Corporate leadership skills can be developed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 April, 2010, 12:00am

In some parts of the corporate world, a certain mystique still attaches to the skills of leadership. It is as if only individuals with some kind of exceptional birthright possess the abilities to organise, plan, communicate and manage change - the fundamentals of any leadership role.

Admittedly, the challenges, both day to day and long term, of running a team or division, never mind an organisation with thousands of staff and billions in turnover, are always considerable. But the plain fact remains that it is possible to learn leadership in much the same way one can learn to be an accountant or engineer.

Of course, there has to be a certain level of inclination and aptitude, and some people may be lucky enough to be born with a talent for leadership, with the likes of Sir Richard Branson and Bill Gates making a huge impact on the business world.

By providing the right experience, training and support to those with talent, the potential exists to turn almost any up-and-coming executive into a more than effective business leader.

Shanghai-based Audrey Widjaja has overseen this process many times. As head of the talent and leadership practice on the mainland for consulting firm Hewitt Associates, she has advised numerous clients operating in various sectors with all kinds of structures, corporate cultures and priorities.

While stressing there are special aspects to every case, she also notes that, essentially, three things determine if someone is an effective leader: know-how, style and communication.

Importantly, the constituent elements of each of these can be assessed, taught, improved and, to a certain extent, tailor-made to meet the specific requirements of a company or industry.

'When we get clients with leadership problems, we basically advise them to look at these areas,' Widjaja says. 'The competencies that companies require are usually quite similar and quite critical, but they don't always define them clearly or really spell out their expectations.'

Generally, know-how is the first and easiest to deal with. It is a matter of giving individuals the functional skills and knowledge to perform well in present and future roles.

The best way is through a combination of executive education, development assignments and job rotations, if possible including some time overseas.

These steps go a long way to ensuring the next generation understand not just the nuts and bolts of the business but also gain practical experience and see the broader perspectives.

'Often, people struggle in a new leadership role because they are just not ready,' Widjaja says. 'What happens is they don't get enough preparation or support from management to make the transition.

'Therefore, it is [vital] to give emerging leaders or 'high potentials' bigger exposure and provide the necessary training to do what the company expects.'

The second element - style - covers behaviour, personality and values. For anyone hoping to move up in the business world, the key factor - regularly overlooked - is that personal behaviour must change as responsibilities increase. What works when, say, running a sales team won't impress as a general manager or board member.

When called in as a consultant, Widjaja often finds herself addressing two problems: the erroneous view that 'what got me here' is what makes a good leader, and a reluctance to let go of the last job. The solution is to explain exactly how and where behaviour must change.

'For promotion to a leadership position, it is usually your track record that matters, but it is not always made clear what the company now needs,' she says.

'That's why we help clients to understand themselves, develop more self-awareness and behave in a way that is relevant to the role.'

She says that this becomes a lot easier if a company has clearly stated values and defined competencies. The best organisations leave no room for doubt, expecting employees to act in alignment with core corporate values and setting out precise parameters for even the most senior executives. These deliberately go beyond the vague generalities of standard vision and mission statements to specifying, for instance, how much time per month they should spend on coaching other staff.

'The transfer of wisdom from leader to leader is critical for knowing the short cuts; it can save a lot grief,' Widjaja says. 'But the best companies are not trying to create clones. They also realise that you have to plan five or 10 years ahead and are thinking about the competencies new leaders will need. They are managing change and constantly reviewing, not just achieving efficiencies.'

This approach, and its attention to detail, is a hallmark of good executive development. The third essential is communication, initially with internal colleagues and later with external stakeholders. It is a huge part of any senior role. Aspiring leaders must recognise that, since there is no way around it, and equip themselves accordingly.

That means learning to present with impact and being able to make ideas resonate with an audience simply and effectively. Widjaja is quick to emphasise that this ability is not restricted to a fortunate few; it is a skill everyone could and should learn, a prerequisite for higher office and something all companies should teach as a mark of good organisational practice.

'The key point is that people need to know,' she says. 'Anyone who wants to be effective as a leader must be ready to communicate more often and articulate their vision.

'The best companies really help managers develop this skill to ensure they have the ability to influence and understand the need to listen.'