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Flawed and Spikey Leadership

Feb 12, 2014

At Cranleigh we come across a lot of great leaders and great companies.

So what makes a great company - a great leader is a good start. As we might expect, “Companies with outstanding leadership teams have a high correlation with revenue growth, while those with solid but unexceptional leaders have no correlation at all”1. First, what are the most critical abilities that great leaders have? At its simplest, good leaders get things done (they execute well) and they make sure that they have great people working for them. Failure to execute is the most common reason why CEOs are dismissed. And because they can’t do everything themselves, their ability to grow a critical mass of effective leaders, is a prerequisite for high performance. However, while these two abilities are necessary, they are too narrowly focused. We have to at least add that great leaders hold a strong set of values that include a high degree of integrity and ethics, in sync with the organisation’s context and stakeholders and have good strategic judgement.

While leaders have to be good at making things happen and developing strong supporting leadership teams, they don’t have to be good at everything.

In our experience there exists a common fallacy that many CEO’s and senior managers are expected to be perfect, or at least good at everything, and indeed some expect themselves to be so. Our experience suggests that not only can they not be good at everything, they should not try to be. Trying to be good at everything wastes effort, takes the focus from really important things and gets in the way of building a great supporting team. However, in order to be comfortable relying on the expertise of others, a good deal of self awareness and acknowledgement and acceptance of the ‘gaps’ is necessary. Self-awareness, and the determination to ‘get things done’ reinforces the need to have great people in the senior leadership team and is a trait of great leaders.

An interesting way to describe the leader’s key strengths is to think of them as ‘spikey’ – standing out starkly above the rest. The implication is that it is perfectly acceptable for leaders to not be strong in some areas.

But again they then have an obligation to surround themselves with people who are ‘great’ in those areas. An obvious example is where a leader is a ‘blue sky’ conceptual thinker and not good at detailed implementation. In order to ensure that ‘things get done’ the leader needs close working relationship with someone for whom implementation is a real strength. [There are numerous examples where the relationship has been reversed with unhappy consequences – the leader is a detail person and the conceptual thinker is in an implementation role. Frustration for both.]

An unintended consequence of not recognising the strength in ‘spikiness’ is that brilliance is overlooked and not built on. When a gap is seen as a ‘problem’ often someone is brought in to fill the gap, to ‘solve the problem’, instead of supporting and developing the spiky person and helping develop strong skill sets around
him or her.

Our hypothesis is that with great leaders “spikey” leadership and gaps or flaws” are the norm and to be expected. We also advocate that when looking for the right leader concentrate on only a handful of competences – lists of 20 or so are not useful. And remember that good CEO’s are not shrinking violets – expect tension, but manage it. Great leaders excel at only a few key competencies, but excel they certainly do. Importantly these are the competencies that will grow the value of the firm.

What seem to be gaps in leaders’ skills can be very annoying and frustrating to a Board. Sometimes boards and recruiters look for CEO’s and leaders that reflect their own work experience and context and fail to recognise that often great leaders do not conform to the so called norm. What boards don’t see is that these
people operate in a different mental context that leads to diversity, spikiness and even a few flaws (and these are sometimes noteworthy flaws). The clearest way round and through the idea that many great leaders have flaws is for the Board to recognise these and set boundaries. The essence of brave and courageous leadership by Board and CEO’s is that free and frank conversations can be had on skills and flaws.

However, when is a flaw too much? We are not talking about major transgressions of commonly accepted corporate values such as honesty, as these are always unacceptable. But sometimes the line will be crossed and this always means a judgement call and can often come down to a cost benefit evaluation. We would conjecture that the best test is probably if the flaw puts at risk the ability of the CEO to execute well and create and maintain a top class team (as mentioned at the beginning). This would not be acceptable.

So we advocate: Recognise, develop and ‘cherish’ a leader’s particular ‘spikey’ strengths. Develop a strong leadership team where free and frank conversations can take place about what are and are not useful strategies. Build the relationship between CEO and Board Chair in order to have similar conversations.

1 Egon Ehnder International and McKinsey & Company Inc

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