A soft economy, marked by weak sales, high unemployment and staff anxiety, has plagued businesses worldwide. Multiple industries have been made vulnerable, and many businesses have turned to new leaders in an effort to find solutions.
The shift in business is happening at a time when the pool of available leaders is dwindling. Not as many are taking advantage of retirement thanks to the economy, but quite a few older workers have left the workforce. These baby boomers hold large chunks of institutional knowledge for their organizations, and the bench of ready successors is lean.
At the same time, the global economic downturn has forced many companies to do more with less. As attrition continues, few if any successors are being hired, leaving existing staff to do work above and below them. Simultaneously, managers are challenged to cut costs while growing revenue, often working with fewer resources and higher demands. This has left many middle managers overburdened and unmotivated, which can negatively affect internal lines of succession and threaten leadership continuity.
The uncertainty affecting organizations on multiple fronts has pushed employees lacking formal authority to step up and lead many business segments in new ways. A void created either by superiors who are overburdened or by positions that have not been filled has offered these regular employees — many with high potential and great ambition — opportunities to provide leadership, even though it has not been part of their direct responsibilities.
This type of unofficial leadership can take many forms, including the front-line worker who is now designated as a team lead while a management position is waiting to be filled, or a project manager who is expected to develop and improve his or her team members even though he or she is not responsible for their formal professional development. Further, in today’s environment, many companies face extraordinary problems that are creating demand for people who demonstrate more than purely business skills.
All of these factors coalesce into six general leadership zones, or areas of strength. Each contains a number of specific practices that exemplify a new leadership model needed to succeed now and in the future, according to AchieveGlobal research released in February 2010. The study sought to define the qualities and behaviors of an effective and successful 21st-century leader. The research began by identifying leadership trends documented in peer-reviewed academic and industry journals over a two-year period.
Research culminated with a quantitative survey that was developed and launched in the United States, Mexico, India, China, Singapore, Germany and the United Kingdom, where 971 responses were gathered from business and government leaders and employees.
The core questions that guided this research included: What constitutes effective leadership today? How has leadership changed to keep pace? What behaviors are still important for leaders?
Study responses from a combination of executives, front-line managers, midlevel managers and business unit managers revealed a core set of leadership practices in six different zones.
“Effective leaders are nimble and are able to adjust their leadership style to accommodate different situations and personalities,” said Scott Trent, chief human resources officer with Montana Rail Link. “Leaders who show strength in all six zones can draw on the appropriate practices when the time is right. The days of purely focusing only on business objectives are over. Leaders must be able to couple their business acumen with command of all other leadership zones to effectively and successfully address the evolving demands and concerns of the global corporate environment.”
It is important that leaders assess their current responsibilities, goals and challenges when working to develop their command of the zones. Understanding the role they play in the organization can lead them to focus on those zones that most closely complement their job. However, it is important to remember that leaders must be proficient in all zones if they hope to truly make an impact today.
The zones that will help organizations get on the right leadership path:
Reflection: Leaders should assess their motives, beliefs, attitudes and actions, asking, “How can I make sure my limitations don’t lead me to make poor decisions?” To succeed in this zone, leaders should:
• Take responsibility for their mistakes.
• Seek knowledge to make sense of the big picture.
• Examine what role they play in the challenges they face.
• Treat failure as a chance to learn and grow.
• Reflect often on their leadership performance.
• Give serious consideration to opinions that differ from their own.
• Speak frankly with others to learn from them and build trust.
Society: Leaders should apply principles such as fairness, respect and “the greater good” to balance individual and group well-being. To succeed in this zone, leaders should:
• Act ethically to serve the larger good, not just to obey the law.
• Encourage others to take socially responsible action.
• Openly challenge unethical decisions and actions.
• Take action to benefit others, not just themselves.
• Recognize and reward others based on merit, not on politics.
• Make fair decisions, even if they have a negative impact on themselves.
• Take steps to reduce environmental harm.
Diversity: Leaders should respect and leverage basic differences such as gender, ethnicity, age, nationality and beliefs. To succeed in this zone, leaders should:
• Strive to meet the needs of customers representing other cultures.
• Encourage collaboration among people from different groups.
• Display sensitivity in managing across cultural boundaries.
• Collaborate well with people different from themselves.
• Effectively lead groups made up of diverse people.
• Learn about other cultures’ business practices.
• Manage virtual teams with explicit customer-centric goals and practices.
Ingenuity: Leaders should offer and execute practical ideas — and help others do the same — to create a climate in which innovation can thrive. To succeed in this zone, leaders should:
• Help other people adapt quickly to change.
• Help groups develop a shared picture of a positive future.
• Develop themselves to improve overall group capabilities.
• Solve real-world problems by thinking clearly and engaging others.
• Tell stories to motivate others to meet strategic goals.
• Find ways to promote speed, flexibility and innovation.
People: Leaders should connect with others on the human level shared by all to earn commitment, inspire effort and improve communication. To succeed in this zone, leaders should:
• Read a range of emotions in others and respond appropriately.
• Adapt to different groups’ leadership needs.
• Help others resolve work-life balance issues.
• Make a daily effort to inspire customers’ and colleagues’ trust.
• Minimize the negative human impact of their decisions and actions.
• Build and maintain a cross-functional task network.
• Communicate well with customers and colleagues at all levels.
Business: Leaders should develop strategies, make and execute plans and decisions, organize others’ work and guide efforts toward predicted results. To succeed in this zone, leaders should:
• Adapt quickly to changing business conditions.
• Manage operational costs.
• Learn new ways to make business competitive.
• Develop and implement effective business plans.
• Analyze and use hard data to promote business results.
• Manage customer acquisition, retention and lifetime value.
These findings have support from other recent studies. Research by Bloomberg’s BusinessWeek.com, published in February 2010, for instance, indicates that 64 percent of people from the top 20 companies for leadership say people in their organizations are expected to lead even when they are not in a formal position of authority. At other companies that figure is closer to 35 percent. According to the report, “How Companies Develop Great Leaders,” the top 20 companies are significantly more likely to focus on “positioning for the future” than other companies.
Around the globe, companies are exploring their leadership strategies, and more than one-third say the worst of the downturn is behind us, according to “Managing Talent in a Turbulent Economy,” a Deloitte survey published in January 2010. The survey indicated that companies committed to leadership programs and maintaining their focus during the recession are continuing to develop new career paths for their top performers to propel their organizations ahead. Rather than blindly halting promotions and raises during the economic downturn, these companies provided high-potential employees with development and advancement opportunities that allowed them to work in different departments or take on new leadership roles.
As organizations groom young staff for success and revise career paths, an understanding of the leadership zones is vital. The zone model of leadership suggests that the difference between a manager and a leader is much like the difference between a raisin and a grape. If a raisin is a grape with something vital missing — water — a manager is a leader with many vital things missing.
Seen this way, a manager is competent primarily in one zone: business. Managers make and execute plans and decisions, organize the work of others and guide effort toward predicted results. Leaders must do these things, too, but they must also demonstrate ability within the model’s other five zones.
Just as a raisin has vital nutritional value, a manager has vital organizational value. In fact, respondents to the aforementioned AchieveGlobal survey at every level in every global region consistently rated the business zone more highly than other zones — and for good reason: Without business results, no one succeeds.
According to one focus group participant in the research, “That’s how you are defined as a leader today — by measuring your results and how effective you are in delivering them. Business profitability is one thing, but you also have to make sure you have a healthy organization in other zones as well. You don’t want to focus on making the profit one year, but future business is not there because you’d created an environment where people did not feel comfortable.”
Achieving business objectives is wonderful and necessary, but it’s not enough in today’s environment. Complex problems demand greater reflection. People respond when they’re engaged emotionally, not just intellectually. That means today’s effective leaders must move smoothly through multiple zones and practices to keep their organizations on track for success.
Sharon Daniels is the CEO of AchieveGlobal. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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