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Four Traits: Part 4 – They build leaders

May 16, 2019


I asked Claudio Descalzi, CEO of Eni (5th largest Global oil and gas business), what he saw as the secret of his success. He answered: “It is simple. I make it my job to make my people successful, as a result they will do almost anything for me.” It was my privilege to work with his direct reports and can testify that this was more than mere words. Claudio is totally committed to helping you realise your potential and continually invests in his people. The “quid pro quo” is that he expects (and receives) your full commitment and discretionary effort.

As my colleagues Adam Bryant, David Reimer and Harry Feuerstein wrote in their article “The four X-factors of Exceptional Leaders”, leaders fall into one of two camps:

  • those who see the people who work for them as “assets” to help them advance their careers,
  • those who see the potential of their people and take ownership of the responsibility to develop them.

Claudio clearly belongs to the second camp.

Why are there so many “asset view” leaders?
As mentors of senior business leaders, we recognise that growing your people makes good business sense. So why is it that so many leaders still sit in the first camp? The first clue comes from the study of the human brain at work. Neuroscientists tell us that the part of the brain that focuses on results (the “what”) and the part which orientates to people (the “how”) act almost like an “on/off switch”. “Asset view” leaders are a product of a system which promotes people for the “what”: technical capability, problem solving, analytical skills and the willingness to “go above and beyond” to achieve results. The way to get ahead when things are not done is to do it yourself. This focus on the “what” switches off our ability to focus on people (the “how”).

From “me” to “them”
There comes a point, however, when no matter how hard you work there are not enough hours in the day and not enough energy to do everything. This point usually coincides with the first significant leadership role. This is when leaders like Claudio move from it being “all about me” to leadership being “all about them”. Some make this shift intuitively, most need to learn this, developing the now underused circuitry in the brain that orientates to people to focus on both the “what” and the “how”.

However, many do not make the shift. Reluctantly they recognise they need others’ help, but at heart they still believe that “it’s me that makes the difference”. As a result, other people are seen as resources or assets to deploy in support of their brilliance. We can use an analogy. Paris was the first European city to adopt street lighting powered by coal gas in 1820. The light is created by the flow of gas over a mantle. If the mantle is in good condition and there is a strong gas supply the light will burn brightly. Leaders in the first camp never let go of the belief that theirs is the brightest light. Leaders who build leaders realise that it is smart to adopt the role of “lamplighter” creating the conditions in which every lamp burns brightly.

Leader as mentor
I also asked Claudio why he invested so heavily in Merryck mentors to support his people. His reply was: “Your people ask my people better questions and in the process my people learn to ask better questions for themselves.” This statement goes to the heart of what leaders who build leaders do. Avoiding the excuse of a lack of time to set aside for developing others, they turn every conversation into a development conversation: asking great questions and at the end of every interaction asking, “what can we learn?” so why does this matter and how does it work?

Why it matters
It matters because organisations are continually having to “do more with less”, whilst facing ever more complexity and ambiguity. To meet these demands we need to build the capability of our people and in so doing create impact that sustains beyond our time as leaders.

How it works
It works because leaders who build leaders consistently deliver great results, but how? Zenger Folkman’s study of 23,000 business leaders showed that the most successful leaders combine inspiring and motivating their people with driving for results. Echoing the neuroscientists, this reflects a focus on both the “what” and the ”how” of leadership.
The measure of inspiring and motivating others is the degree to which the leader both energises their people and demonstrates care and concern. The evidence is that developing others does both. When leaders who build leaders create stretch targets, making significant demands on time and energy, their people believe he/she has their best interests at heart and see the demands as the leader providing the opportunity for them to grow. The greater the ask, the more they feel that their leader cares about their development. The more direct the feedback, the better. By contrast if people believe you are in it to make yourself successful (“asset view”) or (surprisingly) your motivation is delivering the company’s results, they will be reluctant to engage and trust levels will be low. Leaders who build leaders know that people who are energised give high levels of discretionary effort that deliver great business results.

They are better than you think
To develop someone, you have first to see their potential. However, as leaders we are all called upon to make judgements. We are promoted because we are seen to exercise good judgement, especially re: people. However, the trouble with judgement is that it’s largely based on past performance, rather than future potential. If you are not careful, your judgement about someone keeps them trapped at the level of your judgement. The best leaders make the judgement and then choose to suspend their judgement. Instead they engage with the energy of the possibility that the other person can do more than their judgement suggests.

Nancy Kline calls this the power of “Positive Philosophical Choice”. She says: “If I assume you are intelligent and good, your inherent assumptions that you are intelligent and good will be encouraged to prevail”. By looking for your people to surprise you (in a good way!) it is our experience that people do indeed surprise you. We know this works with our children. When we expect them to be good and we reward those behaviours, they show up as good kids. When we fear they might misbehave, guess what happens…if we expect our people to surprise us and reward their effort/initiative….

Sustainable impact
Leaders who build leaders actively look for potential. In doing so they look beyond stereotypes and “externals” to value each individual’s talents and perspectives. They know to value difference because diversity of thinking and approach leads to better decisions and creates possibilities. Leaders who ask better questions teach their people to do the same for others and create depth in succession and an impact that lasts beyond their physical presence.

ANDREW DYCKHOFF has had a variety of roles from CEO, to administrative, finance, marketing and frontline sales with experience in working with different cultures (North America/Europe/Asia) with fluent German and competent French. He has a wide range of experience having worked in consumer and healthcare businesses from ‘large corporate’ to ‘start-up’ and was the former CEO of Olympus Switzerland and head of Olympus Diagnostics. He established a company dedicated to reducing the impact of business on the environment while reducing overhead costs. Andrew is a Mentor at Merryck & Co, whose mission is to unleash potential in senior business leaders and their organisations.