Senior managers need to go back to school

Feb 18 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Downbeat, resistant to change, emotionally unpredictable and lacking in operational leadership just when a firm hand is needed Ė welcome to your senior leadership.

Senior executives often assume all the years of hard graft they have under their belts and the knocks and set-backs they have taken along the way will be enough to stand them in good stead, whatever the challenges.

But in the maelstrom that is the current economic and financial climate, it is clear that some senior managers, at least in business simulations, tend to act more like rabbits in the headlights, highlighting the need for top executives as much as their managers to get better trained in how to deal with this once-in-a-generation crisis.

A study by consultancy Development Dimensions International has concluded that it is leaders who are posing many of the high risks to their organisations, as much as the global recession, because they lack the skills to see their organisations safely through to the other side.

Its analysis of the performance of 3,623 executives from 49 countries who participated in DDI assessment centres found a worrying lack of ability and, in many cases, that the actions and attitudes of executives could actually be a hindrance in a crisis.

The findings illustrated the need for managers and executives at all levels to be trained properly and have the skills for dealing with even the deepest trough, it argued.

Yet there is often a marked reluctance among managers at higher levels to head back to the classroom, often believing it will be seen as a sign of weakness or that they are simply too busy and too indispensable doing the day job.

Back in 2007, for example, a poll by Boston-based consulting and training firm, Novations Group found the most senior managers were in fact those least likely to get training.

While nine out of 10 first-line managers said they would be receiving training that year, just six out of 10 senior executives said they would be joining them.

What this led to, argued the DDI research, was that almost half of leaders surveyed, two thirds of which came from the U.S, would not take operational control when it was most needed.

The assessment centres tested the executives on their decision making skills, how they communicated in a crisis and how they developed strategy.

Four of the most dramatic at-risk areas were lack of operational control, the tendency to squash innovation, emotional unpredictability and downbeat attitudes, it concluded.

On top of a lack of operational control, nearly a third of executives were deficient in their ability to execute and embed change and decisions.

Another fifth showed signs of a worrying lack of discipline, while with a similar proportion were weak when it came to change leadership.

Four out of 10 were resistant to change under stress and it was felt more than half could pose a very high threat to organisational innovation.

Nearly a fifth were rated as being high or moderately high risk when it came to being emotionally unpredictable under pressure Ė meaning the executive could well disturb the equilibrium and direction of the whole organisation.

A quarter lacked the temperament to communicate in a way that built trust, or were so emotionally detached that they had trouble relating to others.

These "downbeat" leaders would often struggle to share a sense of optimism about the organisation's future, an attribute that could make all the difference nowadays, warned DDI.

"Given the disappointing performance of leaders in ordinary times, what can we expect of them in challenging periods like right now?" said Rich Wellins, senior vice-president at DDI.

"We learned by examining the behaviours of individuals in the stress of an executive assessment that many are not just lacking skills to survive Ė but have traits that could contribute to an organisational crisis," he added.

"This isn't just speculation on how leaders could perform when facing a crisis, but startling information gained from leaders' performance in 'day-in-the-life of an executive' simulations, replicating what senior leaders face in their daily job," he concluded.