• Leadership

Accidental Leaders

Roger Delves on how to address the root causes of the UK’s lack of leadership skills

Monday 05 March 2018


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I heard a phrase a while ago that stuck with me. It describes that familiar figure, the individual who stumbles into leadership – a stumble often caused because they are pushed. This person didn’t set out to lead, but because they were good at their functional specialty, they found themselves getting promoted, getting more responsibility, getting direct reports until suddenly… wow, they’re a leader.

They are ‘Accidental Leaders’. They are given the responsibility but often not the support. They are given the title but often not the training. And there are tens of thousands of them. The UK has about 400,000 new managers each year – of whom only about one in five have received appropriate management and leadership training. With over 300,000 accidental managers added to the pool each year, it comes as no surprise that 43% of UK managers are rated ineffective by the people they manage. This is reflected in the UK’s productivity gap, a well-known and vexing conundrum, which has been squarely blamed by the OECD on the lack of adequate leadership and management skills. Adding to that, according to recent Insolvency Service statistics, poor management skills is the number one reason for the high failure rate of SMEs. With productivity levels in the UK on average 18 points below its G7 counterparts, it’s a challenge that is becoming ever more urgent. If that number is too abstract, then it might help to understand that the lack of productivity contributes to an estimated yearly loss of £19bn to the UK economy – a situation that is expected to worsen in a post-Brexit nation.

OK, now pause. Take a long and honest look at yourself and at your organization: are you one of those Accidental Leaders who are unsupported, overwhelmed and potentially considered ineffective by those you manage? If not you, then how many of your colleagues or employees fit into this category? Maybe you have thought you are alone, or one of few. Not so. You’re one of many. One of a growing contingent. So, briefly savour the feeling of being part of a substantial group of equally overwhelmed, sometimes frightened, often uncertain individuals trying to do their best.

But the real issue is: how do we address this glaring need at the heart of British business?

This paralyzing lack of expertise in leadership, which will only worsen if we keep promoting employees into positions of real authority and responsibility without providing them with the appropriate training and development, marks us out from virtually every other developed nation. In fact, the UK ranks 22nd in Europe for investing in professional development according to data from the European Commission and Eurostat (from 2016). Even though a higher percentage of British companies provide training to their employees than any other country in the EU, their expenditure on continuous vocational training per employee is one of the lowest in the region.

It is time something positive, sensible and long-term was done to help Accidental Leaders, who you will find occupying desks in any business, or the rise in effectiveness, productivity, and competitiveness, which is central to our survival, let alone success, in a post-Brexit landscape, simply won’t materialize.

Don’t despair. Here’s how Accidental Leaders can become not just better leaders, but good leaders. Not just confident leaders, but leaders with a real sense of purpose.

I think one of the reasons why we have got so deeply into this issue of what we might call Leadership Lack is that our Accidental Managers are usually very good at their functional expertise – they are great architects or engineers or chemists or whatever discipline they excel in – and some of them might be natural leaders. So we confuse functional expertise with leadership ability. Our education system and our system of professional training are excellent at creating and nurturing individuals with genuine functional expertise – sometimes even with brilliance in their area of ability. The truth, however, is that many struggle with the demands of leadership, especially when those demands are around the necessarily complex area of interpersonal relationships.

But teams – big or small – are all about relationships, and tasks get completed better and quicker when teams function well. So if we want to create effective, confident leaders, we need to help them build skills like emotional intelligence, resilience, authenticity, managing conflict, coaching, having difficult conversations – in short, not doing something but being something.

The difference between management and leadership

An estimated 2 million new managers will be needed by 2024 to keep up with UK’s economic growth and to offset the impact of retirement among the current generation of leaders, strengthening the country’s case for investment in leadership skills, not least through the new management and leadership degree apprenticeships.

One of the things that strikes me in the data and the accompanying commentary is the pervasive lack of clarity around the differences between leadership and management, the roles of a manager and a leader, the overlap between leadership and management, the degree to which managers lead and leaders manage – in short, any sort of clear understanding of whether there is one role here, or two, or more. No wonder we are not great at it, if we can’t even define it succinctly.

So that brought back to my mind that seminal Kotter article written for HBR all those years ago, entitled “What do Leaders Really Do?”. One of Kotter’s ideas is the thought that there is a difference between leaders and managers and between what they do. Which is right. And which in turn means they need, or may need different skill sets and competencies.

As quoted by Stephen R. Covey, “Efficient management without effective leadership is like straightening deck chairs on the sinking Titanic.”  That might work if you are Leonardo DiCaprio. But most of us are not. Management success cannot compensate for failure in leadership, because well run companies which are poorly led will always fail in the end – they will miss seeing opportunities, misread what customers want, get acquired, become obsolete, meet some other all-consuming disaster, all the while operating efficiently. But because we are often stuck in management paradigms, leadership becomes a very hard thing to do. We too often reward efficient management, without recognizing or developing the skills of effective leadership.

We have been talking about it for decades, trying to decide how to divide the roles between leaders and managers, and how to allocate tasks between the two functions. But whichever way we look at it, managers still need to lead – because one of the things they manage is people.

Now for Accidental Leaders, this is often the most difficult area: they are smart people and can get behind any management idea, model, or methodology, but many have little idea of the skills associated with successful people management. To do their jobs effectively, however, this often is the most crucial skill needed.

So, what is it that managers do?

In brief, managers have a bottom-line focus: How can I best accomplish certain things? Managers are responsible for managing convergent activity – their teams close the gaps between strategy and execution so that what the company or division does is as close as possible to what it planned to do at the outset.

Managers, therefore, lead task-focused teams which have to deliver against identified criteria in a timely way and within agreed parameters such as cost, consumed resource and so on. Managers constantly live in the here and now with short time horizons.

Leaders, on the other hand, are different.

Leaders have a top line focus: What are the things we want to accomplish next?

These folk look into the future and try to decide the direction in which the company should be heading. Companies continuously need to change – change course, improve product mix, acquire, divest, expand, contract. Leaders decide what changes to make to keep the company growing, viable, vibrant. Far from being convergent thinkers, these leaders are divergent thinkers, seekers of new paths, creators of unique shapes, who must persuade or inspire others that their vision is credible and achievable.

In the words of both Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.

You can be an Accidental Leader whether you’re holding down a Convergent or a Divergent role. But the skills you will require and the leadership challenges you will face will be very different.

So, here’s a thought: If you are an Accidental Leader struggling with the challenges of the role into which you have been thrust, don’t just grab desperately at the first Leadership program or MBA that comes your way. Decide what sort of team you are leading: is it tasked with Divergent or Convergent objectives? Understand what kind of leadership you are expected to provide. Reflect on what skills you lack. Then find the right structured support to help you build and deliver those capabilities.

You might be an Accidental Leader, but you can find a Purposeful Solution.

Business Schools such as ours at Ashridge Executive Education, have long-standing expertise in creating highly relevant, practical and impactful programs that meet the needs of managers, leaders, and executives in charge of managing businesses, leading people, and driving change and innovation.

For adult executive development to really work it is vital that programs be designed to incorporate carefully facilitated participant discussion. In leading schools this is often catalyzed by the ground-breaking research from faculty that is translated into actionable insights to help participants perform at the highest level, so they can reach their full potential, and so confidently and effectively drive their organization’s future.

Business Schools in the UK are now beginning to offer both bachelor and masters degrees that meet the Apprenticeship criteria. At Ashridge, for instance from this April we have the Bachelors in Business & Management (BSc, Level 6 Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship), a 3.5-year program designed to up-skill entry-level and mid-level managers so that they are equipped to add value to their organization. This degree focuses mainly on building management capabilities that suit convergent roles.

At Apprenticeship Level 7, based upon our more than three decades of MBA experience, we will offer the Ashridge Masters in Leadership & Management (Level 7 Senior Leader Degree Apprenticeship), a two-year program that aims to prepare experienced managers (and functional specialists) to accelerate their progression into strategic management and leadership roles by providing them with the right set of knowledge and tools to develop both convergent and divergent skills.

The great thing about degree apprenticeships and the concept of work-based learning, is that students can immediately apply what they learn in the classroom to their workplace, experiment with different tools and practices, and learn from each other about what works in real life and more importantly, what works for them and the teams they lead.

Hult Ashridge Executive Education helps organizations around the world improve their leadership talent, strategic thinking and organizational culture.

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