A May-June 2023 Harvard Business Review article opened with the statement, “Executives have always been- and always will be- expected to produce results.” Today’s more relevant question is not “if” executives are responsible for results but “how” they achieve them. There was a time when achieving results meant to command and control. The typical results, i.e., firm performance, shareholder return, revenue growth, and operating margins, are what most executives are evaluated on. So, the “what” is the same. The “how” those results are achieved is scrutinized and frankly needs to change. Spencer Stuart was the search firm tasked with collecting data on 75 positions that examined 235 candidates for this HBR article. Candidates were assessed on their leadership style (directive through empowering) and their ability to work through networks by instilling and leveraging people skills. All the candidates are on a Three-Stage Journey of development. The “departure” is where the person recognizes the need for change. Stage 2 is the “voyage.” This is where the executive is required to use their new skills through trials and tribulations. Stage 3 is “the return,” where the executives have changed how they look at things. They see a different path from the old to the new way. The executives begin to transfer what they learned to new and different situations. Now I have to say that 40 years in leadership development has hardened me to the fact that most leaders don’t change because it is the “right” thing to do. They change because they are confronted with dissonant information about their performance, often through an assessment. Sometimes it is a confrontation by a boss or the Board indicating that either you change or “a” change will be made. Wherever the dose of reality comes from ( assessment or others), most people don’t have the inherent capabilities to make the required changes. For years I have listened to grizzled senior managers snidely refer to “soft skills” as important. Yet, everyone around the person knew the chances were between slim and none that those changes would be made. 2023 is showing itself to be a different era. Now adopting and being able to utilize those soft skills may mean the difference between keeping and losing that senior management position.
Ibarra, Hildebrand, and Vinck, the authors of the HBR article, use their three stages and the framework for someone developing these soft skills. That is a useful framework. They talk about seeking feedback. Something critical to someone changing. The lens through which I look at making these changes is learning agility, specifically the Burke Learning Agility nine dimensions and assessment. Learning Agility, the way that Burke and I define it in our books on the subject, is, finding yourself in a situation that you have never been in before, not knowing what to do, and figuring it out. These executives are confronted with that when trying to adopt these “soft skills.” In the past, these executives “tightened the reins.” Leading today requires different skills. Burke’s nine dimensions for measuring learning agility are: 1) Flexibility; 2) Speed; 3) Experimenting; 4) Collaborating; 5) Feedback Seeking; 6) Performance Risk-Taking; 7) Interpersonal Risk-Taking; 8) Information Gathering; 9) Reflecting.
The point upon which the authors of this article and I agree is the criticality of the executives recognizing a significant gap between their current behavior and the desired behavior. You need their attention. At the very least, I prefer an assessment to be a part of the process. I particularly like self-assessments because the person is evaluating themself. The critique can be that the results will be inflated. This sometimes happens, and there are ways to deal with that. In the few instances where this does happen, I put it back to the executive to explain why the Board or their boss is saying something very different. Ibarra et al. describes Stage 1 as “Departure,” where the person recognizes the need for change. The feedback from others and the assessment results can be the input that change is needed. The Burke Assessment can be that bridge for the “what and how.” If the person resists, then the ship is not “departing.” There is not a perceived need for change. Let’s assume we reach that acceptance of the needed change. Stage 2 is the “Voyage,” according to Ibarra. Using the Burke, we already have described the gap. Ibarra describes using a Coach. We agree. A Coach or a third party must help the person understand “what” needs to be done and “how” it could be done. The executive needs to own the path forward. For me, part of Ibarra’s departure stage is an admission by the executive that they need help addressing these issues and a commitment from them that they will work hard to address these areas. We may lay out a basic work plan for the next six months and indicate where we hope to be at that point. Their boss could be a part of that discussion. We could set a date in six months for that review meeting to examine what we did and where we are currently. Then the work begins. I then like to determine an area that will be worked on (an aspect of Collaborating or Interpersonal Risk-Taking) and identify a person or project where this will be done. We will discuss the plan. The executive will then implement this work. We meet to discuss what went well and what adjustments the person would make going forward. We would map out the next step, execute, and meet to discuss.
Ibarra talks about outside-in-learning. I like and use this approach. It means working on this with someone outside the executive’s chain of command. This can be a practice attempt that will reduce the difficulty of doing it perfectly the first time.
Ibarra’s last stage is “The Return,” in which he is having the executive further practice using this newly learned skill but still using it outside their chain of command. The Burke assessments might be used differently because there are nine dimensions and the associated thirty-eight behavioral descriptions it entails. This is the sandbox of stuff we work on. The executives decide which ones and where they would work on them. Typically, the application is within the scope of their duties and responsibilities. It is conceivable that the application could be in one of their collateral duties. Upon achieving success, we keep using the skill in progressively more challenging situations. Ibarra needs to better define each of the “soft skills” to which he is alluding. They mention things like collaborating, culture-shaping, and empowering, measured by asking good questions. Without the specificity of the Burke report (dimensions and behavioral descriptions), I would be concerned about measurable progress being made with Ibarra’s approach.
About the Author
David Hoff is the COO and EVP of Leadership Development for E.A.S.I-Consult®. E.A.S.I-Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. E.A.S.I-Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring advisement. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about E.A.S.I-Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.