In the November issue of HBR, my co-author Richard Badham and I talk about four metaphors we use as prompts to help leaders spark and sustain change in their organisations and their own lives: fire (representing ambition), snowball (accountability), movie (reflection) and mask (authenticity). We developed these as part of a doctoral research project involving seven CEOs who had made the transition from ineffective to effective, stymied to successful, frustrated to celebrated. But there were three more metaphors we didn’t have room to cover: master chef, coach and Russian dolls. Here’s a brief explanation of what they represent in a leadership context, and how to use them.Master chef
This metaphor refers to how leaders should use frameworks, tools and strategies — the equivalent of recipes, utensils, and cooking methods — to progress from “amateur cook” to “master chef”. Our research suggests that it is the artful application of these elements that allows leaders to transform. This means adapting the elements of a framework, including milestones, interventions and commitments, to suit the leader’s own environment, just as a chef changes her recipe depending on the season. It means using tools, such as 360 degree leadership diagnostics with precision, but perhaps more importantly, a good dose of flair. And it means becoming more intuitive in the use of leadership strategies, such as influencing and role modelling, just like a chef cooks with greater creativity and spontaneity as their methods become second nature.
Paul, the newly appointed managing director of a failing Dutch IT services company, was an amateur cook when he first started the job, clinging tightly to the toolkit and strategies. This did make him an incrementally more effective leader, but he often appeared scripted and unnatural. Eventually, he moved into the master chef role instead, selectively applying frameworks, tools and strategies, in his own way. By the end of his story, he had turned around the fortunes of his company, and built a reputation as a highly effective leader.
To use the master chef metaphor yourself, ask: How adaptable is your framework for change (recipe), as your context changes? How well do your tools (utensils) balance the need for rigour on one the hand, and accessibility on the other? How well do you understand the strategies and actions (cooking methods) that can close the gap between your intentions and your impact?
Leadership coaching is usually thought of as two people in a private conversation behind closed doors. But our research suggests that executives are better served by a “coaching staff” with a vested interest in their success, a bit like a sporting team. In this metaphor, the leader is the team captain, supported by coaches (bosses or external advisors who provide big-picture guidance from the sidelines); fellow players (colleagues who give real-time, on-the-field feedback) and supporters (family members and friends outside work who offer energy and encouragement but also voice honest displeasure at poor performance).
Consider Dennis, a brilliant actuary and “turn-around” guy who wound up as the CEO of a publicly listed insurance giant at age 57. When we met him, he boasted that he could “give you the answer before you asked the question”. But behind his bravado, Dennis was suffering; he had never grown a company before and his board was demanding results fast. He quickly realised he would need help from his boss, his team and his very formidable wife. With their input, he set leadership goals and created an open environment for all parties to give him honest feedback. He accepted and acted upon their coaching until his retirement at age 60, following three consecutive years of business growth and a dramatic improvement in his leadership effectiveness ratings.
Ask yourself: How open are you to direct feedback on your leadership? Which consultants, colleagues and family members could you enlist to help coach you? How can you build mutual interest and trust in this coaching group?
Each of the leaders in our study found that their own story occurred within a context of up to five others, just like Russian dolls nested one inside the other. The smallest doll was the leader’s personal aspirations, health and well being. Outside this was the leader at work. But it wasn’t just a personal story. The transformation extended to his executive team, then his extended teams, then his organisation, and last his up-line environment, including his board, parent company or government. The most positive results came, not surprisingly, when all the dolls fit neatly together.
Jim, a highly revered director general in the Queensland state government, embraced the idea of Russian dolls as he sought to rescue a very traditional, science-focused department from extinction. He worked to align his “dolls” around a vision to create “profitable primary industries” that served his premier’s objectives, as well as those of his senior leaders, his community, and his own personal aspirations. That alignment turned the department into an economic powerhouse, and enabled Jim to navigate through two of the greatest natural disasters ever to hit his state.
Ask yourself: How aligned is your personal journey with the imperatives of your leadership role? How aligned is your leadership journey with that of your broader organisation? Where are the opportunities for you to bring all of the various journeys into greater alignment?
Since we developed these metaphors with our seven CEOS, we’ve used them successfully with thousands of executives around the world. Do they resonate with you? I’d love to hear your own fire, snowball, movie, mask, master chef, coach and Russian doll experiences.
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