The CEO of a fast-growing technology business reached out to me with a simple question: how do you know if someone is “ready” to lead?
In other words, how can I be sure that someone who can perform his or her “job” at a high level is ready, and able, to be held responsible for the performance of others?
This is a great question; one that can mean the difference between steady growth or stagnation at a large company and success or failure at a small one.
Here’s one way to think about it…
WHY NEW LEADERS FAIL
Let’s start with why new leaders fail…and they do at an alarming rate.
According to the Center of Creative Leadership, 50% of first-time leaders fail to meet expectations. More troubling, these first time “bosses” may be directly responsible for 60% (or more) of your organization.
To be fair, leading others is hard.
Even the most “ready,” will likely struggle when they have to deliver critical performance feedback for the first time, or discipline a colleague that also happens to be a close friend.
Making matters worse, I’ve learned that established leaders tend to make one of two common mistakes when it comes to preparing rising leaders for the challenges of the role:
1. “Deep-End-Of-The-Pool” Development
In other words, we under-invest in the preparing the people we are asking to lead for the first time. Often times, this is well-intentioned. In fact, we are selecting these men and women based upon past performance. When we promote them as a new leader, we make the (often incorrect) assumption that they will “figure it out” because “they’re smart.”
For better or worse, many of the executives with whom I work were “developed” in this manner and believe that what “worked for me” will work for everyone else.
2. “Over-Intellectualized” Development
Other companies pursue a complex, competency-based approach to identifying and developing future leaders. This is well-intentioned, but typically these lists are long, with 10 (or more) “must haves.” (See example from KIPP, right).
The problem: if everything is important, nothing is. Even more, as competency models grow in complexity it becomes increasingly difficult to know what matters most when it comes to leading others well.
Through my work with rising leaders I have learned that we can more accurately assess a person’s ability to lead others by asking this, more basic, question: how well does he lead himself?
FIVE SIGNS THAT SOMEONE IS READY TO LEAD
For CEOs or senior leaders trying to assess the leadership “readiness” of a given employee, here are five signs of self-leadership that can help you better identify, and promote, those capable of most effectively leading others.
1. They know what they value and act accordingly.
Our values guide our decision-making; they influence our choices, both personally and professionally.
A “ready” leader is self-aware. He knows what he values and why. Most importantly he understands the implications of those values and acts accordingly. Both his behavior, and decision-making, is values-based.
Values-awareness is the secret to creating and maintaining alignment across a team. It allows a new leader to be able to make hard choices and, most importantly, communicate the rationale behind the decision made.
2. They set personal goals and execute against them.
As CEO (or senior leader) you want to know that the person you are asking to lead is choosing you, as much as you are choosing her.
A “ready” leader has a personal strategy complete with goals and a plan for achieving them.
She what she wants to learn and accomplish, personally and professionally, and how she intends to make it happen.
Unlike her peers, a “ready” leader will be able to tell you how a leadership role aligns with her vision of the career, life, and impact that she wants to create.
The existence of this plan (another form of self-awareness) can give you confidence that this leader will bring her best self to work every day.
And, make no mistake, if a new leader is going to be successful, she is going to have to bring her best self to the job.
She will be expected to do the hard work of going first; of figuring out the path forward where none currently exists and working with her team to develop a plan to make it happen.
3. They understand money (and how to manage it).
An odd item to include on a list of leadership prerequisites? Perhaps.
But consider this: Does one’s sense of personal financial security affect their performance on the job?
You bet. In fact, Google, in their quest to build the perfect team, found that their highest-performing teams had leaders who created an environment of “psychological safety and security.”
Alas, you cannot give what you do not have.
A “ready” leader must know enough about money and personal finance to not fear it.
I’ve learned that even the most intelligent men and women can under-invest in building personal financial awareness and, as a result, worry about money to such an extent that it affects their performance, and decision-making, at work.
It’s hard to lead from a fearful state. It’s hard to make the tough, courageous choices required to move a company forward if you are worried about paying bills, or making “ends meet.”
In addition, absent other indicators, personal financial acumen can serve as a good proxy for decision-making and business acumen, in general.
All other things being equal, I want to hire the individual that brings the same level of rigor to her personal finances as I will expect them to bring to the management of our company finances.
4. They can sell.
As entrepreneur Derrick Sivers so cleverly puts it in this short, brilliant TED Talk, “a leader, without a follower, is just a lone nut.”
A “ready” leader needs followers. And followers need to be “sold” on the leader.
Of course I’m not talking about a snake-oil / used car-type sales. No, I mean a leader has to be able influence others to her way of thinking; she must be able to sell herself and her ideas.
A “ready” leader communicates well. She speaks, and writes, in a clear and concise manner. She can use both stories, and data, to bring ideas to life and build consensus.
Even more, a “ready” leader understands how to read her audience; she recognizes that every person with whom she interacts communicates in their own way. She possesses the ability to “flex” her communication style to best align with the preferences of his audience.
5. They manage their energy.
While accepting his 2015 Golden Globe award, actor Michael Douglas shared a simple recipe for success; a simple “operating model” he learned growing up:
“Work hard. Don’t quit. Be appreciative, be thankful, be grateful, be respectful. Also, never whine, never complain. And always, for crying out loud, keep a sense of humor.”
If you were trying to summarize the “essence” of leading others in 30 words or less, this would be a pretty good start.
Leading others requires perseverance (if you quit, the team fails). It’s also a relationship among human beings; a relationship that is made better by the presence of gratitude, respect and humor.
But, even more important, leading others requires energy.
I am talking about physical and emotional energy: the ability to get out of bed in the morning, and the stamina to “keep at it” when everyone else has given up or gone home.
A “ready” leader understands energy and how to manage it. He knows what she has to do, every day, to create, and sustain, the energy he needs to lead.
Often times a “ready” leader can be identified by his healthy habits outside of work related to sleep, diet and exercise.
But, just as likely, a “ready” leader is known for his healthy habits within the office — he is great at prioritizing, or “putting first things first;” he says “no” when he has to, and he can focus, dig in, and solve the most critical challenges.
I can’t tell you what, exactly, a first time leader is going to face in his new role but I can tell you this: if he doesn’t effectively manage his energy, he won’t be successful.
I like to say that energy is the “lead domino;” the leading indicator of leadership effectiveness and performance. A “ready” leader understands what he has to do, personally, to create and sustain the energy required to lead.
BUILDING “READY” LEADERS
Your organization doesn’t just need talent, it needs leaders.
Unfortunately it’s nearly impossible to evaluate leadership readiness from a resume or even a traditional performance review.
For a better way, consider these five leading indicators of “Ready Leaders” as a starting point for your exploration:
- They know their values.
- They have a plan.
- They understand money.
- They know how to sell.
- They can create, and sustain, the energy needed to lead.
These five, counter-intuitive indicators will help you more quickly, and accurately, assess the future effectiveness of someone whom you plan to hire or promote into a leadership role.
I hope you find this list helpful. Even more, I hope you use it.
Needless to say, the world needs more men and women who are “ready” to lead right now.
How “ready” are you to lead? How “ready” is your team? How do you know?
If you want to build a company of Ready Leaders, send me an email and we’ll schedule time to talk. I’ve got a new development workshop that can help build these foundational skills across your team and organization.