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Leaders vs. Leadership

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HR Guru Professor Dave Ulrich, Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, says in this exclusive interview that an individual leader matters, but an organisation’s leadership matters very much more over time. In this interview, Prof. Ulrich shares key insights on leadership and succession practices that are critical for business success


Q: Is there is a difference between leaders and leadership?

Leaders refer to individuals who have unique skills to guide and influence the behaviour of others and achieve outstanding results. Leadership refers to an organisation’s capacity to build future leaders. An individual leader matters, but an organisation’s leadership matters more over time.


Q: How do you make leaders more effective?

Individual leaders can become more effective through coaching, mentoring, 720 feedback and individual development plans, but to build leadership depth companies need to invest in leadership development and establish a process to build a leadership pipeline.


Q: Does quality of leadership drive performance?

Yes, quality of leadership drives performance both inside and outside the organisation. Organisations with strong leadership depth will have the capacity to respond to changing business conditions, execute strategy, increase investor confidence, and anticipate and deliver customer requirements.



Q: How do you make leadership success more sustainable?

Often leadership success remains either inside the company (leaders learn from other leaders in the company who have succeed) or inside the individual. The criteria of leadership should start with customers. When leaders inside the company behave in a manner that is consistent with the expectations of customers (and other stakeholders) outside the company, the leadership will be more sustainable and effective. Companies that define internal leadership through external expectations will set more relevant and impactful leadership standards. 


Q: How are leadership standards established?

In some companies, the board of directors assesses the CEO’s performance both inside the company with his team and among his employees and outside the company with key stakeholders. This type of assessment offers a more complete view of leaders who have roles with external stakeholders. Assessment also may help determine high potential and future leaders by looking at the extent to which they have aspirations to lead, ability to meet future standards, and agility to learn and grow.

Once leadership standards are set, leaders need to be assessed on how well they meet those standards. With an external view, leadership 360s may be expanded to 720s where customers, suppliers, communities, or other external stakeholders may be included in assessing targeted leaders


Q: Has the traditional formula for leadership investment and development changed?

The traditional formula for leadership investment has been 70-20-10. The logic is that 70% of learning and development is on the job; 20% from feedback and observation of role models and mentors and only 10% from training. 

We think that this formula and should shift to something like 40% of learning from doing and experiencing, 30% of learning where the participant in training is immersed in the business while in the training session. This would mean pre work to know what the participant should leave with, action learning during the training, relevant cases and problems to be solved, customers as faculty and participants, and follow up to ensure that ideas taught had real impact. 30% of learning from experiences outside of work, social settings, social networks, volunteer work, reading and travelling. 

When companies can encourage and access knowledge from these efforts, leaders will broaden their repertoire. This mix of leadership investments may be the basis for building leadership depth throughout an organisation to ensure a firm’s capacity to endure and also make succession transitions less awkward and messy.


Q: Finally, how does the Government build leadership within the public service?

I would suggest four key steps that the Sri Lanka public sector could follow to make the public service more skilled, digital and unified

1. Create a business case: establish the rational for why improved leadership matters for the Sri Lankan public sector (to meet goals, to be a trend setter, to serve employees, to meet citizen expectations, etc.)

2. Define leadership brand: based on above discussion, define the standards and criteria (competencies) for an effective Sri Lanka public servant. These should include what we call the Code (leadership basics) and the differentiators (the unique qualities of Sri Lanka civil service)

3. Assess leaders: find out how leaders are doing and living these standards

4. Develop leaders: create leadership development opportunities:

a. On the job: assignments, projects, task forces, public presentations, career mobility

b. Public Service Leadership Academy: create a Sri Lanka leadership academy that invests in future leaders with courses, experiences, and other training

c. New job experiences: help current leaders become mentors to others and other groups to learn from non-work activities and from the private sector through secondments.

d. Follow up and track results: measure leadership growth for both individual leaders and for overall leadership

So in conclusion, by strengthening these pillars, the Government can build and grow a strong public service that can deliver real value to the public.

(The writer is a HR thought leader.)

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