By Marshall Goldsmith.
All leaders want their people to grow and develop on the job. When you work hard to improve yourself, you encourage the people around you to do the same thing.
Listen to what General Mills CEO Steve Sanger recently told 90 of his colleagues: “As you all know, last year my team told me that I needed to do a better job of coaching my direct reports. I just reviewed my 360-degree feedback. I have been working on becoming a better coach for the past year or so. I’m still not doing as well as I want, but I’m getting a lot better. My coworkers have been helping me improve. I’m pleased that my scores on ‘effectively responds to feedback’ are higher this year.”
While listening to Steve speak so openly to coworkers about his efforts to develop himself as a leader, I realized how much the world has changed. Twenty years ago, few CEOs received feedback from their colleagues. Even fewer candidly discussed that feedback and their personal development plans. Today, many of the most respected chief executives are setting a positive example by opening up, striving continually to develop themselves as leaders. In fact, organizations that best develop leaders tend to have CEOs like Steve Sanger who are directly and actively involved in leadership development. That has certainly been my experience.
This has also been confirmed by research led by Marc Effron at Hewitt Associates, who put General Mills on his latest list of the top-20 companies for leaders.
Hewitt finds that these organizations tend to more actively manage their talent. They identify high-potential people, differentiate compensation, provide the right development opportunities, and closely watch turnover. Vital to these efforts is CEO support and involvement.
One of the best ways top executives can get their leaders to improve is to work on improving themselves. Leading by example can mean a lot more than leading by public-relations hype. For example, Michael Dell, whose company made the Top 20 list, could have an attitude that says, “I don’t really need to develop myself.” However, Michael sincerely discusses his personal challenges with leaders across the company. He is a living case study from whom everyone at Dell is learning. His example makes it hard for any leader to act in arrogance.
Johnson & Johnson, tied for first on the top-20 list, has successfully involved its executives in leadership development. Its CEOs, formerly Ralph Larsen and now Bill Weldon, and top executive team regularly participate in various leadership-building activities. Having a dialogue with the CEO about his business challenges and developmental needs makes it a lot easier for employees to discuss their own business challenges and developmental needs.
Executive candor can even help turn around a troubled company. For example, Northrop Grumman CEO Kent Kresa inherited a company that had a poor reputation for integrity, a battered stock price, and reputation as one of the least-admired companies. His leadership team reversed the company’s poor image and engineered an amazing turnaround. From the start, Kent led by example. He communicated clear expectations for ethics, values, and behavior. He was evaluated by the same standards that he set for everyone else. He consistently reached out to coworkers. He didn’t just work to develop his leaders—he created an environment in which other leaders were working to develop him.
In the same way that CEO support and involvement can help companies nurture leaders, CEO arrogance can have the opposite effect. When the boss acts with arrogance and tells everyone else they need to improve, that behavior is copied. Managers then point out how others need to change. The end result: No one gets much better.
The principle of leadership development by personal example applies to all management. All leaders want their people to grow and develop on the job. When you work hard to improve yourself, you encourage the people around you to do the same thing.