Learning to accept that leadership-making is continuous ‘work in progress’

Coaching expert Cameron Yarbrough suggests it’s better to accept that leadership is never ‘done’ – but HR also has to take on the challenge of leadership ‘making’

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Sep 1, 2023

It’s fair to say that for some time now, traditional leadership styles have been starting to show signs of strain as business and cultures shifts.

None feel quite as out-dated as those where the CEO has a command and control mindset – with Forbes calling these companies ‘dinosaur organizations’. This type of leadership does not – it argues – create a culture which breeds innovation. Rather than these groundrules setting out clarity, it claims they actually make people feel more hemmed in.

We all know that leaders with command and control mindsets could get with it during prosperous times, when markets were high and venture capital money flowed. But as soon as times get tougher, they invariably face repercussions. Without capable, human-centered leadership, the best people chose to leave.

When leaders take the opposite approach – showing strong and compassionate leadership, their people stay – even if that company is in trouble or is struggling.

Why? Well, these leaders have cultivated loyalty and trust through years of building and exercising key relational skills, and a very different style of leadership.

These are the leaders that blend empathy with accountability, making sure the work gets done while enabling every employee to do their best work.

But if that’s all things take, why is it so hard for leaders to behave this way?

How do you “make” a leader?

We are in a new age where our expectations of leaders have evolved rapidly and significantly.

First, employees expect more of leaders – to demonstrate leadership skills such as remote culture-building, handling ambiguity, and interpersonal savvy.

Secondly, even employees acknoweldge that their leadership needs development resources to become proficient in those skills. Typically, this comes in the form of coaching, which supports the leader-making process by helping to drive more self-awareness, and self-compassion.

Coaching works in part because leadership qualities are not fixed or innate. They stem from a combination of both nature and nurture. There are some qualities that some of us just naturally have more of, like self-awareness and curiosity, perhaps. But even if you know someone who isn’t naturally self-aware or curious, this person can still shift those capacities in their relationship with a coach.

But, it’s crucial to acknowledge that this leader “making” process is just that – a process.

Every leader is a perpetual work in progress.

If we – and the HR profesion – acknowledge that leaders are all on a journey, and that even the most naturally talented individual could learn to be a better leader, we’d all be losing our tempers a lot less with other people, both in the workplace and on digital platforms.

What does leadership making look like in practice?

We work with Nabis, a fully-licensed cannabis wholesale platform with the largest portfolio of cannabis brands and supplying 100% of California’s dispensaries and delivery services.

While many organizations are moving to an emphasis on skills-based hiring, the leadership at Nabis has found that finding the ideal mix of skills and experience for every role in their business has the potential to slow them down.

Hiring more flexibly has allowed them to keep pace with their ambitious growth targets, and Nabis use coaching to develop skills that their leadership team needs to keep pace with the growing business.

Coaching for the Nabis leadership team has delivered personalized development to managers across the rapidly scaling business, driving manager growth and effectiveness.

The right people are hard to find and recruit, and coaching helps retain these people and level up their skills.

At another organization, Reddit, a key focus has been to maintain and bolster a unique company culture that ensures employees feel empowered and excited to come to work.

This entails not only continuously adapting and evolving workforce philosophies, programs, and processes to enhance the work experience, but also developing the emerging class of leaders through coaching programs.

At its center is a new six-month Key Talent Program. As part of this, the second three months is a conscious attempt to help candidates gain significant “soft skill” people management capability.

In particular, the program had a significant impact on retention, increasing retention rates by 38%.

Leaders are made through hard work

The key message here – I believe – is that leadership making isn’t easy.

If leaders really are made, not born, someone has to do the making, and HR has to step up to this.

While in the context of work it’s important to have the support of the organization (and a coach) to develop as a leader, it’s on us as individual HR leaders to embrace learning with openness.

We’re all constantly learning, or should be.

And the best leaders are the ones who recognize the importance of that continuous growth and improvement.

LinkedIn posts from individuals we look up to always seem to have all the ultimate leadership answers, but being a human being in today’s workplaces is far more complex and nuanced than that.

True leaders aren’t innate; they are forged through persistent hard work and commitment.

Modern approaches to coaching and leadership make that hard work and commitment a little easier.

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