The Leadership Pipeline

Author: Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter, James Noel

Genre: Management

If there is one book that every ambitious manager MUST read, it is this. Why do careers hit a glass ceiling? Why do promising, hard working, intelligent young managers fail to make the cut to be promoted to the next level? The authors argue that starting at an entry level analyst to the CEO of the company, there are 6 big transition roles – first becoming a manager, then a manager of managers, then a function head and so on. Each of these require a very distinct set of incremental skills. People need to start exhibiting these new skills before they can be considered for promotion. You could be delivering good performance at the current level, but still not considered for the next level, because what got you here, won’t get you there. The skill set requirement is different.

In contrast, researchers have found that successful managers learnt new skills as they moved up, changed their perspective on what was important and reprioritized where to spend time. The book highlights distinct levels of Leadership, each requiring new set of skills and priorities.

1.Managing Self: The individual contributor stage first few years in our career. The key skills required for success here are primarily:

  • Technical – Subject Matter Knowledge, Quality of output, Consistency
  • Professional – Basic professionalism and discipline, accepting company values and norms, doing assigned work within given time frame

People who do this well are often promoted to the next level, where new skills become important.

  1. Managing Others: As we start having direct reports, the older skills of technical competence and professionalism become a minimum requirement. Some very new skills start mattering:
  • Planning: Breaking overall deliverable into smaller chunks, with a time bound action plan
  • Assigning/Delegating Tasks: Who will do what? based on interest and capability
  • Recruiting team: What skill sets are required and how to measure a candidate against each
  • Motivating/Inspiring: Seen as a charismatic leader who people look up to for inspiration
  • Monitoring/Measuring the work of others: Regular follow-ups on KRA and Action Plans
  • Coaching/Enabling: Giving specific feedback, then following up to ensure improvement
  • Accountability: Taking full accountability of results, without giving excuses

The aha moment is that none of these skills are a requirement at the first level of individual performers. So one can be a great analyst without having any of the qualities required to be promoted to a manager.

  1. Managing Managers: At this stage, we have reportees who in turn have reportees. This level is critical in the execution process, since maximum number of contributors report here.
  • Requires ‘pure management’ and a shift from ‘doing’ to ‘getting done through others’, therefore we need a change in paradigm that managing people’ is as important as ‘managing work’.
  • Hence, priorities need to change. The time it takes to review operations and key business indicators needs to be equaled with time taken to review and improve people capabilities.
  • One key skill required is to decide who to promote at the manager level and hence the ability to differentiate between those who can ‘do’ and those who can ‘lead’.
  • Another key skill is bridging barriers between departments and having a holistic picture, instead of having a ‘union member’ We need to bust silos by reaching out to those who may not directly report to us. Maintaining healthy win-win relationships is critical. Often smart, hard working people are very good in upward and even downward collaboration, but sideways collaboration is almost alien to them. In other words, they often lack Engaging skills: Understanding the other person’s point of view with as much interest as you can advocate your own point of view, having a mindset that we have to take everyone along, understanding that big decisions are often complex and we have to do a give and take.
  • We also need immense maturity. Often seniors start competing with their own juniors to subtly show who is more capable, instead of celebrating their success. While they have comfort with people 2 or more level below, a tinge of insecurity peeps in with ‘almost equal’ direct reportees. A client called it the ‘Pygmy syndrome’ where you don’t like people who can replace you.
  1. Functional Head (e.g. Operations Head or Finance Head or Sales Head etc.): As we start managing an entire function, three key changes happen:
  • At least some areas start reporting to us which are outside our own experience. E.g. a newly promoted Plant Manager will have Purchasing and Finance report in, hence, the need to listen and learn new skills. Unfortunately, many people get hardened, disinclined to learn eagerly.
  • Talking to field workers requires penetrating at least 2 layers of managers, hence very advanced communication skills are required. How to frame thoughts, how to focus on the most important message, how to be persuasive and inspiring (governing statement -> supporting logic), how informal communication channels work, how messages can be misinterpreted etc.
  • Strategy or Business Acumen becomes important. A view of business, beyond the function. A holistic picture of how company runs and how your function fits in. How profits are made.
  • Loyalty and Value Alignment or the ‘social’ side of success becomes important. No CEO likes a colleague who keeps talking negative about the corporate direction or whose loyalty is suspect?
  1. Business Manager or P&L Owner: At this level, we can now start seeing a clear link between our actions and in-market success and failure. Our paradigm needs to change: From looking at proposals functionally (can we do it technically) to a profit perspective (will it make money) and long term orientation (will it be sustainable). Three new skills start becoming important:

  • Balancing current and future needs. Most of us spend 50-60% time in Quadrant I (Urgent & Important, daily fires), even though this should be no more than 10-20%. Leaders develop capability, relationships and processes that reduce fires and dependence on individuals.
  • As decisions become complex, balancing time between action & reflection/analysis. Benchmarking with competitors (what can we learn from them), doing root cause analysis (why exactly did we fail), process orientation (what systems can we set up that will drastically improve efficiency and effectiveness), personal development (what can I personally do better) etc.
  • Valuing the contribution of staff functions (often seen as adversaries before this role).

And so the book continues till the next level, CEO and then even Group CEO. I have used this as my bible with every promotion: what should I stop doing (even though I may be good in it, but people below me need to do it now) and what new things should I start doing. Sadly many people do not make that transition – we were promoted because of our past successes, so the default mindset is to continue with the behaviour that delivered that success. Managers also are rewarded mainly on results, and much lesser on the how of results. Sometimes they are also insecure (read about the tallest pygmy effect) and do not desire to develop their subordinates for the next level. These are two very different mindsets: Wanting the subordinates to do well in the current role vs. developing them for the next level. And so many careers die a premature death, doing well but not going any higher.

Why should you read this book: Unfortunately, in most companies, leadership development is not given as much attention as say Strategy Development or Managing Operations. Even our education system hardly coaches us on any softer managerial/leadership skills. As a result people remain ‘technically strong’ and hard working but just don’t make the cut to the higher echelons of management. This book provides a ready recokner on what individuals can try to learn so that they can confidently present their candidature when promotion season comes.

Goodreads Link: The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership-Powered Company by Ram Charan | Goodreads

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