Measuring Leaders

During the last few months, I have been watching an organization struggle to produce a leadership competency model. This group wasn’t happy with any of the frameworks available to it from commercial 360-degree feedback instruments or leadership training firms. It wanted a custom set of measurable competencies that were specific to its organization and value system.

This is the kind of activity that, if done well – and actually applied to development and performance management – can be valuable to a large enterprise. On the other hand, it can become a never-ending, expensive, theoretical and even trivial effort to define what will neither be measured nor used to any great effect. And it is a function that requires more talent-management depth than smaller firms can afford.

If understanding the kind of leadership that an organization values has merit, there are easier ways to gather that information than to pay McKinsey & Co. big bucks. Just listen to what employees and managers admire about your most effective leaders. What organizations admire about their leaders – as well as what they do not – tells us much about the organization itself.

Dr. I. Dodd Wilson, chancellor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, has been getting a lot of positive press lately – and deservedly so. It’s not hard to get a sense of what the UAMS culture values by listening to what colleagues, employees and others had to say about him.

While many acknowledged his business and financial acumen, most focused on how Wilson accomplished so much as dean of the Medical School, and now as chancellor.

Joel Anderson, chancellor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, described Wilson inviting him to lunch shortly after Anderson’s appointment as chancellor and discussing how the two organizations could work more closely together. This theme of collaboration and attention to the larger environment is present in both the accolades that Dodd has received and in what he has achieved at UAMS.

A number of his colleagues singled out Wilson’s willingness to take responsible risk. The investment of $460 million in new construction that includes a new hospital with a neo-natal ICU, the psychiatric research unit and expanded cancer care units does not happen without strong vision and the courage to make that vision a reality. Clearly, this was risk-taking supported by careful planning.

Another theme that ran through the praise of Wilson was that of communication.  Some talked about his open and forthright personal communication style and self-deprecating sense of humor. Others focused on his use of technology and the Internet to improve communications between facilities, between doctors and experts, and, of course, between doctors and patients.

Perhaps the most direct statements were those that described Wilson as the embodiment of UAMS’ mission statement: “To teach, to heal, to serve and to search.” When a leader lives the mission of the organization, he establishes leadership competencies in a way far more powerful and lasting than any competency model ever will.

Want a shortcut to develop leaders who will sustain and strengthen the best part of your culture? Find out not only which ones are respected in your organization, but why. When you’re polling who should be part of this group, remember that leadership is not necessarily about top performers in sales or those who most stringently enforce policy.

Then find a way to put those people who best serve your organization onto the front lines of developing the next generation of leaders. Make them the mentors and guides for the managers who show potential and give them the tools and training to understand and teach what they know.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, June 15, 2009.