Spotting a leader

Synopsis –  Effective ‘leaders’ know what quality is and feel a sense of responsibility for achieving quality.  If a person waffles, waivers or avoids discussing quality, chances are they will not make an effective leader.

It’s pretty clear that project success rates are higher where projects have effective leadership and lower where there was either no leader, or where those in the leadership roles didn’t discharge their duties effectively.  Effective leaders align people, focus people and ensure momentum is maintained.  There is no great insight in that observation, but it does point to the central challenge that so many organizations struggle with.

The challenge facing organizations lies in finding effective leaders.  Despite the vast array of books, seminars and classes on the subject, many (if not most) organizations still struggle to achieve consistent levels of capability in their leadership ranks.  In part the problem is that natural leadership skills are relatively rare.  Although it is hard to quantify, my own casual observations indicate that just 15% of people have the precursor leadership tendencies  (e.g. they show personal initiative, have the courage to step up to the plate, like heading up teams and are comfortable voicing their opinions).  Even then, just having leadership tendencies doesn’t mean a person has good leadership skills.  Leading teams requires a broad portfolio of skills (communications skills, strategic skills, interpersonal skills, organizational skills and negotiating skills to name just a few).  While the lucky few are born with both leadership tendencies and the necessary skills, most people are not.

It’s hard to quantify exactly how many people have both the tendencies and skills, but you can think back over your own careers and try quantifying it yourself.  When I ask people to do that, most report that the percentage of effective leaders they have worked with is small (common answers range from 5% to a depressing ‘nil’).

Given that effective leadership is relatively rare, it is worth understanding how to spot a leader.  In interviews everyone claims to have leadership skills, but clearly many making the claim, don’t.  So, what can you look for to find a leader?  What are the tell-tale signs that someone is an effective leader?

I think the first part of the answer lies in looking for the leadership tendencies; is their clear indication that they are a self-starter?  What initiatives have they personally started and sustained?  What situations can they relay in which they were ahead of the curve (thinking strategically) and were they successful in using those insights to gain advantage? Granted in an interview everyone will have a stab at answering those types of questions, but how fast can they formulate an answer?  How significant are the events they are talking about?  Can they easily draw upon multiple stories or do they run out of steam having patched together just a single story?

Beyond that, there is one additional element I encourage clients to look for when searching for effective leaders.  It’s an insight that comes from the thousand plus discussion assignments I’ve reviewed in which I ask students to root cause analyze their own experiences with successful and failed projects.  Many of the troubled project students report quality related dysfunctions (e.g. leaders who didn’t care about quality, sacrificing quality as a side-effect of rushing, low levels of process maturity leading to poor quality, failure to do testing or inspections of the product, etc.).  On the flip side, when discussing projects that were successful, having a leader who felt an ownership of quality is a theme that regularly appears.  The leader understood what quality meant, held people accountable for quality and would work to enable the team to produce quality.  They were willing to provide guidance to the team and willing to step in if they saw the seeds of poor quality being sown.

To some leaders, quality is a nebulous concept that they struggle to articulate.  To others it’s an annoyance that stands in the way of ‘getting things done’.  In other cases, it is simply a topic they’ve never even thought about.  In stark contrast, however, effective leaders tend to feel a responsibility for quality.  Read the biographies or writing of some of the top entrepreneurs, sports coaches or musicians and you’ll find quality is a topic that is close to their hearts.  The Toyoda family (Toyota), Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and the Virgin Group’s Richard Branson all have reputations for being leaders who ‘owned quality’.  Chip Wilson of Lululemon Athletica is a local success here in Vancouver and his billion dollars plus empire has largely been powered by the quality-oriented culture he instilled.

Samsung provides a dramatic illustration of what ‘owning quality’ means.  In 1993 Samsung was developing its first-generation cell phones. Having developed a product that was ahead of its time, then Chairman, Kun-hee Lee, sent samples to his business contacts as gifts.  On hearing from them that some of the phones didn’t work, he personally visited the factory, went to the warehouse and tested samples.  To his horror, he found some that didn’t work.  While many senior leaders would delegate the fixes to their subordinates, Lee took a more direct approach.  He summoned the board of directors and the staff to gather outside the factory.  He had the entire stock ($50M worth) burned in front of everyone.   According to reports, he then had a worker drive a bulldozer over the remains.  He then left.  That’s brutal feedback, but the message is clear: shoddy work will not be accepted.  To this day, Samsung still leverages that incident to help shape their culture (Samsung Performance – see page 10 and note the document is bit slow to open).  Since 1993 Samsung has rapidly expanded and despite a few technical issues along the way has developed a strong reputation for quality.

Although middle management, Program/Project Managers and technical leaders won’t have the authority to crush millions of dollars worth of phones, I do see positive attitudes to and considered positions on quality in the more capable people I work with.  the experiences of the 1,000+ participants in my online classes have reinforced that observation.  No matter the level of the organization, some people care about quality and those are typically the ones you should focus on hiring or developing.

That insight provides useful start point for looking for leaders.  Questions about quality can easily be built into an interview.  Can the candidate explain what quality is in their industry?  Can they explain how to get it?  How in-depth or considered are their answers and what is their physical reaction to the questions?  People who are quality oriented will often get quite animated when asked about quality (likely the shock of being asked – many, or perhaps most, interviews don’t touch on quality as a topic).  Furthermore, to encourage people with positive attitudes towards quality to apply, simply leverage the language of quality into the job posting.  There is no guarantee, but people who are interested in doing a good job may be more likely to apply than those who really don’t care.  As such the job posting can act as a filter giving you a stronger candidate base from which to choose.

When you hire or appoint a leader, you are in part delegating responsibility for your organization’s product or service quality to that person.  If they don’t understand what quality is, if they don’t have an understanding for how to get quality or if they really don’t care, then you may be disappointed with the results your new appointment achieves.  From a project perspective, you may well have stacked the cards in favour of yet another troubled project.