They say it takes a village to raise a child, but what does it take to develop a leader? Debates weigh natural ability versus purposeful development but the truth of the matter is that both are key. You can’t create a leader from an individual who lacks the innate qualities to lead, and you also can’t expect a leader to be effective without committing the time and effort to develop him or her. As a generation of executives leave the workforce, organizations are finding themselves in what many perceive to be a leadership crisis and a grapple for the experience and knowledge of those that remain. There isn’t a fail-safe guide to identifying and developing high-potential team members, which makes corporate leadership programs one of the most important responsibilities of today’s leaders.
So what is the key to developing an effective leadership force? It begins with culture. Much of what we learn as humans is through observation, and while there are no perfect leaders, the qualities your organization wants to replicate in future leadership must meet the hyper-critical demo-do aspect of leader development. There are innumerable areas that can facilitate high-potential team member development, but there are specific areas where added effort and emphasized priority will drive personal and professional growth of all team members, with considerable impact on organizational performance.
Establish Structured and Disciplined Operations
In recent years, the terms “discipline” and “structure” have assumed negative connotations of rigidity and stagnation, and not necessarily exclusive to military-style leadership development. An unfair manifestation if there ever was one, we propose that, when applied correctly, structure and discipline are not meant to control or restrict, rather they are meant to enable initiative directed by informed judgment. In fact, many of the clients we have partnered with have found creative innovation and organizational agility—often thought to be victims of structure and discipline—after introducing the Flawless Execution framework in their teams.
The secret is in the application of structure and discipline within your operations, and when used appropriately, the results can be radical. Let’s consider your planning process. Does your process follow a plan development guideline? Does it facilitate collaborative brainstorming that engages every team member? Does your process empower your teams to leverage lessons learned and prior experiences? If you answered “no” to any one of these questions (or don’t have a process at all) your plans could likely benefit from adding more structure. Planning frameworks like the Six Steps of Mission Planning enable collaborative innovation and operational agility by addressing the common pitfalls of plan development, like contingency planning, accountability and accelerated learning. When your planning process naturally facilitates the contemplation of key elements, it enables your teams to fully leverage cognitive diversity and past experiences for stronger, more effective plans.
Build an Environment of Nameless, Rankless Debriefing With Leader-led Accountability
The top ranking members of the most hierarchical organization in the world—the US military—swear by the nameless, rankless debrief. Considering this group’s proven ability to lead large, diverse teams in the most unforgiving environments on Earth—environments that spawned the term VUCA—for more than two centuries, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more knowledgeable source of leadership best practices. Though the literal (and figurative) act of ripping the rank from your shirt to voluntarily subject yourself to the criticism of those you lead is one of the most daunting—and liberating—things you will do as a leader. But as cringe-inducing as the act may seem at the onset, your ability to sacrifice pride in the name of learning will do more for your culture than you can imagine.
The key to debriefing is in the environment. Debriefs should be free of attribution, focusing on the “what” rather than the “who.” It requires open minds and a collective motive for learning and continuous improvement. It’s the leader’s responsibility to set this expectation, and the STEALTH DebriefSM process provides the structure to drive a learning-focused debrief where pride and negative criticism are checked at the door. Leveraging this step-by-step tool will help leaders to establish an environment where learning and improvement take precedence over attribution, and antagonistic dialog and communication barriers give way to trust and mutual understanding. This is the environment that builds stronger teams and future leaders on a greater scale at an accelerated pace.
Create a Bias to Action
The old adage “Don’t let great be the enemy of good” rings true in today’s corporate environment. All too often, the root cause of mission failure lies in the delayed decision-making – or lack thereof entirely – rather than making the wrong decision. Delayed and missed decisions prevent teams from addressing issues sooner or capitalizing on opportunities faster, hallmarks of unsustainable operations. Eliminate this as a threat by creating a bias to action in your teams. Leaders should demonstrate a courage to execute even when the circumstances or the outcome isn’t 100% known, because in the real world, there is no such thing as perfect information or data.
A bias to action is most important in the planning and execution phases. While the planning process shouldn’t be rushed, the longer it takes to deploy a plan, the less likely it is that your team will be executing it in the same environment that it was created in. Threats or opportunities have changed, your timeline isn’t executable and a number of other time-sensitive elements can doom your mission from the start. The Six Steps of Mission Planning empowers your teams with a framework to build plans they can execute with confidence, knowing that heightened team Situational Awareness and integrated X-GapsSM enable teams to make swift and confident decision-making during the execution phase, allowing for truly agile operations when time is your biggest threat.
Demonstrate Corporate Leadership Development Through Effects-Based Thinking and Leader’s Intent
Organizations today suffer from an endemic problem: the quick and correct identification of the root causes of execution challenges. Many superficial symptoms mask the much more insidious threat to success that begins with strategy development and bleeds into tactic development, and consequently, all execution efforts. When your challenges begin at the top, the effects cascade into every facet of operations, and more often than not, those challenges can be avoided. One of the most common flaws in organizational design is centralized authority, where top level strategies are tactically focused and lack leader’s intent. This top-down, tactical style of management prohibits leadership development at each level and risks high-level organizational Situational Awareness as leaders concern themselves with tactical activity.
Flawless Execution helps your leaders to decentralize authority by leveraging effects-based thinking to develop strategies with appropriate scope, then clearly articulating their leader’s intent to mid-level and frontline leaders, who can build buy-in at the lower levels through collaborative plan development. When your organization utilizes a common mental model that drives iterative action on every front, you can build a culture that leans into learning and accountability.
While these are only four of many ways to build a culture that naturally fosters leadership development, these key areas will help make the biggest impact in the shortest time frame. And if there is one thing that we have learned in 20 years of corporate leadership development in the world’s top corporations, it’s that the world won’t wait until your leaders are ready. Start today and start with your culture. Developing leaders is our expertise, talk to one of our professionals today to craft a program around your needs.
Will Duke is Afterburner’s Director of Learning and Development. His duties include coordination of the development of intellectual property, training programs, and educational materials. He also serves as a consultant to process and continuous improvement management programs. With Co-author James “Murph” Murphy, he wrote the 2010 release “The Flawless Execution Field Manual. Duke currently serves as a senior Human Resources Officer in the in the U.S. Navy Reserve and has held numerous command and positions throughout his career.