Surround yourself with difference

Good advice I received as a leader.

Many years ago, in the early stages of my career I received some very useful advice from another leader within my organization. She said, the best thing I could do as I stepped into greater leadership positions was

‘to surround myself with people who did really well the things that I was not so good at’.

As time passed, I came to really value this advice. However, I would qualify it by saying not only people who can do well the things that were not my strengths, but also those who were confident in themselves, and in challenging my thinking and actions.

Some observations

I have observed, particularly over the last 15 years as a consultant to many different organizations and leaders, that this is not widely understood or adopted as a leadership strategy. Yet many would espouse it.

I have seen numerous examples, often in family businesses, where the leader – often the initiator of the business idea, an innovator, who created the successful business driven by pure belief in a product or service – falters because they thought they could also market the product cleverly and had the financial management acumen, that makes for success.

It is our colleague, Ernesto Sirolli who found that without differentiated roles where 3 types of expertise – product, marketing and financial management – are identified installed and honored in businesses, then this would most often lead to business failure, especially in smaller businesses.

Ernesto has gone on to build a robust model and methodology – the Trinity of Management (ToM) – which has simply become a fundamental model within which entrepreneurial teams can thrive. Around the world, particularly in disadvantaged communities adopting this ToM approach where those with the idea for a business have surrounded themselves with others who have different strengths, has led to outstanding outcomes.

There has been much research in many areas of management and particularly in recruitment, of the often-unconscious bias to choose people who are more like you; they may share a similar cultural or social upbringing or even have a similar educational history. With a recent client, we found that over time an executive had hired all but one subordinate with identical personality profiles to himself.

It is a deep-seated and human drive to want to associate with those with whom we can identify – that almost tribal and unconscious need to belong. If you are working in challenging situations and need to lead and build a team who can face complex situations and succeed, then it is diversity in thinking and experience that needs to be cultivated and nurtured in your team – work hard to find others who are competent but very different from one another and different from yourself.

Otherwise, you fall into a common trap for leaders.  It is thinking that what works for you as leader, that is your strengths, are what should be cloned in the people you recruit. It is a blind spot of sorts. Your team will be very good at doing all the things that you already do well but it is probable that your own personal weakness will become one big collective group weakness or blind spot if you do this.

This complaint can, at a strategic level, have far deeper consequences: not only for a team but for a whole organization. If the CEO of a company has a low tolerance for difference, and believes that they have a view of the world that is generally better than that of all those around them, they will tend to hire senior executives who share many of their attributes and traits. The subordinates who are different are often deemed to be lacking competence or some other essential traits. How does the CEO know this? They can be blind to the fact that their unswerving belief in their own framework and worldview is just one of my many, and others in senior positions may have fundamentally different views of the world, different approaches, and different styles which are valid and add value. These different individuals are progressively weeded out of the organization until it is populated at the top by those that are of a like mind to the CEO. The company does certain things very well, and these tend to be those strengths of the CEO. Others with different strengths just simply do not put their heads above the parapet, trying to stay safe and not be too different, resulting at sub-optimal outcomes for organizations, at best.

Understanding the different personality strengths

Over time, an understanding of personality types (eg Myers Briggs, DISC, LSI) gave me a way to make clearer distinctions about the characteristics I noticed in others. For example – their ease with being planned and organized, or those who were forever exploring new ideas without arriving at a conclusion or making a final decision – at least in a timely way.  Those who seemed to quietly cogitate and not verbalize their thinking easily, but when they did were really worth listening to as opposed with those who talked (and talked!) to think, seemingly rambling their way to a conclusion. 

This understanding heightened my awareness of my own preferences – in how I interacted or acted on the world (extrovert / introvert) , how I gathered information (through my senses or through seeing patterns in ideas), how I made decisions  (through logical analysis or by weighing up the impact on values or people) and how I approached things (ordered and planned or exploratory and slower to come to closure).

This led me to appreciate different strengths and particular gifts others had in contrast to my own. It made it easier for me to identify the qualities and skills I needed to surround myself with if I was to build a strong and effective team.

Senior leadership teams and complementary of strengths

Miles and Watkins (HBR April 2007), identified four types of complementarity that is evident particularly in senior leadership teams. These include complementarity of Task (work focus), Expertise (discipline / experience), Cognitive (mind set), and Social role in the organization

Complementarity is worth seeking on each and all of these four dimensions. The benefits of building complementarity in teams, and especially senior leadership teams, is  simple:  you compensate for shortcomings in any one member of the team and in particular the team leader or CEO and make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. 

Nevertheless, downsides can include confusions further down in the organization about how decisions are made, maintaining a united front and all pulling in the same directions with clearly shared business priorities.  Additionally, complementarity can cause complications when considering succession or recruiting new members to the team. These risks cannot be avoided but do suggest there is much value in developing a strong shared vision which is reinforced frequently, honing communication within the team and across the organization and fostering strong trusting relationships among the team.

In closing, I hope that my reflection on what has time and again proved to be invaluable advice, helps a few others to become more conscious of actively working to surrounding yourself with others whose strengths are not the same as yours.  It can be personally challenging at time but it also can bring huge relief – that you don’t have to do it all, but more than that it can bring outstanding performance and results for the team you lead.

Jill Tideman

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