How to Cultivate a Portfolio of Leaders: What Any Manager Can Do

Two simple reasons to cultivate a diverse portfolio of leadership styles: plenty of great leaders don’t fit the picture of the charismatic and assertive natural leader, and diverse leadership teams perform better.

So, how do we move beyond “admiring the problem” of the implicit biases (against women, minorities, etc.) in hiring and promotions?  At the company level, this might include a broad program of performance review analysis, management training, changes in hiring and promotion practices, and other bias interrupters.

But there are steps that any manager can take to cultivate all potential leaders, not just the naturals who are easy to spot.

Understand what you’re looking for in a potential leader

Lists of leadership qualities abound, and there’s plenty of advice available on the top things today’s leaders must accomplish. For what it’s worth, here’s my own list of what an excellent leader can do:

  • Commit to the success of the organization
  • Identify and communicate a long-term vision
  • See and accept reality
  • Deal with uncertainty, resistance, and change
  • Inspire and motivate people, especially to move in difficult directions
  • Listen to people and understand their perspectives
  • Respect and acknowledge the contributions of others
  • Accept responsibility for failure
  • Display honesty and integrity
  • Learn and adapt

The point is, none of these require a particular personality type, gender, conversational style, etc.; I’ve seen a variety of people bring their own strengths and develop effective approaches. I also believe that while not everyone is ultimately suited to being a leader or even aspires to it, many of these qualities can be learned and strengthened through coaching, mentorship, and experience.

Reframe the model

Yes, it’s fair—but it’s also strategic. Being inclusive and respecting diversity are of course important. But cultivating a broad range of leaders is also “enlightened self-interest”: your team and organization will do better if you can get the best leaders in place and keep them growing. Having this in mind will help you focus on the most pressing issues in your situation. It can also help when talking about the matter with team members and other colleagues: you’re not making changes to be “nice” or politically correct, you’re making a wise business decision.

Gatekeeping can be wasteful. People who can excel are stretching themselves, and this means they may get to a place where there’s a gap in training or experience. If you dismiss them from consideration because they don’t meet some arbitrary standard, you may be missing out.

A great example of this can be seen in higher education. Until the 1980s, many colleges thought the best way to preserve rigor was to take a “sink or swim” approach: students destined to be excel would succeed on their own, while the chaff stumbled and eventually failed out. In reality, all some of the “chaff” needed was direct instruction and support for things such as time management, study skills, and navigating the financial aid system. Today these programs are common on campuses, and retention and success rates have greatly improved, without lowering standards.

Adopt a “growth mindset.” As researcher Carol Dweck has shown, when people believe that intelligence and talent are innate and immutable, they can put themselves in a box and fail to develop: I don’t like being the center of attention, so I’ll never be a leader. I’m really talented, so I don’t have to work hard. On the other hand, a “growth mindset”—the belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—motivates people to learn and grow.

If you adopt a growth mindset yourself, you’ll be more likely to notice improvement in your people and to offer helpful coaching.  And if you instill a growth mindset in your team members, they’re more likely to persist in learning complex new skills such as conflict resolution.

Remove barriers to contribution

Often the first challenge is to make sure everyone is contributing fully—that’s when you’ll see them think creatively, respond to new information, relate to other people, and take ownership. The impediments and solutions will vary from situation to situation, but here are some possibilities.

Zero-tolerance policy on hostility. It’s possible to develop a spirit of comradery without bashing someone else. You may not be able to affect the company’s culture, but you can make clear the level of professionalism you expect from your own team. This means eliminating activities and comments that make people uncomfortable not only because of their gender, race, religion, or sexual preference—but also things such as parenthood status, political affiliation, or even sports team. (N.B.: I’m writing this in the sports-crazy town of Boston.)

Level the playing field during group problem-solving. Very often, creativity and initiative are demonstrated when people collaborate to frame a problem and pose viable solutions. If you’re not hearing from everyone, why not? If the problem is that the loud voices dominate in meetings, try instituting a no-interrupting policy. Some people express themselves well on the spur of the moment, but others need time to get their thoughts together: try providing background information ahead of the meeting. You may also simply ask the quiet or junior people at the table what they think—being careful not to set them up for embarrassment, of course.

Give them practice

Give people a chance to succeed. Find low-stakes, temporary, but genuine opportunities for junior people to lead task-based teams. This gives them an opportunity to take initiative, keep their team focused, demonstrate ethical and generous values, and deal with (minor) problems. This is the sort of experience that can develop confidence, and it also offers great coaching opportunities: you can be clear about how and why their leadership is valued, and you can model how to analyze the experience and learn what worked.

Give people a chance to fail. Everyone also needs a chance to fail and to learn from that—preferably on tasks that are not mission-critical. Mistakes happen when people push beyond safe competencies, and every effective leader needs to be able to grapple with the unknown and chart the best course through it. You don’t want to set people up for failure, but you also can’t protect them from it forever. Fear of failure can paralyze; everyone needs to experience what it’s like to fall down, think through what went wrong, and then get up again.

Question your gut

Everyone has an innate sense of who just “feels” right for a particular role. The challenge is to recognize this, decide whether or not it’s valid, and then to go beyond that.

Beware overconfidence. The “confidence gap” between genders is well-documented: even qualified women doubt themselves, and even under-qualified men believe in their competence.  Typically, women are advised to act more confident, even if they’re faking it. But an equally valid corrective is for managers to be more critical of boasts: is the swagger backed up with facts? In one study, 90% of hiring mistakes involved taking a less qualified man over a more qualified woman.

Compatibility doesn’t require homogeneity.  You’ll want a leadership team that can work together well, but that doesn’t mean a group of people with identical talents, backgrounds, and perspectives.  In fact, research shows that diverse teams make better decisions and produce better results.

Look at actual requirements and accomplishments. When you have a leadership role available, identify the specific capacities that are needed: not every situation requires the same sort of leader. Then look at who has already demonstrated aptitude in those areas. Did the team deliver excellent work on time, even though the boardroom presentation was a little lackluster? Which quality is more crucial at this point?

Also look beyond obvious achievements. Women often find themselves doing “housekeeping” work in companies, the low-glamor and even unofficial tasks such as arranging social events, mentoring, and managing low-profile projects. These often require tact, creativity, attention to detail, and the ability to work around the system. Perhaps these are qualities you also need in a leader.

This is the second in a series of posts on leadership.  The first proposes idea of a portfolio of leadership styles and you can read it here.

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