Note to Talent Acquisition Heads: Find More Radical Leaders!

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Jun 1, 2016
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

Smart talent acquisition of top talent increases our ability to employ the right organizational initiatives and exhibit the right leadership approaches needed to make change stick.

Unfortunately, there are far too many change management initiatives destined for failure in business today. The one true ingredient to evolving (smarter than “changing”) a company for purposes of sustainability, profitability, or social impact — is leadership. Not just any leadership … it must be radical leadership.

Talent acquisition leaders must constantly be on the lookout for radical leaders. The goal post can only be reached under the steady and consistent hand of what I describe as a radical leader. To be described as “radical” is to suggest something drastic or extreme. But sadly, the traits that I believe comprise those of a radical leader are not extreme at all. However, they do present an extreme departure from the majority of leaders steering the various ships today.

I’m somewhat encouraged that there are indeed notable exceptions to this, but remain concerned about what I believe is a true dearth of radical leadership.

If there was one headline to describe radical leadership it would be: “leading in ways that few others have the stomach to lead; while blazing new trails for next level leaders along the way.”

There are several key traits that I ascribe to radical leaders with whom I’ve had the privilege to work over my 23 years in business. It’s not as if those individuals demonstrated every trait in every circumstance and did so flawlessly, it’s that they would relentlessly strive to do so. Their understanding of the importance of these traits was superior. When they failed, they said so. And, when they succeeded … well, you just knew it.

So, my learning — as with yours — is amassed from watching those who have failed as much as those who have succeeded. That has informed what I now call, “Jo’s Radical Leadership Trait Theory.” As compared with the numerous other leadership trait theories which opine on whether the particular traits are inherent v. acquired or developed, my trait theory is apathetic on that issue. What I focus on, rather, are the traits themselves. Here are two of the six traits in part one of this series:

Emotional Intelligence

I fully agree with Jack Welch when he described the difference between IQ and EQ. To paraphrase, he said that your IQ can get you in the door — it’s the threshold. However, your EQ is the real differentiator. It is far more powerful and of a higher value, fueling your trajectory. The ability to understand and harness your emotions builds not only effective relationships, but clear-eyed and self-aware leadership. It causes timely self-reflection and can allow you to be extremely adept in real-time situations, particularly those where the other person may be far lower on the EQ curve.

Risk-Taking with Affection for – Not Addiction to – Data

The trend around data analytics and its use as a discipline in driving business decisions cannot be exaggerated in its importance. An ability to establish patterns towards some state of predictability can make the difference between hiring the right or wrong talent, or adopting the right or wrong business model. In an online conversation, “Reinventing Society in the Wake of Big Data,” MIT Media Lab Professor, Sandy Pentland, described the power of a data-driven society:

“I believe that the power of Big Data is that it’s information about people’s behavior –it’s about customers, employees, and prospects for your new business … This Big Data comes from location data from your cell phone and transaction data about the things you buy with your credit card. It’s the little data breadcrumbs that you leave behind you as you move around in the world … Big Data is increasingly about real behavior, and by analyzing this sort of data, scientists can tell an enormous amount about you. They can tell whether you are the sort of person who will pay back loans. They can tell you if you’re likely to get diabetes.”

That is truly mind-boggling. However, in spite of this enormous promise, most of us know leaders who are paralyzed by data. Literally, they cannot make a move without the data to back them up. These leaders have effectively turned data into an addiction. While leaders need a strategic framework in which to understand complex information, decisions are very often not ordered nor are they predictable. They require an ability to operate in a grey area which pushes one to a place of extreme discomfort should the decision ultimately be the wrong one. I’ve seen very few leaders with an ability to manage this tension. Instead, they’ve either swung wildly between reckless decision making going by their “gut” in spite of clear evidence to the contrary, or data-addiction where they are completely paralyzed should there be any absence of data.

Leadership in that grey zone is the precious medium that must be reached … where one makes a decision with the best available data, imbued with both the ability and willingness to ferret out what’s important and what isn’t. Importantly, they are, in the final analysis, wholly comfortable with all of the risks involved.

Now, I’ll describe two more radical leadership traits that I believe are vital to the success of businesses today — across all sectors.

Radical Leadership

Above, I focused on the need for high emotional intelligence (or EQ) in order to successfully navigate relationships. This is particularly important for a leader who is required to be self-aware and reflective in myriad circumstances. I also shared the importance of data needed to take calculated risks and make thoughtful decisions. I drew the contrast between the smart use of data, versus allowing it to become a source of addiction, paralyzing leaders from making any decision — risky or otherwise.

Below, I offer two more traits for exploration as part of “Jo’s Radical Leadership Trait Theory.” As talent acquisition leaders scour the market for the best of the best, these traits should be front and center in their assessment and selection tools.

Relentless Decision-Making

Effective decision-making is a complex leadership trait to acquire or develop. Part of this complexity is rooted in the fact that decision-making is multi-faceted.

For starters, know what decisions need to be made, and where they need to be made within a company. In June 2010, the Harvard Business Review article entitled, The Decision-Driven Organization, the authors (Blenko, Mankins, and Rogers, June 2010) outlined the different types of decisions. Every company should understand the “category” of their decisions, distinguishing between the big, high-impact decisions and the smaller, routine decisions made daily. Ensuring that the decisions themselves are strategically identified at the right levels of the organization is paramount to tracking progress and outcomes as a leader. Not everyone needs to be involved in everything. Further, if every decision has been given the same degree of importance and rigor, there’s a leadership failure … somewhere.

Second, once a decision is made, that same article walks the reader through the effectiveness of decisions: “quality (whether decisions proved to be right more often than not), speed (whether decisions were made faster or slower than competitors), yield (how well decisions were translated into action), and effort (the time, trouble, and expense required for each key decision).”  W all know of experiences where the energy expended in making decisions hardly justified the outcome. These are clearly the situations that breed and nurture cynicism across multiple corridors of corporate America. Radical leaders are called to ensure that those situations are in the clear minority.

Once the types and locations of decisions are identified, along with an assessment of their effectiveness, a radical leader truly knows who owns the decision. Many models have evolved over the years in business to capture the specific roles inherent in and critical to decision making. Whether it’s the RACI model or the RAPID model — roles and accountabilities must be clearly defined. Otherwise, as the expression goes, if everyone has the “D” — no one has the “D.” Relentless decision makers not only understand this, but they will refuse to move an initiative forward unless everyone on the team can recite these roles and accountabilities in their sleep.

Relentless decision-making is, indeed, complex — but is completely attainable as a leadership trait. It requires rigor, discipline and a desire to make a few key decisions with excellence, rather than a host of decisions poorly.

Authentic Truth-Telling

This is one trait that I believe cannot be taught. A leader may be able to get a bit better at it, but they’re either pre-disposed to being authentic — or not. Authenticity is closely tied to the radical leadership trait of high emotional intelligence. A leader’s ability to be at once self-aware and vulnerable, closes all gaps between what they say and do in private v. public. Radical leaders with the authentic truth-telling trait are not afraid to show their weaknesses (to reasonable degrees, of course). They make mistakes, they demonstrate emotions, and they let their teams know that while results matter, authenticity in relationships also matters.

Authentic truth-tellers tend to communicate with real precision. Their memos and speeches are devoid of jargon and business buzzwords. Their authentic voice is read and felt through their communications – whether those communications are good news or bad. Consider this communication from Fab CEO’s Jason Goldberg in an open letter to his employees in April of 2014:

“What is Fab right now? Right now it’s a —– startup. It’s really hard. It’s intense. It’s a struggle. It’s ambiguous. It changes a lot. It’s all consuming. It’s a lot of sausage making. It’s working weekends to hit numbers and dates. It’s stretching people beyond their comfort zone. It’s insisting on doing it better even when it’s already pretty good. It’s being brutally honest about gaps and weaknesses. It’s one day you’re headed in one direction and the next day another, because the first move wasn’t the best move. It’s being ok with things not working because that creates opportunities to learn how to fix it…..”

This may not have garnered high levels of employee retention after its issuance, but it was authentic and it was the truth … and I suspect that is what mattered more to Jason Goldberg.

Above, I focused on one of the more complex leadership traits – relentless decision- making. This trait requires an in depth understanding of what decisions must be made, where they must be made and the quality of the actual decision. The other leadership trait from this article – authentic truth-telling – is one that I believe cannot be taught. While authentic truth-telling can be developed as a skill, the inherent nature of the leader will ultimately reveal her ability (or lack thereof) to excel in this area.

So, here’s the review of “Jo’s Radical Leadership Trait Theory”:

  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Risk-Taking with Affection for (not Addiction to) Data
  • Relentless Decision-Making
  • Authentic Truth-Telling

And, now for the final two traits that should be part of high impact talent acquisition programs and must-haves for leaders seeking to make a true difference:

  • Transformational Leadership, and
  • Balancing the X and Y Chromosomes

Transformational Leadership — What Exactly It Is

It’s a well-worn label describing one of the most vaunted forms of leadership. The focus for transformational leaders is on their followers. This type of leadership manifests itself in a consistent desire to push one’s team to higher heights, while building the courage, confidence and even competence of each member in the process.

This type of leadership requires authenticity as well. But, more than being authentic, the transformational leader must be credible. They must be able and willing to lead by example. We may know some of these leaders who don’t hesitate to roll their sleeves up to tackle the operational aspects of an initiative, even as they remain firmly planted in the strategic elements. They walk the talk and their followers know this. They have the “street cred” that so often eludes other leaders who are far better at barking orders and directives than they are at understanding what it takes to get them done at the ground troop level.

The transformational leaders that I’ve worked with across my career have always spoken to the most innovative parts of me. They are true possibility thinkers, never comfortable with the status quo and, more often, impatient with it. They inspire their followers to live with an outside-the-box perspective. It is that behavior that compels action which dares people to try something that has never been tried, or to revisit something through a new approach that may have previously been tried unsuccessfully (read this August 27, 2015 Forbes article by Alexia Vernon, for three habits of transformational leaders from that author’s perspective).

Balancing the X and Y Chromosomes

I’ve saved the most controversial of my radical leadership trait theory, for last.

While there are endless articles espousing viewpoints on the need to erase distinctions between female and male behaviors in the name of leveling the playing field — I take a different position.

As a woman, I have two X chromosomes, and that’s just how it is … I’m a “double X-er” and proud of it! But, I also firmly believe that I have a lot to learn from ‘Y-ers’ (my male counterparts). And, the reverse is also true. There’s learning to be gleaned on both sides.

For example, as a woman, I need to reduce the word “sorry” from my vocabulary by about 40 percent. It’s been proven that woman simply apologize far too much … for everything. I did a piece on this for LinkedIn that you can read here.

Further, decisiveness — a key leadership skill — requires a healthy balance of emotion and logic. As leaders, this means that we can neither rush to make decisions with a full head of steam ignoring important nuances, nor can we opine endlessly for fear of creating conflict or hurt feelings. Most of us would say which of those traps double X-ers and Y-ers may tend to fall into while executing decisions – if we’re honest.

While we certainly can’t make sweeping generalizations about male and female leadership, it behooves us to understand the natural differences, learn from them and work to refine those that make us less effective. This requires some self-awareness, openness to feedback and a willingness to climb to new leadership levels. In short, it ultimately requires a strong balance of the X and Y chromosomes. Read here for another fun piece that I did on this particular subject.

I’m generally a glass-half-full type of person, but I’m afraid that these six Radical Leadership Traits are rarely demonstrated, in my experience.

As leaders scramble to keep up with the next new change model promising to help them turn the business around or advance it, too many are still missing the secret sauce of leadership largely found in these traits.

The good news is that I’ve learned as much — if not more — from those without these traits as I have from those with them, and thus, I remain undaunted in my own quest for radical leadership. I hope the same is true for you.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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