The importance, and challenge, of leading your ‘clevers’

In the last issue we explored the folly of much of the current thinking on individual leadership. We also explored the importance of ‘clevers’, the high value people with expertise, on whom most organisations are now highly dependent.

These people are difficult to lead. They are often: 

  • Unimpressed by hierarchy (they value cleverness more than position)
  • Organisationally savvy (and don’t want to be led)
  • Resistant to feedback (and won’t thank you for doing the right things, either)
  • Hard to replace (and they know it)
  • Bored easily (and ask difficult questions)
  • They expect instant access (to you and to other clever people)

How then do you command loyalty in your clevers — and how do you get the best out of them? 

The boardroom as your classroom

Identifying your clevers isn’t difficult. My guess is that names and faces came quickly to mind even as you were reading the descriptions above.

The first place to look is round the boardroom table. Just take a moment to call to mind each member of your leadership team, then read down the list of characteristics again. There may not be any one member who displays every characteristic, but I bet that each will display many of them.

It may now be a little clearer why it’s so hard to marshal your most senior leaders! This is, however, also an opportunity. By learning how to better work with this group of clevers, you can both discover what will work for others — and leverage the value of the most important group in your organisation.

Getting more from your clevers  

What your leadership team members need is simple to articulate (if rather harder to deliver):

  • A sense of community/belonging
  • Authenticity in leaders (people they can trust/believe in)
  • Significance (they feel important and that their work has significance)
  • Excitement (they get stimulation and arousal from both their leader and their job)

Interestingly, all four of these needs are directly addressed by two critical conversations. Ambition and Relationship conversations are also the foundation of The Six Game Changing Conversations.

Our work with leadership teams always starts with Ambition conversations. These are different to targets, objectives and goals. They allow team members to articulate what it is that they truly and deeply want for the organisation. So much of their work feels, at best, only distantly related to what is significant for them, that it is much more often draining rather than energising and exciting.

Relationship Conversations are the basis of developing a team from a group who are thrown together simply because of their senior roles. There are many definitions of a team, but one characteristic of great teams is that each member feels that the others are looking out for them.

The first step towards this is to agree a common ambition that has meaning and significance for everyone. The next is to get to understand what makes each person tick, how they see the world and to get behind the ‘masks’ that senior people often feel they need to wear in organisations.

Why bother? 

Leadership Teams who invest in these conversations don’t guarantee success — but they do give themselves a far better chance. The reasons are simple:

No one leader has all the skills required to lead an organisation. Even if they are well equipped at one point, the rapidly evolving nature of the challenges facing organisations mean that it’s only a matter of time before they need other skills and attributes. Strong Leadership Teams are able to draw upon a range of attributes from all of its members — and to flex this mix as situations and demands change.

The success of the organisation is always very highly leveraged against the individual performance of a few people. Many of these critical individuals are members of the Leadership Team. It’s vital, therefore, that each is operating in an environment that gets their very best from them. Our research shows that very few members of Leadership Teams feel that the team gets anything like this level of performance from their members. High performing Leadership Teams generate significantly more organisational performance because they get more from their most important individuals.

A handful of flawed diamonds 

The best leadership team I was ever a member of generated truly extraordinary results. In a market which was static in size and declining in profitability, we generated double digit increases in profitability for several successive years. These results were initially regarded with a degree of disbelief — and were later often described as ‘defying gravity’.
In that team, we deliberately invested in ourselves and in each other. We talked about what mattered to each of us, our unique contributions and what we needed from one another to perform at our best. When we began we were an eclectic group of misfits. We had all had some success in previous jobs but there were no superstars. It was clear that we all had pronounced weaknesses and we often clashed and rubbed each other up the wrong way.
As we developed as a team we did discover more about the strengths that we all brought. We learned how and where these contributions could be best applied. We also learned even more about our flaws — but we learned to accept and better support one another in these areas.It was one of the most exciting periods of my working life. It certainly wasn’t easy or comfortable. We had to wrestle with many really difficult issues and every meeting was demanding. We challenged each other robustly and arguments were common, but we knew we were working towards the same goals and that we were all performing at or beyond the best we knew how.

Every single member of that team was promoted to a level beyond anything they had previously achieved when they left the team. 

Making it happen in your team

Starting Ambition and Relationship conversations is not straightforward. To describe how to do so requires more space than is available here.
If your team needs to unite around an ambition that has both transformational potential and meaning for each of you, there’s more here on how to hold Ambition ConversationsIf you want to turn a group of individuals into a team of people, there’s more on Relationship Conversations hereI hope you can use these ideas yourself. If not, and you’d like help even if only to think through how you might do so, then please get in contact on 0845 519 7871 or by email.

Read more…

Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadershipwhich shows what it looks like in practice — based around a real case study.

Better still, give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session.

Chris Henderson