Six practices you need to master as a leader today

 Ron Ashkenas and Brook Manville look at how leaders can master six practices to ensure they are successfully achieving significant positive impact by building an organisation of people working together towards a common goal

The organisations that newly-minted MBA’s enter today are very different from those of just a few years ago. They are less hierarchical and more networked; they rely on partners as much as employees to get work done; they are technologically-enabled in almost every facet of their operations; and they are continually challenged by their customers and competitors to innovate in everything they do.

Whether it’s a large corporation or a start-up, a government entity or a non-profit, organisations today need to be faster-moving, nimbler, and more geared for change if they want to survive. As evidence, look at the average lifespan of an S&P 500 company which has declined from 60-plus years in the 1950’s to about 17 years today.

But just because organisations have changed doesn’t mean that leadership is significantly different than it was in years, or decades, or centuries past. Sure, leaders need to move faster, think more globally, communicate more broadly, embrace technology more quickly, and challenge assumptions more frequently. But at its core, leadership is still the act of achieving significant positive impact by building an organisation of people working together towards a common goal. To do that, leaders need to master six ‘practices’ that have stood the test of time and are even more essential in the ‘new’ organisations of today. They are:

  1. Creating an inspiring and unifying vision: The first step for any leader is to rally the troops – to give people a sense that if they work together, they can create magic, something bigger and more impactful than they could do alone. And with less structure and controlling hierarchy, this kind of unifying vision is more important than ever. The truth is that most people want their work to have purpose; and part of the leader’s job is to continually make sure that the purpose, or vision, is exciting, aspirational, and provides a big enough umbrella to encompass everyone across the network or matrix. And this is just as important for a team leader (who might mobilise people around exceptional service, or quality, or customer delight) as it is for a CEO.
  2. Translating the vision into an actionable strategy: Once people are excited about the vision, they need a pathway for moving towards it. So the second key job for a leader is to shape a strategy that focuses the organisation’s efforts and resources on the actions needed for success. Oftentimes this means making choices not only about what to do, but also what not to pursue; how to allocate human and financial capital; and how fast to proceed. And in a less structured and more networked world, leaders need to make even more of these choices at every level, and then work harder to get alignment across the system.
  3. Building a team that can execute the strategy: Strategy doesn’t happen by itself; it needs to be executed by people with the right skills, attitudes, and teamwork. So that’s the next job of the leader: To recruit, retain, and develop the best possible talent across the network, whether in-house or with partners. For startup leaders, the work here is to attract top-notch talent and then mold those talents into an integrated whole. For leaders in established organisations, who are most likely inheriting an existing team, the challenge is to be clear about expectations; give candid but supportive feedback; and then develop or replace team members where needed. The goal is not necessarily to be liked by the team (although that’s always nice), but rather to have a team that can really execute.
  4. Delivering results: One of the common mistakes that leaders make is to assume that results are just a by-product of a good vision, strategy, and team. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Leaders need to focus specifically on achieving results. They need to establish clear goals, break larger efforts into manageable pieces, and put review mechanisms in place for mid-course corrections, which is increasingly critical in loosely coupled systems that could easily spin out of control. Most importantly leaders need to build momentum through short-term successes and hold people accountable for delivering throughout the organisation. It’s one of the toughest parts of the leadership job; but also, the one that differentiates the best from the rest.
  5. Innovating for the future: No matter how much success an organisation has achieved, there are no guarantees that the same success will continue into the future. Just look at companies like IBM, GE, and Ford to get a sense of how fragile success can be. That’s why the fifth job of the leader is to constantly be on the lookout for what’s next, to challenge current business models, to experiment with new ways of working, and to create a culture of constant innovation – and to balance all of this against the need to produce results today. And again, this isn’t just a requirement of CEO’s and senior leaders but applies to every team and unit in an organisation.
  6. Knowing and growing yourself: The final key to leadership success is perhaps the foundation for all the rest: To constantly strive to be the best leader possible. Just like anyone else, leaders do not arrive in organisations fully-formed. They develop over time through self-reflection, understanding their strengths and weaknesses, learning new skills, and finding the right balance between work and home. The best leaders are those who are open to learning and don’t consider themselves to be the smartest person in the room. True leadership is not a destination, but an ongoing journey carried out over the course of a career in every-changing organisations by “practicing the practices” for leadership success.

Ron Ashkenas (rashkenas@gmail.com) and Brook Manville (brook.manville@gmail.com) are the authors of the Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook: Make an Impact, Inspire Your Organization, and Get to the Next Level (Harvard Business Review Press, 2019). This article is based on their research for this book.