Challenging Leadership Mindset

April 1, 2014 Tammy Heermann

MindsetYour company is looking for an edge, so you’ve been investing heavily in your leaders – both acquiring new ones and building what you need for the future.

You’ve introduced intensive training or mentoring to ensure that current leaders have all of the skills of a modern, progressive leader.  And you’ve searched high and low to bring in new talent with just the right combination of skills and “fit”. And yet, despite all of the money and effort, you’re still not seeing the results. As an organization you have done all the things you’re supposed to, but something is missing.

What’s missing is a focus on changing leader’s mindset.

When it comes to re-inventing leadership, there are two common scenarios that tend to play out.  
In the first scenario, in an effort to bring about a change, an organization will recruit leaders that embody new ways of thinking, experience or more sophisticated processes. This can be an effective way of challenging an old and outdated mindset. However, in too many instances, the new leaders arrive only to find out they do not have the support from the highest levels of the organization. These leaders find themselves isolated and unable to affect change. Eventually, the organization will reject the new recruit much like a human body tries to reject a new organ.

Another common scenario involves organizations that invest heavily in training to bring about a new leadership skill set without taking the time to make the appropriate changes to mindset. In this case, the organization is putting the leadership cart before the horse; the training fails because it cannot, on its own, change well-entrenched attitudes and behaviors.

The lesson in both scenarios is that no single initiative – whether it’s introducing a dynamic new leadership recruit or an intensive skill development program – can succeed without taking the time to confront a culture that is skeptical, resistant, or even hostile to the idea of changing leadership style.
So how do you get the horse back in front of the cart? It’s not an easy process, but it can be done by spending some time and effort focusing on mindset first. Doing so will make any investment in skill set – whether that’s through the importation of a new leader or the development of new skills in existing leaders – much more effective.

Here are some tips to help your organization effectively shift its leadership mindset:

Have clear expectations: The first step is to clearly articulate what’s required of leaders, new and old. This means being specific about what existing leadership behaviors stay and what behaviors need to change. Having this conversation upfront will mean that new leaders will be better welcomed into an organization, and existing leaders will be less likely to resist new blood or new skill development.

Support from the top: All changes in culture start with a clear message from the very top of the organization. CEOs and other senior executives must not only express their support for change, they must be seen on the front lines advocating and modeling that change. The message must be consistent and unambiguous. New leaders coming into the organization need to know this message has been delivered prior to their arrival. Existing leaders need this message in their back pockets when asking new leaders to do new things or work in new ways.
Gap analysis: Before unleashing a new leadership development initiative, it’s important to assess organizational readiness. That is, how big is the gap between where your leaders are, and where you’d like them to be? Are senior leaders ready to adopt a new approach to leadership, and work along side new leadership recruits? What existing processes are helping, and which are hindering change? This is essential spadework. It is only through this advance analysis that an organization will be able to map out a strategy for changing mindset.

When it comes to development, be focused: Too many organizations use the ‘peanut butter’ approach to leadership development. That is, they spread their resources evenly across all areas of a company. The gap analysis should show you where your money will be best spent. Perhaps the C-suite is the place to start, ensuring that the most senior leaders completely buy in and act as role models. Maybe focusing on line managers would ultimately create the greatest return on investment. Or, perhaps bringing in a new generation of leaders would give you the biggest impact.

Do not pull any punches: When new behaviours are defined at the top of an organization, it’s important that the message is direct and, in some instances, frank. Define the values and the clear leadership expectations required for success in the future, and enforce them with clear, definitive language. Ensure there are rewards for achieving the new expectations and consequences for missing the mark.

Remember, it’s about change: It may seem obvious, but many organizations do not realize that shifting mindsets is essentially about change management. That means in addition to defining expectations, you will need supports in place to help your leaders – both new and old   accept a new way of thinking. It’s a relentless daily process of challenging old defaults and behaviors.
Identify your champions: Leverage and profile examples that best represent the desired mindset. This can help defuse those within your organization who will dig in their heels and cling to the old ways. Don’t assume that all leaders will be won over if you give them enough time and space. It’s not human nature to just jump from old to new. Some leaders will not see on their own, the logic of adopting a new approach. And some may not have enough self-awareness to realize they are a part of the problem. For these leaders, it will be necessary to make a direct appeal that includes a caution about the price they might pay for not embracing the new way.
Whether you’re trying to re-invent your leadership by bringing in new and dynamic recruits, or by teaching existing leaders how to do things differently, it is essential to lay the proper groundwork. This means paying strict attention to the mindset of your organization.

A mindset may not be visibly apparent; it may take some digging to uncover exactly what makes your leaders tick, how they lead and why they do the things they do. Taking time to identify the existing mindset, and then plotting a path to a new style of leadership, will ensure that whatever investments you make – a new recruit or an intensive development regime – will be money well spent. 

About the Author

Tammy Heermann

Tammy Heermann is Senior Vice President, Leadership Transformation with Lee Hecht Harrison. Helping organizations get serious about leadership, she is specifically sought out for her expertise in gender diversity and accelerating female talent.

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