Monday, April 16, 2007

What Bob Learned from a Leadership Assessment

The following is a true story.

A number of years ago, one of Jackson Leadership's longtime clients asked us to assess one of their "high-potential" leaders who was up for a key new leadership position within the organization. His name was Bob.

Bob was told he had to go to visit with Jackson Leadership for a day to be "assessed." Later, he told me that he didn't know what to expect when he first heard this. He knew that we'd worked with his company for several years on assessing and developing their leaders, but didn't know quite what that meant.

He knew he wanted the job, though, so gladly agreed to visit with us. We put him through an "assessment center." We sent him some surveys and tests in advance, which measured his personality but also included a 360 survey, where peers, direct reports and bosses gave him feedback on his managment style. We then spent a day with him, where we interviewed him about his background, asked about his careers objectives, and posed a number of "behavior-based questions" which asked him to recount specific examples of work situations when he had to overcome some challenges. We even gave him some "case studies" to work through, which he had never seen before, and made him give a couple of presentations to us about the courses of action he was recommending. All in all, the "assessment" gave us -- as third-party observers of leadership potential in organizations -- a sense of what kind of leader Bob was today and what his future potential was; his strengths and weaknessses.

Over the next few days, we scored the results of the different exercises and sent a comprehensive report to the selection committee for the job. He had great technical skills. There was no question in our mind that Bob could do the job. We did recommend him ... with one reservation.

Bob thought he was a hilarious. He was always cracking jokes around the office and he thought his co-workers really appreciated his levity. The problem was: he was dead-wrong. Several of his colleagues (especially women) had anonymously commented in their 360 surveys that they found his humor off-putting and -- sometimes -- demeaning. We advised Bob that he needed to be aware of this and "dial down" his humor. We didn't want him to completely lose his funny-bone; however, he needed to be more aware of how it was coming across to those around him. We suggested the selection committee give him the job -- conditionally for 6 months -- with a strong suggestion of self-monitoring for this nasty habit.

I went to see Bob, after we'd sent him the report (as well as the selection committee). It was an overall positive report -- I thought -- so I was expecting a relatively easy and straightforward one-on-one meeting to discuss the content. "What did you think, Bob?," I asked innocently. He paused and said, "you know, when I finished reading this report last night in my kitchen, I wanted to come over to your office and wring your neck."
Oh boy, I thought.
He continued, "I actually threw your report across the room, just as my wife was passing by. She asked me what had got into me. I told her that 'this Jackson guy doesn't know what he's talking about' and flung the report to her, pointing to the section about my sense of humor. 'This?,' she said. 'I've been telling you to fix this for years!' I couldn't believe it, so I called my best friend. He basically said the same thing, so I figured that I'd better come in and meet with you today."

Well, Bob took the job, of course. And he did great. At the 6 month mark, no one from the selection committee even spoke to another about whether to keep Bob on. It was obvious to everyone that he'd corrected that one aspect of his style and he was doing a great job.

A few months back, I was roaming the halls at the client organization after another meeting and someone flagged me down to talk. "Hey, what did you do with Bob?," they asked. "He's a totally different person today from a year ago. He's so mature." The truth is that I didn't do much, Bob did.

Sometimes changing a small aspect of your leadership style can have a huge impact on how others perceive you.
The next time someone asks you if people can change from a leadership development program, ask them, "What about Bob?"

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