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Tacy Byham, glocal CEO, DDI

Tacy Byham, global CEO at DDI on common pitfalls of first-time leaders



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With over 20 years of experience at Development Dimensions International (DDI), global CEO Tacy Byham shares the challenges that first-time leaders usually face, and uncovers solutions backed by years of research and expertise.

– With inputs from Wani Azahar

Q. Getting one’s first leadership job is a marked milestone yet a complex one. What are the typical mismatches you see in what the candidate’s expectations are and in what the reality of the job is?

It’s correct to highlight what a huge step up it is for anyone to take on a first-time leadership role. First time leaders, in particular, fall into specific challenges themselves. Most of the time, people are chosen to be leaders because of their technical skills. But at the end of the day, what makes for success as a leader is not your IQ, but far more your EQ – how you listen, respond and interact with the people on your team.

In fact, Daniel Goleman’s research shows that in all jobs (not just leadership jobs) one-third of success is from your IQ, while the remaining two-thirds from your EQ. However, when it comes to leadership success, only 15% is from IQ and 85% is from EQ.

Too often, first time leaders fall into the trap of not helping people on their team. They’re lighting a fire underneath their people – to get them going, manage their work, get all that done. When instead, they should be spending the time to light the fire inside of their people.

And to light a fire inside of someone; it means when someone comes to you with a problem, you don’t say, “Ah! I’m a technical expert at this. I’ve already done that before and I know exactly what to do – now you go do it.”

Instead you say: “So tell me more about this situation and what ideas have you already thought about. I like where you’re headed with this idea, let’s think about how to make that better.”

It’s more time on the conversation, than just solving the problem.

First time leaders feel that they’ve been promoted just because people wanted them to be there, and are looking to them for answers. When in fact, their job is really to look to the team. It is when you have these high-quality conversations that you get innovation.

To light a fire inside of someone; it means when someone comes to you with a problem, you don’t say, “Ah! I’m a technical expert at this. I’ve already done that before and I know exactly what to do – now you go do it.”

2. How, if at all, are these mismatches different for first-time female leaders? And do you see any specific trends around this in Asia?

The global data by level in organisations show that 53% of the workforce is women, but when it comes to first-time leaders, only 35% are women. As we move up, only 19% of c-suite executives are women, followed by only 5% of CEOs being women. As you can see, the numbers just go down as we go up.

At DDI, we have just completed an analysis of 10 years of data involving 15,000 leaders worldwide and across all industries and levels. Here, we found that there is, in fact, no skills differences between men and women. It means that women are just as capable as men when thrown into different situations.

However, there are personality differences – and confidence is one. Many first-time women leaders are not as confident stepping in their roles, owning the position they’ve earned, or taking in risks in decisions.

On the plus side, women are more interpersonally-sensitive. Relating back to the IQ:EQ success ratio, women already have it inside of them to be incredibly successful. They just have to get over the impostor syndrome where they think they’re not supposed to be here (at the top). They need to be able to find their voice, speak up more and help each other get their ideas to the table.

And if you’re lucky enough to be a woman leader who has made it to the top, look down in the organisation and make it important to “pull others up the elevator with you to get to the top of the building”.

ALSO READ: Why is gender diversity in leadership still a huge issue for Singapore?

3. Hiring is the most important task for an organisation, yet not enough people trained in it. What are your tips to making a hire that has the best chance of success?

One of the first challenges in hiring is how there isn’t a good understanding of what the profile of success would look like for any position. When I look at job requirements in listings, it all focus on what knowledge and experience (degree, international experience etc) the candidate holds. It’s not to say that degrees are not important, but organisations are hiring far too often based on those two areas. What they’re missing is the full profile of success, which includes the competencies, leadership attributes, interpersonal attributes and the personality factor.

The first tip is to define what full success looks like. As most competencies are developable, you want people that are pointed in the right direction. They might not already have what you need but you can teach them.

If you’re lucky enough to be a woman leader who has made it to the top, look down and make it important to “pull others up the elevator with you to get to the top of the building”.

I’ve also found that organisations have lost the art of interviewing. Most companies only get one person to do an interview, but that is faulty.

You need to expand the opportunity to have more than one impression to drive objectivity. This is achieved through multiple interviews (with 3 being the most optimum) to highlight different strengths and examples.

4. A number of companies are doing away with the performance appraisal, for want of frequency, informality or process issues. What do people managers need to keep in mind when appraising performance as such?

I do believe it is time for performance appraisals to change, but towards more frequent conversations that highlight ever-changing goals. Instead of 15 goals announced at the start of the year, try four goals for six weeks and then another. You’ll then be looking at the developmental progress towards those goals.

Most first-time leaders feel very unprepared to sit across the table and have those coaching conversations. Once again, find the balance between asking good questions and, more than anything, empathising with employees and helping them get back on track as needed.

Find the balance between asking good questions and, more than anything, empathising with employees and helping them get back on track as needed.
– Tacy Byham, global CEO, DDI

5. What role does the CHRO play in enabling catalyst leaders? Do they support the line manager, or is there scope to make a mark beyond that?

HR, more than ever, is living in a time where we can truly look at data analytics for organisations. HR is sitting on a mountain of information regarding the hiring process, what works or otherwise, what makes better leaders, what is causing us to find the right people and more.

The best thing you can do for HR is to be a data junkie, and use that data on your organisation to leverage a seat at the table with your board of directors. There are always two things on the directors’ minds – succession for the organisation and continuity for their leadership. You’ll need to know what data to bring to the table.

Many CHROs have built good systems. But as a CHRO, you also need to equip your organisation with people who are not afraid of data or measurement. CHROs need to hold their people accountable to not be scared cause that’s only way to uncover where the real challenges are and know what levers to pull.

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