Finding the Leaders We Don’t Know We Have

Finding Leaders in Higher Education

To meet the challenges facing higher education, we need to start finding leaders who don’t fit the charismatic stereotype. A recent program developed in the for-profit sector may provide a model for finding our colleagues who have enormous potential for leadership but who frequently remain invisible to us. Patrick Sanaghan explains.

Several years ago, a corporate client with whom I had a long working relationship contacted me with an unusual request. He said, “I want you to find the leaders in my organization that we don’t know we have.” I was immediately drawn in by this counter-intuitive notion.

This leader had built a robust and successful organization over twenty years and was smart enough to know that leadership didn’t reside only at the senior levels of his company. He had invested his money, time, and attention to developing distributed leadership throughout the organization, but he wanted to dig deeper. He told me, “I know we have really good leaders here, but they aren’t enough. We need more and better ones if we are going to stay competitive. I want you to help me find those leaders who are hidden from us.”

Finding the “Stylistic Invisibles”

I agreed to help with this provocative idea and began to work with the company’s V.P. of human resources to figure out how to find these “hidden leaders.” After several conversations and a little research, we came up with a pilot program and a simple survey, which we distributed to one division of about 200 people. We assured the participants that their answers would be anonymous and that we would communicate the results in broad stokes as soon as possible.

We gave participants one week to complete the survey. Thanks to the intriguing topic and the credibility of the HR division, the survey response rate was more than 70%. Our three focus questions were:

  1. Who are the people you work with that you consider to be your go-to people—those who are getting things done, are great thought partners, are reliable and credible? Who are your most trusted colleagues?
  2. Who in your work unit/division should be developed as leaders but who may have been overlooked because they are quiet, shy, introverted, or humble?
  3. If you were in charge of leadership development for the organization, whom would you select as candidates for leadership training? Please explain why.

We could have asked a lot of more complicated questions, screening for bias or using sophisticated software programs to identify networks, nodes, and connections. But we simply got a few people together and tallied up the names. In the end, we had 11 names to consider for leadership development. The HR division had been unaware of these potential candidates, so our approach seemed to work.

We then contacted the immediate supervisors of the 11 candidates to check in with them about these employees and get a snapshot of their abilities, skills, and potential. The conversations were intriguing, because many of the supervisors were surprised by the nominations but generally agreed that we had identified good people and great team players.

These potential leaders are what leadership expert Linda Hill calls stylistic invisibles. Hill tells us that we are surrounded by smart, dedicated, and hardworking people, but they often don’t get chosen for leadership opportunities because they don’t fit “our model” of what leaders look like. Too often we see potential leaders as charismatic, quick on their feet, assertive, extroverts, and, if we are being honest, white and male.

What’s important for organizational leaders to be cognizant of is that many of these quieter leaders have huge potential and already contribute mightily to our organizations, but they are essentially invisible to us. They are right in front of us, but our embedded leadership model prevents us from recognizing their potential.

The Next Steps

Our next step was to invite all the nominees to a breakfast meeting with the vice president of HR and the president of the company. Most of the nominees had been surprised by their coworkers’ recommendations but were pleased about the invitation. In a facilitated meeting with company leaders, the new leadership candidates articulated four requests:

  1. They wanted mentors to be identified who could offer support and help them build a relational network across the company.
  2. They wanted access to leadership coaches to help build their capacity.
  3. They wanted to develop their own cohort networks so they could keep in touch with each other on a regular basis and share best practices, address problems, and build relationships.
  4. They didn’t want any off-the-shelf leadership training, but instead wanted carefully crafted programs, courses, and teachers that were specifically aligned with the company’s culture, business goals, and objectives.

In the end, the company president was so pleased by the conversations and interactions that he turned this pilot program into a company-wide program. Within a month we had identified more than 50 potential new leaders.

We then designed and delivered a set of leadership experiences that were vetted by senior leadership and potential attendees. (Note: Of the fifty, about five candidates bowed out of the program before it began, for a variety of reasons. Some were quite content with their current roles in the organization.) 

A Snapshot: 8 Key Elements of the “Invisible Leaders” Program

1.) We created cross-divisional leadership cohorts of about 20 participants each.

2.) Each emerging leader went through a 360° feedback process where they received anonymous feedback about their leadership strengths and areas of needed development. We used a validated survey and included feedback from peers, colleagues, direct reports, and managers. In some cases we used external stakeholders, such as clients and customers, for those individuals with outward-facing roles.

3.) We made coaching available for all participants so that they had someone to help debrief the 360° feedback and create a realistic plan for improvement going forward. (The 360° was the highlight of the leadership program, according to participants.)

4.) Topics that were presented and discussed by participants included:

  • Creative problem solving
  • Cultural competence
  • Conflict management
  • Delegation
  • Resilience
  • Leadership courage
  • Creating a personal mission statement
  • Arrogance
  • Micromanagement
  • Effective decision-making
  • Team-building
  • Personality-type assessments (e.g. HBDI, Disc, Myers-Briggs)

5.) Designing each sessions, we treated “talking at people” as a minimum and, wherever possible, utilized a more experiential and hands-on approach.

6.) We asked for anonymous evaluations of each session and shared the results quickly with participants. This held us accountable for being responsive to participants’ needs and concerns. It also sent the message that we were open to feedback and continuous learning.

7.) In selecting facilitators, we found that a combination of an insider (e.g., a current leader or a representative from HR) and an outsider (an external consultant) worked best. We also found that having a balance of male and female teachers and facilitators was important. 

8.) Lastly, we created a series of monthly “chews and chats” with senior leader. These always involved an informal meal and an open conversation about leadership, organizational issues, challenges, and opportunities.

The Questions Potential Leaders Want to Ask of Senior Leaders

To avoid softball questions and platitudes, we asked participants for specific questions they would like the answers to before we met with senior leaders, and we let the leaders know what the questions were ahead of time.

The following are examples of questions asked by participants. As you read these, think about your own reactions to these questions. Could you ask these questions of your senior leaders, at your department or college? If your own leaders have the courage to answer these kinds of questions authentically, you are well on your way to being not just a good but a great organization.

  • What guiding principles have helped you lead during a difficult situation?
  • How have you built trust in your leadership? How do you know this?
  • When have you felt lost or confused? How did you deal with these feelings?
  • What was an ethical dilemma you faced, and how did you deal with it?
  • Do you ever feel guilty about some of the decisions you have made as a leader?
  • What are some of your strengths as a leader? What areas still need to be developed?
  • Have you made some courageous, even unpopular decisions as a leader? What enabled you to do this?
  • Does faith or religion play a role in your leadership philosophy?
  • How do you stay balanced between work and your personal life?

What the Follow-Up Looks Like

Each participant identified one thing that they were committed to developing as leaders, such as public speaking, managing conflict, decision-making, or team-building. They discussed this with their immediate supervisors, who helped them create a personal learning agenda that would identify a strategy for improvement and provide support (e.g., coaching, taking a course, or participating in Toastmasters).

We evaluated three different leadership cohorts over a calendar year and received a 4.7 average (on a 1 to 5 scale). We are tracking their progress with metrics they chose to use. Examples of these metrics include: the number of “stretch assignments” they received that helped develop their leadership capacity, the number of promotions they received, the number of courses and programs they attended, and whether best practices were sourced from the group and put into practice by the company.

Participants also agreed to participate in another 360° feedback assessment one year after the end of their leadership program. They were eager to see how they would develop their leadership over time, using a rigorous, validated process.

It should be noted that the 360° evaluation is not part of the company’s standard performance appraisal process. They are two very different and separate things. The 360° is a courageous learning journey for the participant. The regular performance appraisal process is a supportive accountability mechanism with specific goals and metrics that are often tied to compensation, pay grades, consequences, and salaries. Please don’t mix the two.

Implications for Leadership Development in Higher Ed

Although this is an informal case study of an unusual leadership initiative in the corporate sector, there are strong implications and applications for higher education. (Note: The following suggestions are directed toward leaders on the administrative side of the house, not faculty.)

We need as many effective leaders as we can get if we are to meet the “adaptive challenges” facing higher education today. These include the defunding of public colleges and universities, the broken business model for many campuses, dramatically changing demographics, and the estimated $1.5+ trillion in student debt.

These adaptive challenges are coming at us quickly, and we will need to create a “new curriculum” for leaders on our campuses that will teach things like: leadership agility, managing confusion and complexity, systems thinking, anticipatory thinking, building agile and flexible cross-boundary teams, courageous decision-making, intelligent risk-taking, resilience, and creativity.

I have had the opportunity of teaching thousands of higher-education leaders over the past 30 years—almost all of whom were dedicated, mission-driven, smart, and honest people. I also believe we have thousands of “stylistic invisible” leaders, just like in the corporate sector. We need a proactive approach to seeking out these individuals and assessing their skills, interest, and leadership potential.

Our senior leaders need to collaborate with their human resources staff and create a process to identify new leaders. We have the unique advantage of having faculty who could teach these leadership programs and conduct research on the topic of campus-specific leadership.

Again, we found that many of the hidden leaders were introverted or reserved individuals who tend not to draw attention to their own accomplishments. We will need great supervisors and managers who know their people to help identify and encourage employees who might not see themselves as leaders.

The corporate client mentioned earlier was a top senior executive who was interested in finding the hidden leaders in his company. He knew instinctively that they were there and that he just needed to identify them. He made it a strategic priority, and he made sure the initiative was adequately resourced. I believe that if this had been purely an HR initiative, it would have failed. Senior leaders need to be the champions of this kind of effort.

How do you think your senior leaders would react to this kind of distributed leadership program?