You try to find, develop, and build leaders. But are your leaders "network leaders"?

Here's another in my series where I pick a topic and connect with someone a lot smarter than me. (There's a list of previous installments at the end of this article.)

This time I talked to Michael Griffin, Executive Director at CEB, the member-based advisory service and management solutions provider, about how the role of leaders is changing.

Tell me about the concept of a "network leader."

The concept stems from looking at how the work environment is fundamentally changing. It's more complex, more global, there's vastly more information to deal with, and what we've seen is a fundamental shift in how work gets done.

Individuals and groups are much more reliant upon others to get their work done. In the old days, you could put your head down and roll. Now a much bigger factor is the ability to take contributions from others and, in turn, contribute to others.

Traditionally we look at transformational leadership, which is visionary, charismatic, and inspirational, and transactional leadership, which is basically command and control. There 's a third dimension, network leadership: creating the conditions for employees to work with others.

According to your research, only 37 percent of senior leaders are confident their leadership bench has the skills and ability to lead in today's work environment. For a small business owner, that's particularly scary.

There's a definite leadership gap, especially where organizations are evolving. And there's a definite scarcity of that kind of talent at the top.

Of course you could ask, does leadership bench strength correlate to company success? We've found that organizations with stronger leadership benches have double the profit growth and rate as those without leadership bench strength.

We surveyed 23,000 senior leaders and managers and they reported their roles and their work environments have changed significantly:

  • 80 percent have been given more responsibility
  • 76 percent are being asked to achieve more and broader objectives
  • 65 percent must deliver business results faster
  • 50 percent have a more global role, and
  • 54 percent have had frequent shifts in job responsibilities

So while on the demand side there are companies that recognize the need for more network leaders, there's a huge supply side problem due to the way organizations typically develop leaders.

It's easy to identify top performers if you look at individual contribution; it's a whole different issue if you're trying to identify the right soft skills.

Today's work is increasingly less about what you do and more about how you work with others.

At a high level, network leadership is more indirect than direct. Network leadership is much more about influence than control.

Network leaders can create environments and climates that are conducive to employee productivity. For example, helping employees navigate complexity instead of simplifying it. There's a tendency for leaders to try to simplify the complex, but often that's not the right answer. Often the right answer is to accept that complex situations will arise, especially where customer needs are concerned, and help employees navigate those complex situations.

Another example is helping a team not just build networks but activate those networks: helping people contribute to and take work from others.

So here's the problem: if you have an outdated model of what a high performer looks like, you devalue the very skills your leaders need.

Plus that's a killer where succession planning--something of particular interest to business owners--is concerned. If your company is growing you need more and more people able to step into key roles.

A major problem we've seen is that many leadership pipelines actually create pathways to nowhere. Around 13 percent of leadership positions were eliminated last year, and 31 percent of companies say they're going to eliminate leadership positions. That means many employees are aiming for positions that simply aren't going to exist.

Because of that, the linear pipeline approach isn't working. It's increasingly rare that people who are identified for a slot actually end up in that slot.

The portfolio approach makes better sense because it's based on demand-driven planning. What is the strategy of the business and how does that translate into requirements for our leaders?

A portfolio approach also takes into account non-obvious candidates, looking not just vertically but horizontally. It's not just about the job, but also about the broader roles and skills required.

Your research shows that 70 percent of senior leaders lack the flexibility and ability to effectively create and lead networks. That's surprising, since many of the skills required for network leaders sound like basic leadership skills.

True. Network leaders consult, communicate proactively, manage conflict, encourage and support organizational learning, seek and introduce change, consult with others, deal with ambiguity, help others develop networks. Those aren't new skills. Some leaders--we estimate 7 percent are strong in transformational, transactional, and network leadership--have those skills. That's how they've excelled. But some leaders have managed--at least until recently--to succeed based on the old command and control models.

And some are clearly struggling.

Increasingly, leaders must be able to help others build and connect to networks. 74 percent of leaders say they work more with stakeholders than they did three years ago. A network leader's job is to help their teams active their networks and align network activities to the company's strategic goals.

A great leader doesn't always provide solutions. Great leaders enable solutions by empowering their teams, providing authority and responsibility, and managing the inevitable conflicts.

It's not about what you do, but what you help others do, that increasingly matters more.

Check out other articles in this series: