Over the past three weeks, we’ve been interviewing people in my office for leadership positions on our internal teams. The process has triggered memories of the first time I applied for a supervisory position. I’d been on the job for six months, and I thought I was on the fast track. But during my interview, the questions turned to how people around me were performing. I had no idea what to say.
I’d gone into that interview ready to talk about my own accomplishments — not how I was going to help others accomplish things. I think at one point I actually said, “I don’t know how to answer that.” As you can imagine, I didn’t get the job.
Over the years, my advice to people interviewing for leadership positions has always been that it’s no longer about you. Your performance is judged by the performance of others. So how are you going to help people around you perform better? A mentor of mine told me that when someone’s an individual contributor, it’s all about success. But when they’re a leader, it’s all about significance. Leadership is about others, not self.
This is a lesson we need to drill into the minds of our leaders. As I see it, there are basically two ways to teach this: through skill development activities, and through experience.
Skill Development Activities
Leadership is a skill that can be taught and reinforced through practice. There are tons of books to read and classes to take on leadership — and many of them are very good. The key is to pick a program that fits with your organization’s culture, and then to stick with it. Just make sure that as you’re evaluating leadership programs you’re looking for ones that teach people that leadership is about the performance of others, and not about self.
As I learned the hard way during my first big interview, sometimes there simply isn’t any substitution for real-world experience. Managers sometimes say it’s hard to help individual contributors develop leadership skills when they’re not in official leadership roles, but that’s just wrong. Assign different people to lead projects, however small, throughout the office — even something like planning an office potluck.
It requires leadership to make things like that come together, and it holds just as true whether you’re managing a team of customer service representatives or leading employees in organizing a potluck. It seems like a silly example, but it’s also an easy, low-risk, and important way of exposing aspiring leaders to experiences that they can learn from. Think about any and all projects that occur in your organization and match those up with people you know want to be leaders.
So how do these leadership-development activities teach aspiring leaders about significance? This is where we, as learning and development professionals, need to help our people make the connection between what they are learning about leadership and the impact that their leadership has on the organization. We can facilitate discussions following the activities above to help people make those connections. I sure wish someone did that for me. It might have saved me an embarrassing interview.
For more Daily Mindflash articles on Management Training, click here.
Bill Cushard, Director of Training and Development at Allonhill, is a learning leader with more than 12 years of experience in training and performance improvement at companies such as E*TRADE Financial, Accenture, and Time Warner Cable.