Leadership Development

Nov 20, 1995

“Leadership development” for our industry too often translates into another boring all-day seminar on liability reduction, or a weekend retreat with a soft-spoken consultant who walks us through “team building” exercises. We say we want better leaders and we want to develop our successors— but I’m convinced that, as a group, we don’t know how. Here are my thoughts on how to develop leaders in an A/E/P or environmental consulting firm: Give them somebody or something to manage, then hold them accountable for the results. No one will become a good manager without personally experiencing it. It’s not all glamour and glory. As anyone who has done it can tell you, plenty of crises arise when you have to supervise people. It’s kind of like child rearing, except the employee doesn’t naturally love you or respect you like your children do. Like parenting, people won’t truly understand what it’s like to be a manager until they experience it. Give your future leaders someone to supervise and make productive. Make them responsible for achieving some success in an area. Tell them what you want and see if they can make it happen. Remember that you and the other owners/top managers of the firm are role models for everyone else. That means that the other folks are going to emulate your behavior. If you want your people to work a lot of hours, you can’t leave every Friday at noon to play golf. If you want your people to give the accounting department a budget for every new job they bring in, you can’t open job numbers without a budget. If you want your people to make their collection calls at 60 days, you must make your collection calls at 60 days. If you want your people to confront the performance problems of folks who work for them, you must confront the performance problems of folks who work for you. It’s really very simple— “do as I do” is the rule. Force your second tier to make their own decisions. There is no way anyone will learn how to make decisions unless they have a chance to try out decision-making. Yet too often in A/E and environmental firms, principals do not want to relinquish their decision-making power until the day they walk out (or are carried out) of the firm. To apply this thinking, send your next-level managers away when they bring an issue to you that they should be dealing with themselves. Make them make a decision. Then check back with them on how they would rate the quality of their own decision. Give good feedback to your managers on how they are doing. This, of course, means that you need to know how they are doing. In addition to tracking the right numbers and providing these to your managers, you also need to get out on the floor and talk with the people who work for (and with) those managers. Are they happy with the quality of supervision and direction they are getting? You need to know. Then you can take the objective data (the numbers), combine that with the subjective data (opinions) and synthesize this into meaningful feedback to the manager on how he or she is doing as a manager. It’s critical, however, that you don’t store up this feedback— particularly negative feedback— and unleash it like a torrent on the manager once it builds up sufficient pressure. Provide formal training in leadership. But make sure it’s more than training in contracting procedures or a “once-every-three-years seminar” on how to pick out the right color shirt and tie combo. What I’m talking about here are some group exercises where people have to define what leadership means in your firm; group problem-solving assignments; or “outward-bound” type experiences that require teamwork from a wide range of folks. There are also plenty of training opportunities that could come from having everyone read the same book and then talk about it as a group. And there’s no reason the book has to be a boring business book— it might be better to read “The Red Badge of Courage” than “Swim With the Sharks.” Make it optional and let anyone who wants to participate join in. But also don’t think that training will overcome all weaknesses, or that anyone can be a leader. It may help people who have the latent talent to find it within themselves. And it may help some people who have good management instincts, but need to learn techniques. But you can’t just turn anyone into a leader through training. Strike a balance between being a nit-picker and being completely laissez faire. It may be necessary at times to tell someone that they are not dressed appropriately for the professional association meeting that you both will be going to, or that they said something they shouldn’t have said to one of your best clients in a project meeting. On the other hand, too much criticism could paralyze that person and make them too dependent on your direction; they could essentially become unable to perform their duties without your continual involvement. Balance the supervisory ingredient in your “management recipe.” Being a good leader is hard enough to learn ourselves without having to further complicate it by training someone else. But ultimately, you can’t really qualify as a “good leader” if you aren’t able to train others. Originally published 11/20/1995

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