Lessons in leadership, part 3: Leading an organization

Leaders are more than just the forerunners of a business enterprise — they are head coach for their immediate teams and influential to the entire organization. Though often a challenge, leaders must ensure they are always positioning their organizations for success by recruiting top talent, ensuring everyone has the means to do their best work and guiding their teams through change.

On recruiting and succession planning

1. Across all industries, finding and retaining top talent is critical for organizations to ensure long-term success. While this may prove difficult in certain regions or organizations, there are several strategies leaders can adopt for better recruitment. Moshe Hogeg, founder and CEO of Tel Aviv, Israel-based Mobli Media, a real-time visual media platform, gives the following 3 suggestions in Entrepreneur magazine.

  • Don't be afraid to be informal. Mr. Hogeg said Israel's informal culture and propensity to take a casual approach to the interview allows for "natural, free-flowing conversation" and gives the interviewer a greater opportunity to get to know the interviewee on a more personal level, which ultimately provides a better picture as to whether they will be a strong match with the company's culture.
  • Show some chutzpah. A strong sense of boldness has many benefits. "Bad ideas tend not to thrive in these environments, and our willingness to listen to an opinion is based on the merits of its validity opposed to the rank or age of the individual who says it," Mr. Hogeg wrote. Chutzpah, or boldness, is a difficult trait to identify during an interview, but interviewers can gauge this is by asking the candidate to identify an area of the business for improvement. Candidates who show they can challenge authority and think on their feet will be strong assets to the business, according to Mr. Hogeg.
  • Look for employees who can balance their work and personal lives. Although a strong work ethic is one of the most important traits in an employee, there are few traits more harmful to an employee's ability to be successful and happy than an exclusive focus on work, according to Mr. Hogeg. Employees who find a balance between their work lives and personal lives are less likely to face burnout and more likely to stay with the company, produce strong, sustainable work.

2. Succession planning is equally as important as recruitment, though many organizations fail to develop and implement effective plans. In the past, it was common for CEOs to hand-pick successors, which often led to choosing someone similar to the departing CEO when the company really needed a leader to take it in a new direction, according to Forbes. Now, it is much more common for the board of directors to pick the CEO's successor, though they too often aim to recruit someone from an outside company instead of considering internal candidates.

3. To avoid mistakes in succession planning, consider the following succession planning mistakes to avoid, according to Forbes.

  • We know a promising internal candidate so we don't need to consider external ones. Just as some boards have a tendency to automatically search for candidates outside of the organization, others have the opposite tendency. It is important to simultaneously run internal and external searches, applying the same criteria against all candidates.
  • The successor must be a "ready now" CEO. It is only possible to know if a candidate is really "ready" in hindsight. A candidate's "readiness" is not necessarily based on experience, either. Rather, readiness depends in part on the context of the existing leadership team.
  • A new CEO should work the same as the past successful CEO. When searching for a replacement for a very successful CEO, there is a danger in looking for a candidate that will serve as her predecessor's replica. Succession planning must always address the organization's future needs, and be open to fresh perspectives and leadership styles.

4. Selective hiring and effective succession planning are essential for stability at the helm, especially at a time marked by the highest rates of executive turnover in the healthcare industry. However, certain strategies lead to better hiring choices. For instance, ensure hiring decisions are not influenced by the past, according to CFO Magazine. It's hazardous to hire an executive who fits the past but not the future needs of the business or selecting a leader from a small pool familiar faces.

5. Another effective tactic is aiming searches at entrepreneurs. A successful entrepreneur, by nature, is someone who can lead, take risks, take on multiple responsibilities and think critically. Entrepreneurs represent many of the traits a powerful executive should have. However, it is important to have a balanced approach when adding those with an entrepreneurial mindset and experience.  

6. When hiring an executive, it is imperative to prevent "institutional amnesia." Improving the organization's future performance partially depends on ensuring lessons learned from past mistakes aren't forgotten. When working with an executive search firm, it is important to record the performance of external advisors to inform future search process decisions, according to the Harvard Business Review.    

On running efficient meetings

7. Trying to stay attentive through long informational meetings often leaves attendees tired and even slightly bored, frequently leading to them to question, couldn't this information be sent in an email instead? According to the Harvard Business Review, significant elements of in-person meetings cannot be transmitted via email. This is partially because only 7 percent of information communicated face-to-face is verbal, meaning it cannot be translated into written text. The vast majority of communication in meetings is contextual, including body language, tone of voice, and attendees' reactions and feedback.           

8. Given this, it is of vital importance for leaders to ensure their meetings are both time efficient and productive. Here are three tips for running a better meeting, according to the Harvard Business Review.

  • Set an agenda prior to the meeting and clearly communicate goals. Mapping out meetings and setting agendas in advance is critical to making them successful. Additionally, meeting leaders should notify participants what a meeting will be about and give them time to prepare to be meaningful contributors. Lacking a clear game plan is often what causes groups to get derailed in decision-making.
  • Limit meetings to a maximum of seven people. While there is no magic number, small meetings are beneficial. It is easier to keep track of attendees' subtle body language cues, an important indicator of comprehension and reaction. Additionally, large meetings inhibit attendees' participation, due to "social loafing," a social psychology phenomenon that shows a sizable decrease in individual effort when in a group.
  • Create a "no devices allowed" rule. Even when we think we are multitasking, our attention is spread thin when simultaneously finishing an email or reading a text message while listening in a meeting. Using a cell phone, tablet or another device in a meeting is also distracting to others, and it can even be offensive. If someone is trying to talk during a meeting and they see their boss staring into their phone, he or she will likely see that as an insult.

9. If attendees at a meeting are not engaged or committed to its objectives, the meeting will is a huge waste of time. Google's Senior Vice President of People Operations, Laszlo Bock, said there is a simple pre- and post-meeting habit that can help improve efficiency in meetings, according to Business Insider. Mr. Bock tells managers to ask employees how they plan on making the most of a meeting before it starts, and then ask them what they gained from the meeting once it is finished. Managers should also ask themselves these questions to ensure meetings stay focused and concise. According to Mr. Bock, these exercises help ensure each meeting is an active, valuable and engaging experience. Additionally, they create viable opportunities to incorporate discussions regarding employees' personal goals.

On leading through change

10. Although many large-scale change and innovation efforts fail, such failure does not fully rest on the shoulders of the employees or CEO. Mid-level managers have the most power to make change. Those who are successful change leaders for their companies share several key characteristics, according to the Harvard Business Review.

  • They are open-minded. Change efforts often don't reach their potential or fail because the people leading them reduce themselves to pre-existing, mapped out systems. In contrast, successful change leaders keep an open mind, value bold ideas and aren't afraid to try something new.
  • They stick to the process. While successful change leaders are not afraid to employ out-of-the-box strategies, they don't act impulsively. The creativity aspect of their approach happens in the planning stage. After establishing what a change will be and how to achieve it, change leaders stick to it and inspire others to embrace it.
  • They act quickly. People don't see a reason to change something if there is no sense of urgency associated with it. It is important to communicate to employees the significance of the change, the stakes of failure and enforce the change process with deadlines.

11. Shepherding the organization through periods of change is a difficult task in itself, and in today's world, leaders must do so in VUCA — a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world where they not only confront periods of uncertainty, but are constantly immersed in it, Liz Wiseman, president of the Wiseman group, wrote in Fortune. The most critical skill when leading a team through change is communication, for a lack of communication leads to anxiety and unrest among employees.

12. Ms. Wiseman suggests the following tips to ensure strong communication with employees during periods of change.

  • Identify the unknowns. The first thing a leader should do during a transition period is clarify what is known and what remains an assumption. Write down all of the things you don't know but will need to understand better as change progresses.
  • Define the questions. State all of the questions that remain and outline the data or other resources needed to answer them.
  • Engage your team. After sharing what you know with your team, tell them what you don't. The next step is allowing your team to help you find the answers. In a VUCA world, leaders need all the intel they can get. Additionally, people work harder when they feel they are in control of their own fate, and allowing them to play a bigger role in problem solving will encourage this.

On becoming a more strategic leader

13. Unlike the numerous operational duties leaders perform on a daily basis, strategic actions involve a different mindset, new relationships and organizational skills. According to Hermina Ibarra, the Cora chair professor of leadership and learning at Insead, executives who want to become more strategic leaders can effectively develop a strong strategic awareness and skills through certain practices.

  • Use outside relationships inside your organization. While all leaders have an internal network that supports their daily operations, executives should also leverage a solid and well-placed network of contacts outside of their organization, according to Ms. Ibarra. These external contacts can offer insight about big picture to help leader make informed, strategic decisions internally. These external connections may even lead new business opportunities or partnerships.
  • Analyze what "strategic" initiatives are actually strategic. Often, various items on executives' agendas are strategic only in name and really do not require as much attention as others might suggest. According to Ms. Ibarra, ranking each strategic initiative they are asked to support in order of importance — or another measure — will allow executives to budget the amount of time spent and manpower involved working on each.
  • Work as a team. Strategic thinking is enhanced when members of the C-suite have established good working relationships and members collaborate with one another. Even though each chief has his or her own domain, they are actually interdependent and should aim to work as a coherent unit. Additionally, asking for another C-suiter's insight can prevent functional fixedness and improve strategic thinking, just as consulting someone outside of the organization can.

On performance management

14. Managers who give consistently critical performance reviews negatively impact their employees' performance and engagement levels, according to a study from the Harvard Business Review.

15. When asked to rate their direct reports on 360 evaluations, 50 managers at a multinational company were identified as positive-rating, and 31 managers consistently rated their direct reports significantly lower than their colleagues. While neither group said even 1 percent of their workers were truly problematic and needed significant improvement, nearly 14 percent of those working under negative-rating managers were identified as in need of improvement, compared to only 3 percent of those working under positive-rating managers. According to the study, the most likely explanation for these differences is more positive reviews actually make employees better, while more critical ones make them worse. 

16. Employees who received positive scores felt "lifted up and supported," and "that vote of confidence made them more optimistic about future improvement," according to the report. On the other hand, employees who received low scores from more critical managers felt "confused or discouraged — often both. They felt they were not valued or trusted, and that it was impossible to succeed." These feelings had a direct impact on engagement: Engagement scores for those working under the negative raters were in the 47th percentile on average, whereas engagement scores for those reporting to positive raters were in the 60th percentile on average.

17. Although performance reviews are an important aspect of management, employees require consistent coaching and support from their leaders to truly excel. However, this is not always the case. according to Gallup's State of the American Manager report, only 12 percent of employees agree that their manager helps them set work priorities, while 13 percent agree that their manager helps them set performance goals.

18. Leaders can employ the following three tactics to improve their performance management skills.

  • Improve organizational culture. Gallup identified five tenets of a strong organizational culture: (1) Leadership and communication, (2) values and rituals, (3) human capital practices and policies, (4) work team structures and (5) performance. CEOs and other senior leaders have the greatest authority in improving an organization's culture and they must serve as a face of this culture to encourage others to follow suit.
  • Study top performers. By observing top performers, leaders can obtain information about how employees want to be managed and how to further each employee's success. Additionally, through observation, leaders can develop accurate strategies for selecting and developing employees.
  • Use predictive analytics. Using a systematic approach, such as personality or aptitude tests, to scientifically choose top performers has numerous benefits. For example, utilizing such an approach can allow companies to identify employees with innate manager potential.

On productivity

19. By nature, humans want to keep busy, even when it is counterproductive. Sitting idle is uncomfortable, especially when pressed for time, so we often try to keep moving and working, though this often does not result in better performance.

20. While keeping busy has the illusion of productivity, at work, this bias may lead us to act in an attempt to solve before taking the time to fully understand the problem and create a plan. According to the Harvard Business Review, in one study, people reported feeling more productive when executing tasks than planning them, even though planning leads to higher performance than diving into tasks without a predetermined course of action.

21. Instead of being busy with an abundance of tasks, an essentialist — someone who has the ability to determine what is truly critical and not give too much attention to trivial, nonessential demands — will be a more valuable and productive leader, according to a Talent Management report on Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Doing Less, by Greg McKeown. By "strategically doing less," leaders can reduce stress and become valuable assets to their organizations, according to Mr. McKeown. To do this, leaders should ask themselves, "What is the very best and highest use of me? What if I was only paid for the value creation that I bring to the table?"

22. Although some people believe working longer results in increased productivity, the opposite is actually true. According to a study from Stanford University, productivity per hour significantly declines when the workweek exceeds 50 hours, and almost completely drops off after 55 hours.

23. Spencer Rascoff, the co-founder of Hotwire.com and CEO of Zillow, said in a Forbes article the key to success isn't pulling all-nighters or sacrificing weekends for work. Instead, he suggests dedicating the weekends to family and spending time engaging in your personal interest to rejuvenate and stay focused.

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