Leadership

How leaders can come to rely too heavily on one person

Kath Walters /

When the outlook is bright, when customers are calling and leaders are upbeat, it is easy for leaders to believe their staff are happy, fulfilled and engaged (even if it is not true).

But when times are tough or uncertain – the situation facing many Australian companies – finding, keeping and getting the best from staff becomes harder, says Carmel Ackerly, the CEO of the Australian Institute of Management (Victoria) in her weekly briefing on “hot button” leadership issues with LeadingCompany.

Even rising unemployment rates are not enough to take the “talent” issue off the agenda for leaders, Ackerly says. The problem is that the so-called talent war can mean leaders take the wrong tack on managing talent. “If you get blinded by the war for talent and the calibre of the staff you have got, you can end up designing jobs for your key people,” Ackerly says. That is not the right approach.

The magical staff member

Companies need to start with strategy, she says. “You need to start by asking what are the skills and competencies we need to achieve the goals we are going for, where the roles are needed and how they are linked to the goals. Then have a look at the people you have got and see how well they fit.”

If there is a gap in the skills that can be filled by a development training program, it is cheaper and quicker to fill positions from within the company. However, a lot of leaders overlook internal talent.

“There are a lot of people looking for a magical job, and leaders looking for a magical staff member. But if you ask recruiters, they know if you get an 80% fit on the skills you need, you have done well. You fill up the remainder with your culture, and how you and your managers are going to get the best out of this person.”

The ingredients of culture

Culture is an oft-used, but ill-defined word. Ackerly’s definition? “It is not about making boxes; it is about how we make boxes. It is what we accept and do not accept – the ground rules for the team,” she says.

Leaders of large companies rely on their reports to ensure the company’s cultural values are communicated throughout every level. “You have to make sure your manager, and your manager’s manager, is actually developing the same culture as you.”

Too many leaders do not bother to check that this has been done, even though it is a simple matter, Ackerly says. “You can’t get around to 10,000 or even 1,000 people, but you can go one layer down and talk to those people. Get in touch with the pulse of the organisation, talk to people and make sure your managers are accountable and spreading your message.”

Too few leaders talk to their staff. “This is one of the most grossly misunderstood leadership skills in Australia,” Ackerly says. “It is hard, it takes time to get up from the desk, to be seen be approachable. And there is so much to do, so people put ‘tasks’ over people. But if you want people there, you have to bring them with you and talk with them. Find out what they like.”

Town hall meetings, staff meetings, departmental emails, video telecasts or conferences are all ways that CEOs can spread their message, values and priorities. Most banks and global companies have their own television channels for such purposes.

Ackerly says: “Stay in touch with your staff – I always tell managers if they are in the lift with staff members, can they have a conversation?”

Stars ain’t stars

With strategy and culture established, leaders need to make the hard decisions. No one is so talented that they should be kept if they do not fit for one reason or another. “If you have a key person that you think you can’t survive without, then you are not the right person to be fostering talent in your company,” says Ackerly unequivocally. “You cannot have a company dependent on one or two people, and if you do, there has been some bad management around the talent in the past.”

For example, talented people can end up shaping their own role so they are only doing 25% of the job they were employed for, and spending 75% of their time on tasks they happen to like, such as IT or analysis. What they are doing is useful, but their primary job suffers.

“It goes to the idea of ‘fit’,” Ackerly explains. “If you are driving transformational change, you may find that some people who did fit before don’t fit now. If you have a change of leadership, then some won’t fit. What fit means is that they are comfortable, they accept the culture, the way of working , the vision, and they are prepared to get on board and help deliver on that vision and message.

“As it says in Good to Great [by author James E Collins], you can get star talent, but if they don’t fit, let them go.”

Keeping the people you want, and letting them go

Having determined the staff that fit the culture and the job, the issue of keeping them is a matter of providing challenges, Ackerly says. The best people have options and they can pick and choose positions.

“Test and challenge them, keep developing them, Ackerly says. “Sometimes, it is a trade-off between developing their skill set and them as a person for future roles, or setting a test or challenge.”

Ackerly, as head of a training organisation, is enthusiastic about training, but says setting key staff to work on a major project or an unsolved problem is also an effective way of developing staff, and letting them know they are valued and are benefiting the company. It also shows the leadership team is able to get the best out of its talent.

However, people can outgrow a company, and the leader’s job is to be aware of when this happens. Assessing staff against the company’s goal is a continuous process, one that is defined as a workforce plan. Departures need not be traumatic. “If you are open and transparent, and you know where you are going as a company, it will become very obvious, when you are having a performance conversation, that they and their interests are heading in a different direction from your company. It may be they want to study. Be respectful. Have a conversation that allows them to come back, and they will become a raving fan for you in the workplace. Then others will want to come and work for you.”

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