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Questions for the Next Leader

When corporate leaders fall, they tend to fall hard. One moment they are riding in the company Gulfstream, the next moment they are flying coach. I had one former CEO tell me that the perk he missed the most was the corporate jet. But it not simply losing the plane and the perks, getting sacked from the top spot means your mug or your name gets splattered unfavorably across the pages of the business press; it may be the modern equivalent of the colonial era’s stockade where wrong-doers were yoked in the public square for all to notice or to jeer.

When corporate leaders fall, they tend to fall hard. One moment they are riding in the company Gulfstream, the next moment they are flying coach. I had one former CEO tell me that the perk he missed the most was the corporate jet. But it not simply losing the plane and the perks, getting sacked from the top spot means your mug or your name gets splattered unfavorably across the pages of the business press; it may be the modern equivalent of the colonial era’s stockade where wrong-doers were yoked in the public square for all to notice or to jeer.

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While it can be blood sport to pile on to the CEO’s foibles, it is possible that, like a faded action hero miscast in a melodrama, the CEO was never right for the job in the first place. That’s a proposition that David Maister has tackled in his new article, “Selecting a Leader: Do We Know What We Want?” He writes “there’s no point selecting an Olympic-level coach for a team of people who don’t want to play that game. There’s no point in appointing a skill cost-cutter if the primary strategic need is to grow revenues in new markets!”

Maister, author of True Professionalism and co-author of First Among Equals, has developed a detailed questionnaire for selection committees charged hiring the next head of firm or CEO.

The questions Maister has formulated are oppositional; that is, they offer either or comparisons. Some examples include: “is good with numbers versus good with people; has a track record of generating business versus a track record of managing people well; sets the example of hard work versus someone who lives a balanced personal/work lifestyle.” By answering a series of such questions, and rating each on a scale of 1-4, selectors can determine characteristics of the leader that best fits their organization.

Here are three questions, suggested by Maister’s work, that organizations need to ask before choosing their next leader?

Do we want a decision-maker or a consensus builder? Maister is noted for his consulting in professional service firms. Such firms may value the consensus builder, while a corporation with history of hierarchy may want the decision-maker. The criteria for selection must fit the organization’s mission and culture.

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Do we want a people person or results getter? Employees love the people-person leaders. They tend to be accessible and available. At the same time, a company must post results. No results, no company. Ultimately all leaders achieve results through others, but some are more overt in their style. They are hard-chargers versus nurturers.

Do we want a leader who thinks short-term or one who plans for long-term? You may think you want a leader who builds for the future, but sometimes if the organization is in crisis, you need a turn around guy fast. And even if things are going smoothly, you want something to show for it both long and short term.

Keep in mind that an effective leader needs to find balance between competing criteria, but it will be up to the organization to choose where the weight of the balance lies. That’s the beauty of Maister’s work.

Reducing the selection of the next corporate leader via criteria generated by a questionnaire may seem cold and clinical. And in fact it is. Identifying candidates according to a “paint by numbers” approach may narrow the search to what the company thinks it needs at the moment, and not what it may need in the future. That is, it can yield clones and cronies rather than “break the glass” visionaries.

Still, identifying and selecting leaders is not an exact science, nor should it be. But identifying candidates who fit the needs of the organization may ensure a better match than reading resumes and press clippings. That is, up and coming leaders at one organization may succeed in their current organization, but would be fish out of water in another. Likewise, folks who fit the model in their current organization are just that – mold fillers. Good in functional posts but the top post.

“You may be surprised,” Maister writes of the evaluation process, “when faced with competing virtues, some of your colleagues will make surprising choices. You may also be surprised by the amount of unanimity that often exists in what people seek in a leader.” And for that reason, David Maister has provided us with a good instrument to begin the selection process.

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[For those interested in learning more about David Maister’s work, please visit www.davidmaister.com. There you will find a selection of David’s videos, articles and his blog.]

John Baldoni • Leadership Author/Speaker • Baldoni Consulting, LLC • john@johnbaldoni.com www.johnbaldoni.com

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