|Published:||July 18, 2011|
Executive Summary:"Show me a company or nonprofit or government in trouble, and I will almost invariably show you a set of leaders who are asking absolutely the wrong questions," says professor Robert Steven Kaplan. He discusses his new book, What to Ask the Person in the Mirror. Plus: book excerpt. Key concepts include:
- Leaders need to address critical issues including: vision and priorities, time management, giving and getting feedback, succession planning and delegation, evaluation and alignment, being a role model, and reaching true potential.
- Leaders must have a clear vision and a set of priorities for the organization, and must ensure that their key subordinates know what those priorities are.
- Because CEOs don't have the benefit of feedback from their superiors, it's crucial that they solicit feedback about their leadership style from subordinates.
Robert Kaplan is a Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School.
When CEOs speak with Rob Kaplan looking for answers, he usually focuses them instead on figuring out and discussing the right questions.
"Show me a company, nonprofit, or a government leader that is struggling, and almost invariably you'll see someone who isn't sufficiently focused on asking the right questions," says Kaplan, a Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School. "Most leaders spend a lot of their time looking for answers. Very often, they may feel isolated and alone. I want to help them refocus their attention on framing and then discussing the key questions that will help them regroup, mobilize their team, formulate a plan of action, and move forward."
In his new book, What to Ask the Person in the Mirror , Kaplan argues against the notion that great leadership is about having all the answers. He believes that leadership skills can be learned--and that many of these skills require executives to rethink their conception of what a superb leader actually does. Developing and practicing these skills requires hard work and may demand that talented executives overcome some degree of discomfort and even anxiety in order to raise their game.
The book discusses several key areas of inquiry that can help leaders improve the success of their companies and nonprofit organizations including: vision and priorities, managing your time, giving and getting feedback, succession planning and delegation, evaluation and alignment, being a role model, and reaching your potential. "My objective is to help leaders reach their potential by helping them realize that they don't need to have all the answers or do this alone. I hope they will see that framing a question and listening can be enormously powerful in leading to excellent decisions. A leader needs to master the use of inquiry and reflection as well as advocacy in order to build his or her organization and career."
Have you developed a clear vision and key priorities for your enterprise?"When I see a problem with a business or nonprofit, it often starts with a lack of clarity about the organization's aspirations," Kaplan says. The leader may have a clear vision in his or her head but has not communicated it effectively throughout the organization. "When there is not a clearly articulated vision along with a manageable set of key priorities, you may see an organization where employees are expending their energies in a number of divergent and uncoordinated directions."
Leaders need to ask whether they articulate a clear vision and, just as importantly, whether their key employees can rearticulate this vision in a consistent manner. For instance, DuPont's vision is "to be the world's most dynamic science company, creating sustainable solutions essential to a better, safer and healthier life for people everywhere." This vision helps DuPont employees better understand what (and why) they are spending their professional energies trying to accomplish.
Once the vision is established, Kaplan advises leaders to come up with and communicate a list of no more than three to five priorities that are critical to the organization in order to achieve the vision. In his book, Kaplan describes various approaches to formulating and adapting these priorities to each department and geographic region in order to better achieve overall organization objectives. "When a leadership has this discipline, they focus much more intently on what tasks they need to do superbly well in order to achieve their goals. This also can help them to question certain activities where they are spending substantial time and money yet not contributing to organizational goals and maybe they shouldn't be pursuing."
Does the way you spend your time match your key priorities?Many CEOs tell Kaplan that they don't have time to figure out their vision and priorities--they're working 80-hour weeks! In his book, Kaplan discusses techniques for matching available hours with key priorities, so executives can learn to do much more effective work and better manage their time.
He recommends that executives track their time for a couple of weeks and then analyze how it is being spent. If substantial time allocations do not match top priorities, he discusses how these tasks should be either delegated or eliminated.
"When someone asks you to spend time on work that doesn't match your key priorities, the right action is probably to say no," Kaplan says. "Once you have a better matching of your time with priorities, you'll want to encourage your direct reports to do the same."
Do you coach and also solicit feedback from your key subordinates?Most good leaders understand they need to coach key employees, but fewer realize the importance of asking subordinates for coaching. The more senior you are in a company, the fewer senior executives and peers are able to effectively observe and coach you. Kaplan gives advice on several techniques that leaders can use to solicit coaching from their direct reports.
"Ironically, the executives most in need of feedback in many organizations are very senior," he says. "They may have become isolated or not realize that their direct reports have constructive advice regarding specific changes they need to make to improve their leadership effectiveness."
The book describes various approaches for giving and receiving feedback. In particular, it offers various techniques that should be implemented in advance of the year-end review, which typically arrives too late for professionals to make changes that would improve their compensation and/or promotion prospects in that year.
When senior leaders ultimately do cultivate junior coaches, they find that the criticism can feel "devastating at first because you realize it is accurate and that it is probably a widespread view within the organization. You have to thank the junior coach, and then go out and work on what they've told you." Not sure the assessment is accurate? Call a few close friends or loved ones and see what they think. Most likely, Kaplan says, they'll agree with your subordinates.
"Leadership is a team game," he says. "You have to solicit help from others or you're likely to under-achieve your potential."
Do you have a succession-planning process in place?Kaplan stresses the importance of developing potential successors for key positions in your company-including your own-and creating a confidential list. "Many great companies do this but a surprising number don't," he says.
Senior leaders should leverage this depth chart information about up-and-comers by delegating to them more extensively. This also allows senior leaders more time to achieve a better match between their own time and key priorities. Leaders who fail to train successors risk not only doing too much themselves but also losing these valuable employees, who can become frustrated that they aren't being challenged to build their skills and careers at the company.
If you had to design your company today with a clean sheet of paper, what would you change?The world doesn't stand still and it's natural for companies to fall out of alignment with achievement of key objectives. Too often, leaders don't realize how off-track they are until serious damage has been done to the business or the firm's reputation. Kaplan likens the situation to realizing your health is at risk only after you're stricken with a heart attack.
He describes various approaches for reviewing your organization with a clean sheet of paper. For example, one approach involves creating a task force of younger emerging company leaders. "Emerging leaders, organized and mandated properly, can give you fabulous strategic recommendations," he says. "Looking to up-and-comers is not only quite effective in getting great strategic advice but also in motivating these future leaders."
Do you act as a role model?Leaders don't always realize that their actions set an example for the people who work for them, especially if they have risen through the ranks of a company so quickly that they fail to realize their influence as role models. Kaplan learned this from personal experience during his tenure at the Goldman Sachs Group, where he worked in several capacities, eventually serving as vice chairman before leaving the firm in 2005.
"I went from being a junior person to running a large business in what seemed like a nanosecond," he says. "And suddenly more people were watching what I did, and I had to adjust my actions because I wasn't quite ready for that." In his book, he discusses various approaches that leaders should take in order to connect their behaviors with the messages they want to be sending.
Are you reaching your potential and being true to yourself?While much of this book is about tangible "blocking and tackling" to become a more effective executive, Kaplan dedicates the last two chapters to methods of gaining perspective and managing oneself more effectively.
"In the end, it's not about meeting everyone else's expectations," he says. "It's about reaching your unique potential and developing your own leadership style.