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4D Leadership – Competitive Advantage Through Vertical Leadership Development

Twenty years ago the accumulation of skills, knowledge and experience (‘horizontal development’) was sufficient for business success. Today, it’s not. 4D Leadership – Competitive Advantage Through Vertical Leadership Development, offers a new approach of ‘vertical development’.

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Insularity a predictor of failure?

Prior to the London 2012 Olympics I had the great good fortune of being invited to work with the GB Rowing squad. They were attempting to beat their best ever result in the Beijing games of six medals. Rowing was my sport and London my home Olympics so as a request for help it doesn’t get much better than this.

I went to speak to all 15 GB Rowing squad coaches and outlined what I could do to support their preparation in the three month run in to the Games. Seven of the coaches stepped forward and worked with me and eight coaches felt that their crews were already well enough supported.

Of the seven crews I worked with six won medals compared to only three of the eight crews I did not work with. Now I am not claiming that this was down to me, although I’d like to think I helped a bit. Rather I think it suggests that world-class performers are always receptive. In fact I would go so far as to say that openness to input is one of the defining characteristics of world class athletes or executives. People who are truly world class normally have the humility to realise that they do not know everything and they realise that there is always another level of brilliance they have yet to achieve. As a consequence they are curious and perpetually on the lookout for things inside and outside their area of expertise that could give them an additional competitive edge.

Take football, where insularity to input is commonplace. Remember the rejection of Sir Clive Woodward’s offer to help Southampton FC a few years ago? Sir Clive was a world cup winner. He had guided a group of young male athletes in a ball sport to the pinnacle of global success. But the prevailing view was that he was not a football man so what could he possibly know?

This season’s premiership football campaign has been marked by two things. Firstly the incredible managerial churn with some teams being relegated despite, or perhaps because of, their inability to stick by their manager. Secondly the continued insularity of football to accept input from anyone who has not played the beautiful game at professional level. Football remains far behind in terms of people development and cutting edge coaching practice compared to other GB sports.

Such insularity is also very common in business, where it is often associated with underperformance or failure. We have seen numerous CEOs and C-suite leaders who have pressed on, head down, refusing help, believing that they are doing well enough. Only to discover within the year that they have been removed from post usually for under performance. In fact we have seen this phenomena so often we have started to keep a “watch list” of executives who have been resistant to input. At the moment there are seven or eight names on the list. They either refused an offer of help or said ‘not just yet’ and within a year they were sacked, sometimes in a very public or humiliating fashion. The list remains live with a few high profile names, who are still in post, who we believe are likely to fail within a year as a result of their insularity.

But why are so many leaders closed to input? Is it hubris as Lord Owen suggests? Or is it that they see the acceptance of coaching guidance as a sign of weakness? In fairness some business leaders have tried to open up to input but unfortunately they were on the receiving end of such poor quality coaching that they mistakenly assumed that all corporate coaching and leadership development programmes were a waste of time.

It could be argued that a good Chairman or the non-Executive Directors (NEDs) should provide this sort of guidance for the CEO or C-suite leaders in a business. Sometimes they do. But in our experience running a large multi-national business today is now so complicated and pressurised that it is very difficult for most leaders to manage the multiple layers and levels of complexity across so many different dimensions. Robert Kegan, the Harvard Professor, has suggested that most leaders are “in over their heads”. For these reasons it is imperative that leaders find a really high quality experienced coach independent of the business who can provide the requisite challenge to thinking and who also have the skill to actually drive that leader’s development.

The problem is that finding a coach that can do this is much easier said than done. Coaching qualifications from the organisations that have set themselves us as the “professional bodies” in corporate coaching are no guide to quality. A coach’s track record can help sort good coaches from poor ones. Breadth of coaching experience is also a good indicator. Level of seniority of experience can also help, as there is no doubt that more senior leaders are often more demanding.

The main point is that if leaders want to be able to sustain their success and last longer than your average premiership football manager they need to become less insular. If anyone or any organisation thinks they know it all, then they are very likely to fail. If we become too obsessed with ourselves and too enamoured with our own brand, we fail to be open to feedback. We believe we know it all and start to think we are invincible.

The irony of this insularity is that we are all defined by relationships, whether we like it or not. Relationships require us to interact. When we disconnect from the world, from others and their feedback, we begin to know less. Every company is defined by its relationship with customers and each human being is defined by his or her relationships with the people around them. It is only when we meet other people that we realise we might not be the genius we think we are.

Leaders need to become much more curious about their own development and hunt down a high quality corporate coach with the skill and capability to really development them and the leaders within their business. Such a person is rare and should be seen as a critical resource for any organisation. Insularity is a recipe for disaster.

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Dr Alan Watkins

Alan is recognised as an international expert on leadership and human performance. He has a broad mix of commercial, academic, scientific and technological abilities.


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