A culture of fostering the most productive behaviour ensures organisational improvement
Anyone with responsibility for the performance of a large organisation knows the value of effective leaders. Most of us are more than happy to invest in developing them. But even a cursory review of the management literature shows that there’s no consensus on how to do that.
When fast growth pressured us at Amgen to bring along the talent in our leadership pipeline, we had to figure it out for ourselves.
Here’s what I learned: We had to put the focus on the behaviours we expected leaders to display, and those had to be spelled out by a top team that was highly engaged, intellectually and emotionally, in the process.
First we discussed at a headline level what a leader in our organisation should do. Even at that stage, our debate was impassioned, but we arrived at a list: Consciously act as a role model; deliver strong results in the right way; build, develop and lead empowered and diverse teams; and motivate others with a vision for the future that can be implemented.
The discussions got livelier when we sought to describe each behaviour with enough specificity to inform selection, training and evaluation. Take, for example, acting as a role model, which challenges leaders to bring their best selves to the job day after day.
We came to agree that leaders should work to gain self-awareness, seek and accept feedback, grow and improve continually, and embrace Amgen’s cultural values (which, by the way, we defined through a separate, similar process). Descriptors under every heading had to be precise, real and action-oriented. The words mattered.
We could have styled these must-haves as character traits or attributes. By casting them instead as behaviours, we underscored two messages: It isn’t worth much to have an attribute that you don’t display; and if you fall short of what the best leaders do, you can close that gap.
Emphasising behaviour over traits also opens the door to style differences. An organisation doesn’t benefit when all of its leaders ape some icon-of-the-moment’s style. That’s a failure to capitalise on diversity, like trying to improve an orchestra’s performance by asking every section to sound more like the woodwinds.
I said that this exercise should be undertaken by the top team. Let’s put a finer point on that: I mean not by consultants, facilitators or how-to books. Enterprise leaders must value, at their core, each behaviour that they expect others — and themselves — to exhibit and be judged on. The only way to capture their authentic beliefs and benefit from their collective experience is to get them working from scratch.
Don’t stop there, however. Put the behaviours, as defined by the enterprise leaders, in front of your top 100 people. We hosted sessions where we asked folks to push back on language they couldn’t live with, add new items and become true partners in the overall process. Then we found ways to foster the behaviours using evaluations, surveys, communications and highly visible actions by leaders — including the occasional dismissal for consistent and significant violations.
Does this sound time-consuming for a CEO? It is. But as a CEO, you should realise that your greatest contribution is the behaviour you cause or allow to thrive in the organisation’s upper ranks. It’s hard work to answer the all-important question “What do we expect leaders to do here?” But at your level, it is precisely the behaviour everyone needs to see.
Kevin Sharer was the CEO of Amgen for 12 years. He now teaches in the strategy unit at Harvard Business School.
© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.
An organisation doesn’t benefit when all of its leaders ape some icon-of-the-moment’s style. That’s a failure to capitalise on diversity, like trying to improve an orchestra’s performance by asking every section to sound more like the woodwinds.