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Book review: Functional Frank vs. Holistic Holly

Leadership Solutions: The Pathways to Bridge the Leadership Gap

By David Weiss, Vince Molinaro and Liane Davey

John Wiley & Sons, $41.99

"People speak very highly of you," says your colleague. That’s nice, you think.

"Everyone says you have loads of potential," adds your colleague. Also nice but then there’s a pause. A long, uncomfortable pause.

"So exactly how old are you" asks your colleague. Only it’s less a question and more a tactful way of telling you to get your act together. To grow up, step up and take charge. Be a leader. Potential only gets you so far. At some point, you have to deliver the goods. You don’t want to be the Peter Pan of the workplace.

"Thanks for the reality check," you say, although you’ve yet to cash the cheque. You’re still debating whether to start stoking your leadership fires. Do you really have the drive and the desire to lead at work?

Turns out you’re not alone in your ambivalence. And that’s bad news for employers that are hard up against growing leadership gaps.

"As the baby boomer generation begins to reach their 60s, organizations will face an unprecedented rate of retirements from the leadership ranks," say authors and consultants David Weiss, Vince Molinaro and Liane Davey. "Not only are there fewer Generation X employees to take their places, but many of these Gen Xers might be unwilling to accept the mantle of leadership."

Take the example of a high-tech firm that spent a lot of time and money to come up with a shortlist of 30 high-potential leadership candidates. The company was excited. The top 30 was less so.

The chosen few didn’t appreciate being tagged with the high-potential label. And they weren’t keen on going through the much-touted and exclusive accelerated leadership training program.

Instead of being an honour, it felt like a burden and a sure path to a whole lot of extra, mind-numbing work that they weren’t passionate about doing.

So why are the boomers’ heir apparents apparently not interested? The easy answer is work-life balance. We’ve watched our stressed-out bosses grind through 14-hour days and nights jammed with meetings, politicking and firefighting.

Or maybe we’re terrified of morphing into Functional Frank. We’ve all worked for a Frank. These leaders lean heavily on their functional expertise and ruthlessly defend their fiefdoms with blinders squarely on. They have all the answers and don’t want to hear any questions. They practice traditional command-and-control leadership, the kind of leadership that most Gen Xers have endured throughout their careers.

But Gen Xers just might fill the leadership gap if we had a shot at becoming a Holistic Holly. This a leader who’s big on collaboration, communication and consensus-building. Who sees the big picture and parks her ego to further the greater good of the whole organization. Who inspires instead of mires the folks around her. Instead of a competent functional manager, she’s a great leader for the entire organization who gets great results.

We know Holistic Holly well because we’ve all gone on forced marches to leadership boot camp. Deep in the heart of cottage country, we’ve climbed poles. Swung from ropes. Done role-playing and team-building, self-affirmations and self-reflections. All of which is intended to transform us into Hollys-in-waiting.

But we’re skeptical about whether Holly could survive back at the office and for good reason.

"Organizations send their leaders off to inspiring, life-altering training programs; then they return to an organization that does not support them in applying the skills they have learned," say the authors. "The often costly investment in training provides little return, and the employees are left feeling they will never have the kind of leadership they are looking for. The programs do not demonstrate long-term results."

Here’s why. Personal leadership development’s not enough. Employers also need to do an extreme makeover on their culture and organizational structures from performance management to business planning and budgeting. We may set out bound and determined to be Holly Holistic but all of the workplace policies, procedures, practices and processes, along with the unspoken cultural norms and rules that taken together reinforce functional leadership and swiftly pull and push us over to the dark side.

Shipping us off to leadership retreats and workshops is easy. Changing how an organization works, what it believes and what it values and rewards is not so easy.

Yet doing all three is the only way to build leadership capacity, according to the authors. And given the demographic shifts, the pace of change and the scope of challenges coming our way, capacity building is mission critical.

"The competition has neutralized standard competitive advantages of operational excellence, produce innovation and customer intimacy. The new competitive frontier has shifted to people — but not the oversimplified view of people as the organization’s most important asset — which few really believed and even fewer acted on. Rather, the competitive frontier of people is specifically focused on leadership, what leaders do, how the organization fosters leadership talents and how organizations reinforce their leadership culture."

The good news is the authors share what they know around building leadership capacity and creating organizations where Gen Xers will find and embrace their inner Holly.

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