Getting ready for a future we don’t yet quite understand needs a sharper focus on understanding, identifying and developing leadership talent. How to balance a focus on technical excellence with the broader sustained impact and value talented people must bring?
Broadly defined, talented people are those who consistently produce exceptional results with the same resources and resource constraints as everyone else. While early career success is often focused on a combination of technical success and drive, people who perform well as professionals can fail to show up as leadership talent.
A large part of the reason for this is that they are not seen as safe hands. Too driven and competitive, they don’t collaborate, or focused purely on what they deliver, they are not seen as strategic or influential. Take Roberta who works for a large global FMCG company. Bright, action-oriented and ahead of her peers, her manager reflects that he doesn’t entirely trust her to operate on her own. Her career to date has been powered by achievement, but she can’t yet be trusted to lead.
To be “safe hands” is to care through competence, and therefore not cause harm or damage (Collins English Dictionary). Many organisations have key leadership competencies, but what is the crux of being seen as safe hands? This question is even more important now that work has migrated to at least a blend of face-to-face and virtual work. If I see myself as talent, how do I show up as safe hands? As leaders investing in talent, where do we start?
In our work with people managing the turn from a role at one level of complexity to another, we see them getting stuck at the same places. Focused on being reliable, smart and proactive is often not enough to show up as talent. Herminia Ibarra’s work on the paradox of authenticity describes how we have to grow to learn new behaviours, often feeling like a fake in the process.
The six safe hands competencies are the bedrock for adding sustained value and impact. If talent is a tree, these safe hands competencies are the roots.
The first three of the six talk to impact: how someone comes across in ways that enable them to lead through influence. If what someone is doing is too big to do entirely on their own, they need to build connections and lead through influence within and beyond their formal team. The three IMPACT competencies are Executive Presence, Relationship Building and Influencing with Impact.
Executive Presence talks to an ability to inspire confidence while remaining humble and open to new perspectives. It’s about knowing when and how to push or hold a position firmly, fairly, and respectfully, as well as being able to manage pressure and bounce back from adversity.
Building relationships and networks of mutual warmth, trust and respect also includes contextual awareness, the ability to read and adapt to different people and situations and to work with others to achieve shared goals. This links to the third IMPACT competency, the confidence and skills to communicate and influence.
Someone who neglects or breaks relationships, who is seen as disconnected or disrespectful, who allows busy-ness to dominate or who lacks an ability to influence will inevitably land up doing too much themselves. This creates siloes, erodes sustainability and blocks them from having the insights needed to think connectively and strategically.
The second three acumens relate to substance. These are Drives Quality Results, Judgement and Decision-making and Navigating Ambiguity. Harder to develop because they rest on thinking patterns that can be difficult to change quickly. These competencies are about proactivity, being able to prioritise, cut to the core and adapt boldly to the requirements of new, ambiguous or uncertain situations. Consistent follow-through and an ability to solve problems and make good decisions are the hallmarks of people with substance.
Thinking about your team, who scores highly on all six competencies? Are there others who are held back from showing up as potential leadership talent because of lacks in any of these six?
Whether trying to improve or change, using the language of safe hands is helpful in shaping feedback and coaching around baseline expectations. To return to our image of talent as a tree, while many potentially talented people may dazzle with branches and leaves, a tree cannot grow tall and strong if its roots are not secure.
Goldsmith, M. 2010. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How successful people become even more successful. London: Profile Books
Ibarra, H., 2003. Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing your Career. Harvard Business School Press
Ibarra, H., 2015. The Authenticity Paradox Why feeling like a fake can be a sign of growth. Harvard Business Review, January – February 2015
Institute of the Future, Future Work Skills 2020 for the University of Phoenix Research Institute
Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R. and Switzler, A. 2002. Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking when Stakes are High. New York: McGraw- Hill