” They are life-long learners and always RIPE for growth.
It will almost always be the case that some people undergoing leadership development have been “informed” that they are gaining this new opportunity to grow – but they may not be ready or willing. By first ensuring those being invested in embody these seven mindsets, the chances for a positive ROI go through the roof.