Misguided about what it takes to be effective

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what it takes to succeed as CEOThere’s an interesting opinion that seems to be pervading recent reports about what it takes to succeed as a CEO, manager or other worker but it’s misguided about what it takes to be effective.

Emily Young reports on the BBC News website that Leah Busque (CEO of Task Rabbit) didn’t have nor need leadership training. She was “self aware enough”.

In the same news article, Tim Morris of Oxford Brookes University is cited as highlighting the importance of values and purpose in leaders and managers.

Common thread

There’s one thing in common in the various paragraphs of the news article – that no-one seems to believe training or development is needed to become a CEO. There’s no focus on skills, knowledge and abilities. The CEO just needs to be made of the right stuff and exude the right behaviours and adopt the right values. ‘Right’, it seems, can be generalised. Once stated, the implication is that the corresponding behaviours can be enacted by all CEOs.

And Richard Branson writing on virgin.com in November 2013 says he believes that hiring the right attitude is paramount. He says Virgin hires on personality. He suggests that staff can learn expertise and gain experience but you can’t learn attitude and personality. The implication is that there are adjectives missing or silent like ‘positive’ (attitude) and ‘go-getting’ (personality).

The suggestion from these various writings is that a future CEO, manager or worker needs only to be born with the right genes and then take responsibility and learn drive in their formative years (in order to develop the right personality and adopt the right values). It’s as if we’ve turned the clock back a hundred years. If Young, Morris and Branson are right, leaders must to come from the right stock and have the right upbringing. But society and industry has progressed beyond this basic thinking. We know that success does not just depend on who you are.

These writers confuse a couple of key issues.

Dissecting performance

The first is that performance in a job has two parts.

Task performance covers ability to do the job. This needs competency in certain definable activities. These activities vary depending on the business. Richard Boyatzis, a manger and academic, wrote a good book in which he laid out the characteristics needed to be a competent manager. His competencies range from people-management to specialised skills (like financial analysis for many).

And contextual performance describes all the soft competencies and behaviours that it takes to manage in a given context. Young’s reported essentials of humility, doubt and the ability to make mistakes are all a part of this but these are dwarfed by a host of other necessary but context-specific human characteristics.

Summarising, CEOs, managers and staff need more than just the right values and attitudes. To use an airline metaphor, Richard Branson’s customers would want to know that the guys up front could fly the plane and cope with anything thrown at them en route. Knowing that they had been recruited because, above all else, they were really super, positive people is nice but not very reassuring.

Confused attitudes and personality

The second is that there’s confusion in many of the messages from the ‘attitudes and values’ trench.

An attitude forms as a result of interaction with an environment. It’s formed in response to that environment. So, someone just leaving the military as a fast jet pilot, looking to join an airline might have a very positive attitude stemming from very positive experiences in the RAF. If the firm they join has an incompatible culture, gives the wrong experiences and stifles that pilot, they will soon change their attitude.

Conversely, someone with a poor attitude, stemming from recent difficult personal circumstances, could join a vibrant, supportive and development-oriented firm and adopt a positive attitude almost overnight.

Attitude is not a disposition. Attitude changes with environment and hence is as much a function of local management as of the holder’s personality.

And personality cannot be judged either positive or negative, good or bad, right or wrong. Our personality is determined by our parents. They give us genes that make us disposed to behave in a particular way. They also give us early life experiences that mould our personality. Personality is a rich and complex compendium, not one thing or another.

Take the extrovert-introvert continuum for example. Extroversion is one relatively small part of personality. Extroverts are people who thrive by interacting with others. In the extreme, they can’t do without vibrant human interaction. Some jobs need extroverts. Introverts are folk that are happy with their own company. They don’t need excessive human interaction. They prefer working alone. Some jobs need introverts.

Jobs in a company however need some balance of extrovert and introvert. The actual balance is unique to the context of the job and firm. So there’s no ‘right’ personality overall, just an appropriate range of personalities that fit the job to be done in the firm in which the job exists.

Too simplistic

It’s too simplistic to talk of getting a CEO, manager or other worker with the right values and the right personality. In a serial progression sense, a job-holder first needs the skills, knowledge and abilities to do the job. Second, they need to possess the competencies and exhibit the behaviours that will enable them to succeed in the firm’s chosen market with the staff and resources it has available. And behaviours are only exhibited and competencies exploited if the context is favourable.

The characteristics of a person appointed to be a CEO, or indeed any job for that matter, must match the task in hand. One cannot generalise.

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