Developing mid-level managers’ leadership competencies is not about teaching tools.
This post is adapted from the white paper “The Missing Link in Strategic Execution: Developing Mid-Level Leaders,” from DDJ Myers. The white paper includes a description of the eight characteristics of strategically oriented mid-level leaders.
A common question that arises in our leadership development programs with executive teams or mid-level managers goes something like this: “I’ve got situation X at work. Which tool should I use to help me navigate the conversation?” We’ve also heard countless times, “If I had positional authority, I could turn this department around.”
These teaching moments provide the opportunity to underscore that there are no pat answers. No tool A automatically applies to situation A. No concept B can be consistently applied to resolve conversation B. And, when you gain a new title (manager, vice president, CEO), you are not magically imbued with extraordinary leadership capabilities and competencies. Rather, if leaders cultivate their attention, broaden their perspective, and learn how to draw out and address the central concerns of others, they become the tool. Through their maturation process, professionals seeking to take on new roles and mid-level managers looking to enhance their leadership competencies develop a range of skills that help them be ready to effect change when the moment calls for it.
We frequently ask emerging leaders: “What does being a strategic leader mean to you?” A recent response captured the essence of cultivating versatile leadership competencies that can be applied across diverse scenarios: “You do not wait for the next idea. You are the next idea. [Strategic leadership entails] empowering my team to take on tasks and challenges while maintaining the understanding of our end goal. This now creates some time I didn’t have and allows me to think toward tomorrow and beyond.”
Or, as Jim Newstrom, regional branch manager with $869 million Seattle Credit Union, recently told us, “Leaders are people who move things forward. They get results, and they’re inspirational because they bring people along on that journey.”
For his part, Newstrom has been working to “be bolder” when taking on leadership roles. “There are objective and subjective things to work on that drive part of our mission,” he says. “Part of it is behavior-based, a way of conducting yourself that requires that you keep it continually top of mind, to consider, ‘What do I have to do to intentionally show up in this conversation?’”
Jason Clarke, VP/risk management at $1.1 billion DuPont Community Credit Union, Waynesboro, Va., says he used to think of leadership as oversight, but now he sees it as participation. “In order to bring people together, you have to be there in all ways—physically there, emotionally there and mentally there for your team members,” he says.
Immediately after an executive team’s initial alignment event, we will usually hear, “Wow. If we would have had these more meaningful conversations five years ago, we’d be a different team leading a different organization today.”
What these evolving views have in common is the sense that becoming a leader is an ongoing process, not the product of a one-day training but the opportunity to learn by doing and to continually enhance one’s abilities to communicate effectively, give and receive useful feedback, and work together to solve problems and create new opportunities. Everyone has some learning left to do. Mature leaders know and embrace this reality. Getting a head start on it can make a world of difference in one’s career.
A broadened definition of leadership to include “how you be” in both times of ease and pressure equips emerging leaders to define the contextually relevant leadership characteristics they want to strive for throughout their careers. While some may see this insight of leadership to be great fodder for a bumper sticker, it is extremely empowering and fulfilling, as demonstrated in one additional view on what it means to be a leader from Heather Farrar, assistant manager of the DuPont CCU’s Service Center.
“Leadership is not sourced, and it’s not a title,” Farrar says. “It’s greater potential that can be achieved through continued practice, building relationships and getting your staff what they need to follow in your footsteps.”
Also read “Transforming Manager to Leader,” the April 2018 CU Management magazine cover story.
Learn more about Vertex’s measured learning opportunities for managers.