There is a very short list of thought leaders that have contributed more to the study and practice of leadership than Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. What started over 30 years ago as an exploratory collaboration for a presentation at a conference has gone on to assist and inspire millions of leaders around the world. At the epicenter of their multiple best-selling books, assessments and workshops, lies a simple premise:
“Leaders are made … and not born.”
Of course, some people have innate gifts that position them ahead of others on the developmental curve as leaders, but when it comes to things like “modeling the way, inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process, enabling others to act and encouraging the heart,” the art of leadership looks and feels a whole lot more like science. One sound bite attributed to the research they conducted for their runaway best-seller, “The Leadership Challenge,” is worth noting in that regard:
“Seventy percent of the reason an individual contributor is promoted to their first job in people management is grounded in their technical proficiency … and 80 percent of the reason those individuals struggle or fail as managers can be attributed to their human skills.”
This transition is one most of us made early in our careers. We got a job with an organization. We learned how to do something. We did that thing over and over. As a result, we got pretty good at it. We then accepted a front-line management job where we were responsible for ensuring other people (perhaps even former peers of ours) did the thing we knew how to do.
When we took the job we really thought we knew what we were doing (insert reflective laugh here!). After all, we might never have been formally in charge of anything, but that didn’t mean we didn’t know what leadership was or how we were going to approach it. At a minimum, we’d been observing leaders our entire lives. We had parents, teachers, coaches and successful relatives (that commanded attention at family functions) and the managers that hired us (that we worked so hard to impress), etc. We knew what we liked and we knew what we didn’t like. It was simple. Do the good stuff. Avoid the rest of it. What most of us learned (very quickly) is that leadership is one of the most historically unique disciplines ever, and we had no earthly idea what we were getting into.
Consider the words of Alan Mulally (former CEO of both Boeing and Ford) and George Morrow (former SVP of Commercial Operations for Amgen) as they reflected upon their transition into management years ago:
- Alan Mulally – “I was an entry-level engineer at Boeing for a number of years before I became a manager. Suffice to say, I took great pride in my craft. When I became a manager, I had a senior engineer that worked for me submit a project plan. I sent it back with some highlighted feedback based on the way I had become accustomed to drafting those documents myself. He resubmitted. I found something else I didn’t like and sent it back. This went on a couple of more times until this engineer walked into my office with two things: the project plan and his resignation. It was a painful epiphany.”
- George Morrow – “I remember sitting in my office right after I became a manager, and a member of our team came in and asked if she could close the door. She did and then went on to tell me about a set of circumstances that was going on with one of her counterparts from another team. She was upset and voiced her opinion on how that counterpart was making it impossible for her to play her role and make her contribution. The more she talked the madder I got. When she finished, I stormed out of my office with my hair on fire. I viewed it as an opportunity to prove to everyone on our team how supportive I was. When I intervened with my manager counterpart, I learned (the hard way) that the story I had been told was about 15 percent accurate.”
The jump from individual contributor to first-line supervisor is one of the most significant transitions most of us will ever make in our careers. We go from “doing it” (which for the most part we control) to “seeing that it gets done” (which for the most part we do not). As a result, and as Kouzes and Posner (along with a host of others) have proven over the years, we need to ensure two things happen:
- Talented front-line employees know what they are getting into when they take that leap
- Organizations proactively prepare those employees for a life-changing transition
- On a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high), how effective is your organization at preparing talented front-line employees to become people managers?
- What could your organization start doing, stop doing or do more of to improve?