Business Book Review

Monday, October 30, 2006


Reading Suggestions & CONTENTS
About the Author


The cumulative effect of developing your leadership circles grows over the lifetime of your career. Don’t wait until you are facing a crisis to start searching for confidants.

The issues of leadership, as well as the ways in which thinking partnerships are established, change over the leadership life cycle. All leaders, even very young ones, have some form of advisory network, though it may not be systematic. It may happen by accident, or as a result of basic networking. As leaders develop their skill, a more systematic advisory network begins to take shape as leaders begin to understand what they already have in place, and how that network is serving them.

Early leaders, as defined by the author, are those who are mastering the basics of their job responsibilities, understanding the dynamics of their organizations, and demonstrating their capabilities to lead business groups or units in delivering results, and who are managing approximately 20 to 50 people. Early leaders have two primary objectives: developing a few key advisory relationships to generate a third opinion on a regular basis, and laying the groundwork for their long-term leadership circles. In addition to seeking the expertise of others, in developing these key advisory relationships, early leaders will also be developing their capacity to think exponentially and to accelerate their professional development from the lessons of others. The early leader level is also the time to begin developing listening skills, and to listen and learn from others. Early leaders should ask themselves, “What is an effective way to listen and ask questions that might create a useful interchange of ideas?”

This is the time for building a base of relationships, and for cultivating a wide network of contacts both inside and outside the organization. It is also a time, according to Joni, to experiment with breadth by interacting with a broad a base of people in ways that are relevant to leaders’ challenges—and results. Early leaders must build a set of skills to use outside thinking. At this stage of their careers, the risks of advice and counsel from others are relatively low. Early leaders can begin by seeking out a few people on some specific issues. Joni suggests that early leaders explore what approach to thinking partners works for them, and to notice how they “calibrate and filter the insights and opinions of others.”

A critical objective at the beginning of building and using an advisory network is learning how to get results from insights. “Knowing what to do with what you learn is the difference between an academic exercise and truly powering up your leadership capacity,” Joni says. Moving from being someone who has lots of good ideas to someone who uses innovative ideas and solutions to get results is often the biggest factor in how quickly an early leader will move to being a key leader. The Star of Complexity Map is an excellent tool to help early leaders assess their opportunities as well as their needs. The Map can help early leaders invest in relationships that will support their current work, and create opportunities to build for the future.

Key leaders are those who lead strategic business units or divisions, manage multiple groups, and often have responsibility for P&L, for financial operations, and for metrics. As leaders transition from being early leaders to being key leaders, their choice of thinking partners becomes, in Joni’s opinion, a defining choice of their leadership. Key leaders build the four kinds of thinking partner conversations—visionary, sounding board, big picture, and expertise in inquiry—into the very fabric of their leadership. Key leaders must turn their full attention to developing their complete Habit of Mind. Joni cautions key leaders against relying too heavily on patterns of success from the early leader level. These patterns can limit, or even inhibit, success at the key leader level. “This is the point where you make fundamental choices about how much time you’ll devote to exploring new ideas. Or how much you will rely on inside information that can be tainted with filters and bias. Or how persistent you will be when making distinctions between urgent and important agendas.”

As key leaders develop their Habit of Mind, they come to understand that there has to be an appropriate creative tension between internal and external lines of sight; they understand that external resources do not replace internal capabilities, but instead support, and even spur, internal inquiry. It is at the key leader stage that the distinctions between inner circles and working circles become important. A move to the key leader level changes relationships, therefore key leaders must begin to put together an inner circle (both internal and external) that is focused on the most important areas of exponential inquiry, with whom the leader can share the highest levels of structural trust, as well as high personal and expertise trust. Most key leaders will find that their inner circles are composed of both formal and informal advisers, both retained and reciprocal advisers, and advisers that are both visible and invisible.

The goal of a key leader is to cultivate outside insight that can then be translated into results created and realized by teams of people. To accomplish this, key leaders create opportunities for interaction between their action teams and their thinking partners. There are two critical factors in building the connection between thinking partners and the rest of the organization: shaping and empowering the thinking partner in relation to the organization, and providing the thinking partner with the ability to work across the organization without being drawn into organizational dynamics. “The position of thinking partner is one of standing ‘next to,’ as opposed to getting more involved and standing ‘within’.” Finally, key leaders need to focus explicitly on inquiry and non-urgent important issues. They must make room for thinking time. Joni recommends reviewing the Star of Complexity Map regularly, and using it to identify gaps.

Moving into the ranks of senior leadership brings a new level of leadership challenges. Because senior leaders are often more isolated (the result of protection by executives and staff from the intense scrutiny of the public eye), they have a greater need than ever for their advisory networks. Senior leaders are charged with developing a cadre of people who are capable of thinking about long-term positioning and legacy. All senior leaders face legacy issues. These issues require them to think beyond their business to the impact of their ideas and actions on the people in their organizations, the future of their company, and the effects on communities. With senior leadership, leaders come full circle so that “the Habits of Mind, Relationship, and Focus of successful leaders drive the creation of powerful advisory networks, which in turn sustain these successful leaders in their quest to create extraordinary value and realize their full potential and that of their organizations.”

The life of a leader’s inner circle is, Joni says, ultimately about human relationships, how leaders develop and exercise their fullest capacities when they are pushed and guided by other great people. The legendary David Ogilivy has expressed this concept well: “If leaders surround themselves with people bigger than they are, we will have a company of giants; if leaders surround themselves with people smaller than they are, we will have a company of midgets.”

Endnotes by chapter and a subject index are provided.


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