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Leaders need direction, too: Are you articulating clear expectations?

Note: A version of this article was originally published in IndustryWeek.

Many companies are facing critical inflection points. The last two years have been challenging.  However, as they look to the future, they may now see the opportunity to drive accelerated growth, expand global operations, integrate cultures after a merger or acquisition, turn lagging performance around or completely shift their business model.

The challenges brought on by these critical inflection points present opportunities, but also, they can be demanding and complex for leaders to navigate successfully. Invariably, to succeed, leaders will need to step up in significantly different ways.  What worked in the past may not be sufficient for the future.

Unfortunately, through global research that I share in my book, Accountable Leaders, I discovered that only 49% of organizations take the time to define and articulate new expectations for their leaders. Is your company one of them?

When a company does take the time to establish clear leadership expectations, a couple of problems can arise.

  1. First, leaders may be unclear about the expectations and what it means to be a leader. In turn, there may be a lot of inconsistency in how employees are led across the organization.
  2. Additionally, organizations may struggle to hold leaders accountable and thus create gaps in the execution of the business strategy.

No company can afford to have either scenario, especially when facing an inflection point.

When an organization defines a clear set of leadership expectations, it makes explicit the behaviors that leaders need to demonstrate. In many ways, this acts as a leadership contract—one that both specifies what it means to be a leader and specifically outlines how leaders need to step up to drive company success.

Over the years, I have seen more and more companies understand these risks and invest time to create a clear set of expectations for their leaders.

The Benefits

When an organization creates a compelling set of leadership expectations that is framed as a leadership contract, many tangible benefits can emerge:

  1. Leaders have more clarity and commitment around how they need to step up. This, in turn, enables them to demonstrate more excitement and passion for the company—and for executing strategic priorities.
  2. A more consistent leadership experience emerges across the organization. A compelling set of leadership expectations creates a common language and way of thinking about leadership. Everyone knows what it means to be a leader in your company. As a result, you improve the leadership experience and see greater consistency in how the employees and teams are led.
  3. A more unified leadership culture improves leaders’ engagement. This is especially valuable if your organization is attempting to transform itself and needs to evolve toward a new culture. This benefit is also essential if your organization has completed a merger or acquisition and now needs to establish a more harmonized leadership culture.
  4. Leaders and managers struggling in their roles become more evident. A leadership contract provides a mechanism to identify leaders who are not stepping up to expectations. It’s important to recognize that having a clear leadership contract will move some people in leadership roles to opt out. Once they see the heightened expectations, they might make a personal decision to step down from their leadership roles. Some will ask to go back to technical positions. Others may decide to leave your organization. In the end, this is a positive outcome because few organizations today can carry people in leadership roles who are not fully committed to being truly accountable.
  5. Employees aspiring to move into leadership roles now have clarity as to expectations. Many people struggle to understand what it really means to be a leader. Your leadership contract facilitates better career discussions and helps mentors and managers determine ways to support aspiring leaders’ growth and development.

The Process to Avoid

Now, if the idea of establishing a leadership contract is appealing, it’s important to point out that there is a failure path you should avoid.

I have found that many organizations have gone about setting clear leadership expectations by creating leadership competency models. While these were popular a decade or more ago, increasingly, organizations don’t seem to find this approach valuable in today’s environment.

The primary complaint I see is that traditional competency models are just too complex and over the top. For example, I’ve seen leadership competency models with up to 15 competencies, each defined and then further delineated in four different managerial levels. The frustration organizations share is that the language used in these competency models is highly academic in tone—sterile and jargon-filled.

In the end, this makes the model inaccessible, forgettable and uninspiring to the intended audience—your leaders. As a result, many competency models end up sitting on a company server or shelf, never to see the light of day. They are not living documents that leaders embrace or that the organization uses to set clear expectations and drive strong accountability.

The Steps to Success

Does your company need to do a better job making expectations clear for leaders? If so, here are some steps to get you started:

  1. Review your company’s strategy and ask yourself, “In what ways will our leaders need to step up to successfully drive strategy execution?”
  2. Identify the five to seven behaviors critical to creating a strong leadership culture at your company.
  3. Define each behavior in plain and straightforward language. Explain why each behavior is important to your company’s success and identify specific ways that leaders must show up.
  4. Finalize your leadership contract in a clear and simple format, and cascade it to your leaders across your organization.
  5. Find ways to make the leadership contract live in your company by embedding it in a number of talent management practices.  For example, you can use your leadership expectations to create a recruitment profile used to assess potential new leaders coming into your company. You can also embed your leadership expectations in career planning conversations with high potential employees. In addition, you can ensure that your leadership expectations are the foundation for any formal leadership development programs created within your company.

Whenever a company makes the investment to create a company-specific leadership contract, they find an immediate sense of clarity and commitment among leaders. In turn, this serves to create a more consistent leadership experience for all employees.

Over time, a company establishes a more unified leadership culture where leaders work together to lead with a united front and one-company mindset.

About Leadership Contract

We are Leadership Contract Inc (LCI), your partner in strategic leadership development. We help you operationalize leadership accountability at all levels of your organization so you can drive strategy, shape culture, and spark change.

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