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Recruiting the Right People: Nature vs. Nurture in Management and Leadership

12-09-2013It’s amazing what you can achieve when you don’t care who gets the credit.
– Anon

Nature vs. Nurture

Can leadership be taught? Some years ago, I saw an interview with an ex-Commandant General of the US Marine Corps, in which he was asked a question along the lines of “How is it that the US Marine Corps recruits men and women from such a wide demographic and intellectual cross-section, and some years later returns those people to society, with a value set and attitude which empowers many of them to go and achieve great things in diverse fields?” This insightful question might almost be expected to spawn a thesis or a book in response. The General’s answer was however very short and to the point: “We recruit the right people.”

Does this point to hierarchy of nature over nurture in leadership? I don’t think so however, that one phrase does generate some interesting issues. The military recruits men and women as officers first and functional specialists second. This is particularly highlighted in the RAF, where the honest truth is that I and many of my colleagues joined up almost solely because we wanted to be fighter pilots, a desire supported by some combination of commitment to public service, wanting to be pushed to our limits, and having watched Top Gun 14 times. However what the Air Force recruits is not pilots but General Duties (Pilot) officers. You are recruited as a General Duties officer specialising in the pilot role. This distinction was probably lost on all of us at that stage, however it is an important one, which drives the whole selection process.

Pilot selection lasts 4 days of which only half a day is devoted to specific pilot aptitude testing. The remainder comprises an in-depth medical, an interview, psychometric testing, and two days of group exercises, with all candidates leading an exercise at some point, but also including several leaderless tasks. So 50% of the initial selection process for what appears to be a very technically- or skill-based job is actually devoted to assessing behaviours and attitudes in team-based environments, and leadership potential. You have to have potential in both your functional skill set and your behavioural traits. It doesn’t matter how good you are at ‘the pilot stuff’, if you’re not made of ‘the right stuff’, the dream stops right there at the selection centre.

The key word here is potential, and that is what negates the nature over nurture argument. Probably not everybody has it is in them to be a Churchill, a Mandela, a Geldof, or a Gates. Equally, there are almost certainly people who are destined to be leaders, and will achieve greatness irrespective of formal development. Sometimes this will be through their own desire and ambition; more often it is likely to be situational, rising to a challenge or opportunity – the right person at the right time. However what of the rest of the human race; can they not be great leaders? Of course they can, however the door has to be open. With the right basic attitudes already in place, the military and many other organisations have been very successful in developing generations of leaders, taking what’s there already and making it better. My own experience absolutely aligns with this argument. When I joined the Army for a year aged 18, on a Short Service Limited Commission, I had no prior military experience of my own or in any of my near family. My first month, at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, was an eye-opener to put it mildly. However the values, professional standards, and attitudes that I learnt in that first 4 weeks have probably influenced me more than any development I subsequently did over the next 25 years; the door was open.

So if you want leaders, you need to recruit against leadership potential, not just against functional expertise. Nature may well bestow advantage on some individuals, however with the right basic attitude, nurture will empower many many more people to become highly successful leaders.

You get the behaviour you train for

Several years ago, Mission Excellence ran a whole series of team development workshops for the field sales force of a major pharmaceutical company. The challenge identified by the senior management was getting the sales reps to buy in to the fact that success within the geographical sales teams was actually ‘a team game’.
This concept of ‘a team game’ is itself worthy of comment. In ‘The Wisdom of Teams’ (McGraw-Hill, 1993), Katzenbach and Smith identify an importance difference between ‘teams’ and ‘working groups’.

To paraphrase their idea, a working group is a group of individuals for whom the output is simply the sum of the efforts of the individuals. If all the sales reps work completely independently, and the total output is simply the combination of their individual outputs, then there is no point pretending that they are a ‘team’. They may well have common ground and some shared vested interests, but there is no significant degree of interdependence between them. The advantage of this approach is that you do not have to invest time and resources in team meetings, resolving conflict, and organisation and alignment of effort. If however, the task can only be achieved through cohesive effort, with individuals and sub-elements of the team highly dependent on each other, then you need to make ‘the team work’. The lesson here is not to pretend to be teams, or try and force a team solution on a problem or environment which doesn’t require it. Team working is a lot harder than just adding up the individual inputs, so there needs to be a clear benefit in going down this route.

Back at the pharmaceutical company, as part of the preparation for the workshop programme, I spent a day with a sales rep out ‘on the road’, after which the senior training manager asked me for my perceptions of the working practices I saw. I think that she was slightly disappointed that my feedback ran to only 3 comments:

– You get the behaviour you train for
– You get the behaviour you reward
– Teams need leaders

In common with many pharmaceutical companies, this organisation ran an induction programme which was primarily based on developing professional knowledge (dominated by efficacy of branded drugs compared to the competition), and sales skills. Reps were then delivered into a relatively complex team environment, to start work. My point was that you wouldn’t dream of sending reps out to talk to doctors without equipping them with the professional knowledge and sales skills to do the job, so why would you expect them to be any good at team-working (another critical aspect of the role) without any training? However behavioural development barely figured in the functionally dominated training programme.

Variations on this theme are manifold. I don’t know how many employee feedback surveys we have seen which are coloured green all the way down from the top to first- or second-line management, and amber or red below. First-line manager is again and again the point where things break down. Why is that? It’s back to the same problem of functional competence vs behavioural attributes. That first critical promotion to manager is almost invariably based on functional performance – before you make first-line manager, there is often little or no opportunity to demonstrate management or leadership competency. However, the skills to lead the team are clearly different to the skills to be on the team. Why would the best engineer make the best team leader? The problem becomes particularly acute in professions which require high levels of specialist skill or intellectual ability, or where professional competence carries high kudos.

A client who developed specialist software approached us on this exact issue. Not only were the best software developers not great team leaders, they didn’t particularly want to be. The catch-22 of this situation was illustrated to me by the head of trading at a Scandinavian bank. Not wholly seriously, he described his best trader as a psychopathic aggressive nightmare. This combination of personality and attitude, he pointed out, did not necessarily make that individual the best manager of others. However if he promoted other ‘better rounded’ individuals to management roles, they did not carry credibility (due to being less successful) with the people they managed, so the very successful traders on the floor simply paid lip service to management (see the next section for further development of this sort of problem).

However, perhaps the best examples of the issue of competence vs behaviour are in professional services and healthcare. Spending your life as a medical student, and then doctor, always coming near top of the class, and never really failing at anything, with significant social proof and reinforcement of your superior academic status, is not always conducive to a humble participative leadership style – exactly what I might want in the surgeon operating on me (as well as very high skill levels!!). We have done quite a lot of work with law firms, which also face a similar issue, compounded by the organisational set-up of many partnerships. People become lawyers for a myriad of reasons, but almost certainly including a natural interest in the area, enjoyment of intellectual challenge, and attraction to the financial rewards. Junior lawyers want to become partners because then they get the biggest meatiest most challenging cases, the role carries a lot of kudos, and you get the highest remuneration. They don’t often want to be a partner in order to take on a wider management or leadership role, which is exactly what comes with the territory. In fact, we have seen more than one example of that wider responsibility simply being abrogated. It’s your software developer problem taken to a whole new level. Add to this a scenario where all the major shareholders come into the office every day (imagine running GE like that), the Managing Partner is often a first amongst equals, and major decisions all require committee endorsement. This environment is going to have some leadership and management challenges.

The military solution is simple: to train future leaders from day 1, and to regard high levels of functional competence simply as an essential requirement – something which goes with the territory. An individual may join because she wants to be a fighter pilot, but whether she likes it or not, she gets a thorough and career-long grounding in leadership and followership, and high performance against these criteria is essential for advancement. Officer first; pilot second.

Now I don’t pretend for a second that the military offers any perfect solutions and that there haven’t been spectacular examples of poor military leadership over the years. And I also note that the various non-military sectors have produced some exceptional leaders who could have held their own in multiple fields, including the military. However, given the challenges of the environment, and the task, and having observed many commercial organisations over the last 7 years, it is my belief that there are certain aspects of the military approach which deserve deeper consideration.

When I joined the RAF, my only ambition was to be a fighter pilot. But first I had to ‘jump through this hoop’ called Officer Training. Now at the time, Officer Training was, in my mind, basically about polishing shoes, saluting, marching and running around carrying pine poles for 4 months (it has since been extended to 8 months). It was simply something to be endured until I got to start my flying training. However, I now rationalise it rather differently in hindsight. Before I ever got my hands on an aircraft, I had to do this course on brand values, organisational history, the role of air power, leadership and teamwork. And only if I pass that course, will I get to learn any functional skill. As officers, leadership is what we do; that IS what the job is. It doesn’t matter how functionally brilliant you are, if you don’t demonstrate the right behaviours, and leadership potential, you never even get beyond first base.

And this theme of cross-functional non-role-specific training continues throughout your whole career. Junior officers must attend a 4-week course prior to further promotion. At Squadron Leader level, the first above junior officers, there is a similar 8-week course, and at Wing Commander level (the level at which one might command one’s own squadron), there is a full year of further leadership development at Staff College to prepare officers with both the functional skills and the leadership competencies for higher command. And it goes on through the more senior ranks.
Before summing up, one should note one critical aspect of this continuous leadership development: it’s experiential. The vast majority of leadership training I have seen in the non-military world involves some combination of study and improved self-awareness, for which there are a vast number of case analyses, courses, books and psychometric tools available. Although the self-awareness aspect is in some senses a form of development, I am not sure you can call any of these things leadership development in the most literal sense. Learning more about leadership is not the same as becoming a better leader.

Source: Written by, Justin Hughes from Mission Excellence

The Mission Excellence Seminar is an execution-focused interactive event, which gives delegates a completely fresh perspective on team and organisational performance, based on the behaviours and processes used by fighter pilots to deliver consistent outstanding results when working in complex crossfunctional teams. The half day exercise is facilitated by a team of fighter pilots using multimedia presentation, interactive exercises, and unique cockpit video footage. Delivery is possible worldwide.

THE AIMS are to motivate and inspire delegates via a high-impact intervention, to concentrate their minds on your major execution issues from a unique perspective, and introduce some tangible tools which can be applied the next day.

THE DIFFERENCE is that the material is not based on theory learned in a classroom alone. The methodology has been rigorously applied by the people who will deliver your event, in the most demanding and dynamic working environments.

For more information on Mission Excellence, please visit: https://thesweeneyagency.com/speakers/Jas-Hawker-and-Mission-Excellence