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What Happens Now? A Q&A With Mark Nevins and John Hillen

Thursday, May 31, 2018
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What happens when an organization’s growth outpaces its leaders’ skills? That’s the focus of the new book What Happens Now?: Reinvent Yourself as a Leader Before Your Business Outruns You, co-authored by Mark Nevins and John Hillen.

Nevins is a consultant and advisor to top executives, teams, and organizations. Earlier in his career he was responsible for learning and development globally for Booz Allen Hamilton, and for organization development and human resources globally for Korn/Ferry International. He has coached and advised a broad range of executives from the C-suite to high-potential vice presidents at large corporations such as American Express, Citibank, NBCUniversal, and Time Warner, as well as smaller companies, high-growth startups, and top-tier professional and financial services firms.

Hillen is a leadership and strategy professor in the School of Business at George Mason University, a consultant, and a director for many companies. His views on leadership draw from his experiences as a CEO of public and private companies, a board chair and director, a U.S. Assistant Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, and a former U.S. Army officer and decorated combat leader.

This interview with the authors explores how leaders can reinvent themselves to meet the challenges facing today's businesses.

In your work, you identify seven common career stalls that most leaders will face at some point. When do most leaders stall out, and why?

Leaders tend to stall when their businesses grow larger or faster than they do. Paradoxically, this is a bad outcome from a good thing: you’ve been successful, but now you need to fundamentally change who you are as a leader, and what you do, or you won’t be able to get to the next level.

Stalls are critical inflection points for leaders. If you try to tap into what’s always worked in the past, you’re likely to struggle or be left behind. The stalls we see most often come about because leaders don’t realize that they need to get more sophisticated, not just better at dealing with complexity. Sophisticated leaders recognize that they need to change their skills, mindsets, and behaviors to be successful—and that the technical and tactical skills that were so important earlier in their careers need to give way to sophisticated strategic and interpersonal skills to perform at higher levels.

How can you tell if you’re in the midst of a leadership stall?

We identify seven specific kinds of stalls that most leaders will encounter. Each one has their own warning signs. There are stalls that center on organizational purpose, team effectiveness, stakeholder influencing, leading change, projecting authority, where you focus your time and energy, and developing other leaders. Each of these stalls has very clear warning signs—if you are self-aware enough to see them.

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For instance, a sign that you are stalling in building a truly high-performing team might be that team members don’t seem to have a common view of enterprise priorities; they resist shared accountability or team-based rewards; they need you involved in all decisions and to settle differences; they can’t engage in honest conversations with each other; you, as their boss, don’t feel entirely comfortable delegating to them.

There are warning signs that could lead to a stall when you’re leading change. What are some techniques to avoid burnout and engage your team so they welcome initiatives and understand them from the onset?

Leading change is probably the most fundamental role of any leader, and one of the most challenging ones. People resist change not because they’re being difficult, but because usually they don’t understand it, don’t trust it, or don’t know what it means for them personally. Ironically your highest performers may be most resistant—even unintentionally. They themselves will stall because, in times of pressure, they’ll revert back to what's always worked in the past.

Great change models such as John Kotter’s are necessary but not sufficient. In times of change, you have to talk to your team. Leaders must foster dialogue; listen carefully and patiently; and explain the change by appealing to the values of their followers or customers, not just to the logic of the strategic plan. Leading change effectively must happen on followers’ terms and by assuaging their anxieties about the new future. Every change leader needs to be a CEO—a “Chief Explaining Officer.” And, most importantly, people need to feel like change is being led with them, not being done to them.

One of the common stalls you cite is failing to develop leaders around you. Why is creating a culture of leadership so important to your own personal career?

There’s an old saying that the most important job of a leader is to create other leaders. We couldn’t agree more. Leadership is a mode, not a role or a title. Look around your organization and pinpoint which of your people do you want NOT to be leaders?

We all need to create stronger leaders around us to get results today and to build organizational capability tomorrow. But there are so many other reasons as well. People want to better themselves and their careers, so if you invest in them you’ll increase retention and performance. Strong cultures are ones that foster the development above leaders. Or, you can be really pragmatic about it: if you haven’t developed strong leaders to take over YOUR job, how can you be promoted?

Why is authentic leadership so important? How do you know if you’re truly an authentic leader?

We talk a great deal about authenticity—and it ultimately comes down to a brutally honest question: “Why would anyone want to follow YOU?” Authenticity means leading from who you truly are. You can’t fake it. You can study other leaders and learn from what they did or didn’t do, but you can’t be them—because you aren’t them and you face different challenges. But your sources of authority also need to evolve as you and your leadership roles do. If you manage analysts, your team believes you to be technically smart. If you’re leading a business unit, they believe in what you’re doing and your intentions, because you are committed to that outcome and it makes sense to me personally.

When we talk about authority and authenticity we ask people to be very honest with themselves. Try to answer key questions: What really motivates you? How do you see and value others? How do you relate to them? What’s your level of emotional intelligence? How do you address ethical challenges? How rich a personal and intellectual life do you have—what do you do to reenergize, what kinds of books do you read, what’s your public service—and why? To answer the question even more pointedly—if you want

About the Author
Community of Practice Manager, ATD  Ann Parker is senior manager of the Human Capital Community of Practice and the Senior Leaders & Executives Community of Practice at ATD. Prior to this position, she worked at ATD for five years in an editorial capacity, primarily for TD magazine, and most recently as a senior writer and editor. In this role, Ann had the privilege to talk to many training and development practitioners, hear from a variety of prominent industry thought leaders, and develop a rich understanding of the profession's content.
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