in Leadership

How to Lead: Being Professional

how_to_leadThis is the last in a short series of posts looking at the ‘foundations of leadership’ section of Jo Owen’s How to Lead: what you actually need to do to manage, lead and succeed. My previous two posts can be found here:

  1. How to Lead: Focusing on People
  2. How to Lead: Being Positive

The third chapter of Owen’s book, and the last in the ‘foundations of leadership’ section is entitled Being Professional. Owen explains what he means by professionalism as follows:

Professionalism encompasses the core skills and values that define the character and potential of the organisation and the individual. It is central to the success of leadership.

He adds that professionalism should never be taken for granted and that it comprises four main elements:

  1. Learning to learn leadership
  2. Learning the local rules of the game: understanding professionalism in the context of the organisation
  3. Learning some universal lessons of professionalism
  4. Learning business survival etiquette.

The rest of this post uses these elements as section headings.

Learning to learn leadership

Formal education systems, says Owen, teaches people exactly the wrong lessons about leadership. In fact, this is probably why Richard Branson and Bill Gates – both ‘drop-outs’ of formal education systems – have prospered. Formal education teaches people to work in highly structured environments in an individual way looking for logical answers. Instead, it is the ‘tacit’ knowledge that is important, embodied in Japanese education and culture, for example.

According to Owen, leaders develop their capabilities in ‘two and a half ways’:

  1. Learning from role models
  2. Learning from experience
  3. Learning from structured observation and discussion (sometimes)

If you want to accelerate your path to leadership, the two best ways of doing so are:

  • Set up your own organization. You will have to learn very quickly and even if it fails you will learn a lot.
  • Structured observation and discovery – actively looking, listening and learning.

Owen suggests creating your own worksheets for reflection using headings such as ‘interpersonal skills’, ‘management skills’, ‘personal behaviours’ and ‘commuication skills.’

Learning the local rules of the game

Dress codes are a trivial but higly visible sign of the local rules of the game. They can fluctutate and be highly political. You need to learn the local rules fast, but no-one will tell you and will look at you as if you have asked a weird question if you ask. Instead, you need to pick up clues and hints. The most direct question you could ask to get a useful question would be How could I really mess up?

Learning some universal lessons of professionalism

When Owen interviewed 700 top leaders and asked them about their expectations of emerging leaders, the following came out top:

  1. Loyalty
  2. Honesty
  3. Reliability
  4. Solutions
  5. Energy (incorporating stamina, commitment, resilience, optimism, etc.)

These are all closely linked traits and tend to go together in people.

Turning to the most common complaints co-workers make about their colleagues in 360° feedback, Owen lists them as being:

  • not communicating
  • public, not private, arguments
  • game playing and politicking
  • bullying
  • bad habits (turning up late, poor dress, etc.)
  • personalising feedback and comments

Finally for this part, Owen makes the Prisoners’ Dilemma relevant to business. If you’re not familiar with this, read about it at Wikipedia, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or play the Open University’s game. It turns out that tit-for-tat teaches people a lesson. If they offer conflict, offer conflict back, but always then go back to an ‘offering cooperation’ model. This teaches them appropriate behaviours. :-p

Learning business survival etiquette

Owen begins the section by stressing the importance of etiquette and what it means in practice:

Etiquette is fundamentally about putting the other person at ease and making them feel valued, respected and important.

Basic etiquette therefore involves

  1. Promptness – respecting the other person’s time (you don’t lose friends or clients by arriving early!)
  2. Focus – good leaders have the habit of making you feel like you are the most important thing in their lives at that moment. How?
    • no interruptions from calls
    • mobile phone off
    • no playing with PDAs in meeting
  3. Courtesy – say ‘thank you’ a lot. And smile. :-
  4. Responsiveness – things like answering the phone within three rings, replying to email quickly and following up on commitments promptly shows you are in control and minimises effort.
  5. The Personal Touch – for example:
    • escorting people out yourself (perfect for that Columbo ‘one more question’ moment)
    • handwritten notes (valuable in an email culture)
    • learning names and using them.

Conclusion

I thought that the most valuable insights for this section were ‘learning the local rules of the game’ and the important of ‘the personal touch’. Of course, in a new Academy, the ‘local rules of the game’ will be in flux and it will be up to me, in part, to help set them! ;-)