Corporations Don’t Want Leaders, But We Do

by George Purcell, guest blogger

More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones. —Truman Capote

In today’s environment it is fashionable to say we want leaders. Although I agree that we need leaders, especially to propel the economic engine of America, I see disconnects between what we are asking for and what we really want. Corporations say they want self-starters, creative thinkers—leaders—but do they really? I say no!

I recall a conversation in an elevator I once had with the CEO of the international corporation that I worked for. I was three months into a new role, having been brought from the field to corporate headquarters to, according to my bosses, bring a fresh perspective. The CEO asked me what my strongest impression was so far and I replied, “There are four or five hundred people we don’t need, employees whose daily activity is to try to find a purpose.” Word of that conversation spread and, before the day was over, I was counseled to be careful of my comments in elevators. “Employees should not raise taboo topics.”

The presiding wisdom in most corporations I have observed is that employees must pay their dues before their creative ideas will be embraced or encouraged. In the process of paying their dues, creative potential is sucked out of people. I experienced that in the days after my elevator conversation with the CEO. I became a tool not a thinker. The success I achieved after that came by explaining and selling the ideas of the top bosses. The corporation missed out on my creative ideas and the best ideas of many other leaders like me. Within a matter of a few years, the corporation was in financial trouble and reacted with a massive layoff.

This pattern of squelching creative ideas is, in my opinion, pervasive. It typically begins in the employee selection process. The personnel department looks for candidates who “fit the culture” – which is often code for “will not make waves.” We enthusiastically praise the values of creativity, innovation, and courage, but we hire and reward employees who agree with us.

The most talented employees nowadays don’t stick around when their ideas and opinions aren’t valued. They go to your competitor, or create their own business.

So, what do we do about this? How do you create the environment that counters the forces of bureaucracy that I described above? I will share one idea, something that gave me a lot of meaning personally.

Find and Develop the Best Leaders

First of all, hire great people. Take ownership of the process. You can have the best training program in the industry but if you hire a loser, you’ll just end up with the best-trained loser.

And the best way I’ve found to identify quality people is based on what they’ve done in the past—even if that is just in college. For example, ask, “Why is the University of Alabama a better place because you graduated from there? “Tell me about the leadership positions you sought out and the contributions you made?” Look past the interview skills (quick talker, tell you what you want to hear) and get to actual performance.

Show me what a man has done, and I’ll show you what he’ll do.

Additionally, stories about overcoming adversity tell us more about the character and leadership potential of a candidate than any psychological instrument ever will. As Warren Bennis and Rob Thomas have written, “The skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.” With this in mind, ask potential hires to describe their toughest life experiences, how they got through them, and what they’ve learned in the process. And for those candidates who don’t have a story to tell, well, it’s a mark against them in my book.

When you find someone with great potential, invest time in his or her development. I call these employees “developmental” or “high-potentials.” Spend time with them. Listen to them. They will need focus, but listen to them and encourage them to share their ideas, what they really think. The most disappointing thing to me is when you are hired and you have really creative ideas and the antibodies of the organization come after you. As a boss, you are in a position to block those antibodies and to nurture the creativity and initiative within your best employees.

This investment is not a nice-to-have; it’s a must have. If you don’t develop your key employees, your greatest talent will leave.

One of my main objectives was to promote great people. There was nothing more appealing to me than to advance others in the company and to contribute to their development. With this in mind, create a roadmap with each developmental employee, a step-by-step developmental program that you get your boss to review and approve. Look for opportunities for them to get a wide-variety of experiences that give them practice and exposure. For example, have them make a new product introduction presentation. Give them a project to lead. Have them represent you at an important overseas meeting. Get feedback comments from upper managers and add those comments to their file. Be their greatest advocate, even as you simultaneously push and challenge them.

We need leaders, but when you go inside most organizations you find cultures that undermine innovative, creative, risk-taking behavior. Our words are not aligned with our actions. Instead of throwing our arms up in despair, we need to lead by example in our spheres of influence. Take ownership of the hiring process and, once you identify talented employees, take responsibility for developing them. Create for them the kind of situation that you wish you had when you were starting out.

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