Sam Keller's TEC Blog

Monday, July 25, 2011

Looking in the Mirror: Questions Every Leader Must Ask

Robert Kaplan is a Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School. In his new book, What to Ask the Person in the Mirror, he argues against the notion that great leadership is about having all the answers. He believes that leadership skills can be learned--and that many of these skills require executives to rethink their conception of what a superb leader actually does. Developing and practicing these skills requires hard work and may demand that talented executives overcome some degree of discomfort and even anxiety in order to raise their game.

When CEOs ask Rob Kaplan for answers, he responds "Most leaders spend a lot of their time looking for answers. Very often, they may feel isolated and alone. I want to help them refocus their attention on framing and then discussing the key questions that will help them regroup, mobilize their team, formulate a plan of action, and move forward." Not surprisingly, this is the focus of TEC as well.

Here are the key areas of inquiry that Kaplan suggests can help leaders improve the success of their companies:

1. Have you developed a clear vision and key priorities for your enterprise?

" The leader may have a clear vision in his or her head but has not communicated it effectively throughout the organization. Leaders need to ask whether they articulate a clear vision and, just as importantly, whether their key employees can re-articulate this vision in a consistent manner."

2. Does the way you spend your time match your key priorities?

“If you hate doing something, you are likely to avoid it. Conversely, if you love doing something, you are likely to arrange your time so you can do more and more of it."

The question then becomes, how do your passions coincide with the needs of the business? Have you reconciled your passions with these business needs? “

3. Do you coach and also solicit feedback from your key subordinates?

"Ironically, the executives most in need of feedback are very senior," and “may have become isolated or not realize that their direct reports have constructive advice regarding specific changes they need to make to improve their leadership effectiveness." If they become a TEC member, their peers will also provide this feedback.

When senior leaders ultimately do cultivate junior coaches and/or seek council from their TEC member peers, they may find that the criticism can feel "devastating at first because you realize it is accurate and that it is probably a widespread view within the organization.”

"Leadership is a team game," Kaplan says. "You have to solicit help from others or you're likely to under-achieve your potential."

4. Do you have a succession-planning process in place?

Kaplan stresses the importance of developing potential successors for key positions in your company-including your own. Then use this list up-and-comers to delegate more extensively to them. This also allows senior leaders more time to achieve a better match between their own time and key priorities. Leaders who fail to train successors risk not only doing too much themselves but also losing these valuable employees, who can become frustrated that they aren't being challenged to build their skills and careers at the company.

5. If you had to design your company today with a clean sheet of paper, what would you change?

It's natural for companies to fall out of alignment with achievement of key objectives in a rapidly changing world. Too often, leaders don't realize how off-track they are until serious damage has been done to the business Kaplan likens the situation to realizing your health is at risk only after you're stricken with a heart attack.

6. Do you act as a role model?

Leaders don't always realize that their actions set an example for the people who work for them.

Are you reaching your potential and being true to yourself?

"In the end, it's not about meeting everyone else's expectations," Kaplan says. "It's about reaching your unique potential and developing your own leadership style.”

Click here for the complete article in the July 18 issue of Working Knowledge from the Harvard Business School.