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Becoming a Better Leader

Becoming a good manager involves a process of learningâ€"and unlearning, according to Harvard professor Linda A. Hill. Some leaders, like Bill Belichick, just know how to get the job done.

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Harvard professor Linda A. Hill


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Linda A. Hill has been studying and teaching business leadership for nearly three decades, perhaps longer than many of her MBA students have even been alive. As the chair of Harvard Business School's Leadership Initiative, Hill researches many entreprenuerial issues, including managing cross-organizational relationships, implementing global strategy, emerging markets, innovation, talent management, and leadership development. She is the author of Becoming a Manager: How New Managers Master the Challenges of Leadership, and Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, now available for pre-order on Amazon.com in advance of its January 2011 release. Hill recently sat down with Inc. editors to discuss her latest work.

As a professor for almost thirty years, what have been your areas of focus?

I actually do work in three areas. First, how do people learn to lead? I study people as they go through major career transformations. I try to understand what they find most difficult about that transition, and what resources they rely on to master whatever that new assignment is—both organizational resources and personal resources. Being the Boss, in part, comes out of that line of work that I've been doing. The second area of work I cover is leadership and innovation. And the third is how to implement global strategies, which includes how to improve cross-organizational relationships so you can improve global strategy, and also talent management issues associated with delivering a global strategy, particularly in emerging markets.

What are you passionate about?

I'm a business professor, fundamentally, because I'm very interested in two questions. One is I'm very interested in economic development, and the other reason I'm a business professor is because I know that power can corrupt, but I think powerlessness corrupts even more. Anything I can do to help people feel more powerful so that they can actually give voice to their values and contribute to their organizations and society—that makes me happy. These kinds of issues and questions, those are the two passions that run my life and this book, Being the Boss, are informed by those threads, and my own passions.

Your first book, Becoming a Manager documents the experiences of 19 first-year managers. What have you learned since the book was published in 2003?

What I've come to understand is that many people will never really master becoming a manager; they never actually went through that transition very successfully. And when you derail or get stuck later in your career around people issues, they're the same issues. So it's embarrassing—you can't really have a book on your shelf called Becoming a Manager if you've been at it for 15 years.

What role does experience play in leadership? Are leaders born, or are they made?

What my research on Becoming a Manager really shows is that people learn how to do their jobs from experience. You don't learn how to do it in school. As an academic, that's kind of distressing. As soon as students arrive in the MBA classroom, we do tell them 'we can not teach you how to lead, but you can teach yourself.' Leaders are more made than born, despite what people think, but it really is a process of self-development. As a leader, you're using yourself as an instrument to get things done in organizations.

So then how does one become a leader?

Learning how to lead or how to be a manager—it's a process of learning and unlearning. You have to unlearn if you're a really successful star producer, so you can create the space to learn how to do this other thing. It's actually about a transformation of your professional identity. It's a very deep kind of learning—a different mindset, a different set of values. How do you get satisfaction from work? Many people reported to me 'I never knew a promotion would be so painful' because of that unlearning process.  It's so much harder to assess your impact through others, so becoming a manager is not only about the acquisition of competencies, but really the acquisition of a new professional identity to be able to do the work you need to do when you're working with other people, as opposed to doing the work yourself. 

One of the bizarre things of entrepreneurship is that you are the leader immediately. What are the strains of taking a 'management' position, without, perhaps, any experience at all?

When you are the founder of something, you have a profound impact on that organization. You're the instrument to create this organization, and there's a lot of research that shows that the effect of the founder lasts for a really long time. And you can even see it in organizations like IBM where years and years ago that basic DNA was set by the founder. So what you do in the beginning, rightly or wrongly, can have a long-standing impact on organization

One of the challenges, though, is where can an entrepreneur go to get help and assistance to help him or her get up that curve fast enough. People do feel deeply lonely when they are in these kinds of roles. In the book, I talk about the burdens of leadership because not only are there rights and privileges, but also there are also duties and obligations. And so, thinking through that side of what it means to be in those roles is an important piece of the puzzle.

In many cases, there seems to be an element of bravado in leadership. How does ego affect the business?

Many of the people I've studied are not humble, but they are deeply generous people. Fundamentally they know how to share credit. They want to get it done, regardless of who gets the credit. That's what leadership is all about.

You should lead as if everybody matters, because everybody does. If they don't matter to you, then get them out of your company—you didn't do good hiring. Either you think they can contribute, and then your job is to make sure that that contribution is fully realized, or get rid of them. I think that's the fair thing to do. Let people find another space where they can shine.

Perhaps it depends on the specific organization, but should the boss remain behind the scenes or out in front?

What everybody wants is an opportunity to contribute to something they care about.  And for you to create that opportunity for people often means you do need to 'lead them from behind.' You need to be doing something to create the space for them to be successful.

You write about the growing importance of managing networks of partners and vendors and, for people in your company, managing peers within the organization. What do people need to know?

Obviously managers working with peers and bosses don't have formal authority over them. You want to train your managers to get people to listen to them because they know what you're talking about, no matter who they are. When you're the entrepreneur, you're managing your team and you can rely on your formal authority. But that's not the case when you manage networks. A lot of people don't like to "play politics." But frankly, organizations are inherently political entities. So you have to let managers know that they have to play politics, or else they're not going to be very successful, but they need to play them in an ethical way that's effective.

What are the qualities of a helpful mentor or coach for a CEO or entrepreneur?

I think mostly it's a sounding board for people. You let them think through their own problems, or you give them access to others or to information they don't have access to in their own network. So I would choose a person that you could talk to who has a broad set of networks and bridges you to worlds you don't have access to.

What is a surprising finding of your research that's particularly relevant to entrepreneurs?

People who have been very successful—it turns out they don't know themselves very well. That's what the research shows. We tend to learn about ourselves when we have a failure, not when we have success. So a lot of successful people don't know themselves very well, which is a very important piece of the puzzle. Getting to know yourself better is one of the most important aspects of becoming a better boss—and I used that word purposefully in the title of my book because I know it makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

Last updated: Dec 17, 2010




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