Stop the madness:

take a moment-based approach to leadership development

Published on: May 2018

Written by: Jessica Parisi

Most Fortune 500 CEOs that I have spoken with over the past two years say, “I need my leaders to shift how they lead. Our transformation depends on it.”This common sentiment reflects the current drive in business for perpetual reinvention. A recent IBM Global C-Suite study notes that companies are “seeking and championing change even when the status quo happens to be working quite well.”

So, CEOs need their leaders to shift how they lead, but what happens next?

Some common responses are to:

  • Run leadership assessments based on the current model to understand the gaps
  • Search the market for an updated leadership model to replace the current one
  • Send executives to a top business school’s leadership program

But none of these responses is optimal. The current leadership model represents the past, not the type of culture or leadership needed to make the strategy successful in the future. An externally sourced leadership model will be too generic to drive the change needed. And the time to send executives to business school programs is when you want to up-level their general leadership capabilities, not when there is fast evolution and transformation.

Instead of bold strokes, focus on something seemingly smaller. Identify the moments and behaviors that make up what leaders do now and what great leaders in the new reinvented company would do.

The tool that works for this is a moment-based leadership playbook. At the core of these playbooks are two realizations: First, all leaders don’t live one value, competency or behavior at a time. We live in moments. How we show up in those moments defines us as leaders and either strengthens or erodes the culture. Second, showing people what “great” and “not so great” leadership behaviors look like in their roles and organizations is extraordinarily helpful in stopping old habits and getting them to perform higher quickly.

Examples of leadership moments

Here’s a sample moment-based playbook for a company moving from a command-and-control leadership structure to a more agile one. Below are some examples of moments that teams face in this transformational environment and how the old (not-so-great) versus new (great) style of leader might respond:

When: The team comes to you for a decision.

Great Leaders at the Company…

  • Listen to their thinking.
  • Help the team consider any unforeseen aspects.
  • Give 51% of the vote to the team lead, saying, “I look forward to hearing your decision — it’s your call.”

Not-so-great leaders at the company…

  • Believe their job is to make the tough calls for the team.
  • Listen to the alternatives, and then make the call to move the team forward.

When: The initiative you’re leading drops in priority, and some team members are reassigned to another project.

Great Leaders at the Company…

  •  Share the market insight that led to the reprioritization with your team.
  • Encourage the team members to join the other team quickly. Tell them you look forward to working with them again in the future.

Not-so-great leaders at the company…

  • Try to slow down the transfer of team members, in the hopes that management will take them from another team.
  • Share their frustration with the team.

Having a mix of pivotal and daily moments is important. Dramatic leadership moments such as hiring a new CTO or a security breach will be easier to recall, but just as important are the daily moments. These can include setting headcount or budget, or leading a meeting as in the table below:

When: You’re leading the regular “Monday meeting” or daily stand-up.

Great Leaders at the Company…

  • Ensure the team is fully up to speed on the previous week’s market, and get their additional insights in real time.
  • Provide a forum for idea-sharing and learning, helping the team find their voices as customer advocates/experts.
  • Sync priorities by having others share updates and ask for help.

Not-so-great leaders at the company…

  • Feel it is their role to provide the updates for the team
  • Give orders and expectations
  • Lead the meeting as a progress report from the team members

Creating a moment-based leadership playbook is, in many ways, the antithesis of the competency models that have inundated businesses and informed their leadership selection, succession and development for decades. To buck the trend, keep these important tips and shortfalls in mind:

  • To uncover what both “great” behaviors and “not-so-great” behaviors look like, you need to perform leadership interviews, but don’t just ask your leaders about leadership. Dig deeper, and ask them to name moments in the recent past when the way they led had an impact on success for their business or team. Then ask them to reflect on what they did and what their intent was in those moments, capturing their language and nuance verbatim.
  • Once leaders have mastered the basics of “great,” they are better at bringing their own personal strengths and genius to the role, allowing real leadership magic to happen. Even if it may not seem like it, you have leaders in your company who are ahead of their peers and are role-modeling certain aspects of future leaders already. Engage with these leaders and help them find their voices, using their own words.
  • The language used to describe these moments and behaviors should be real language that people speak, not corporate jargon. Playbook writers must fight the urge to change the language in the service of grammar, consistency or their own leadership biases. A good playbook should be conversational and make readers smile because they immediately recognize the situation from the company language used.
When faced with a major transformation, your leaders will either keep working the old way or will go for it and keep the company leading-edge for some time. The moment-based approach is a measure of respect and care for your leaders — one that ensures that they understand what old habits to ditch and what the new expectations are, so they can do the best work of their lives and turn strategy into action.