Leadership Development in the Age of the Algorithm

Here is an excerpt from another “classic” article written by Marcus Buckingham for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:  Artwork: Adam Ekberg, Pencils in Drop Ceiling, 2005, ink-jet print

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Log on to your Facebook page, look at the column on the right, and you will see ads that seem uniquely relevant to you. Same for me: My page has an ad directing me to a site where I can check in on a particular high school graduating class from 1983. Why 1983? Because that’s when I graduated. How does Facebook know this? Because I told it. Below that ad is one for Gordon Ramsay’s Los Angeles restaurant. Why? Because Facebook knows that I live in the same zip code the restaurant is in—and, again, it knows this because I told it. Facebook is an advertising powerhouse not because it has a standard formula for great ads, but because at the start it asks, “Who are you?” Then, guided by its understanding of your likes and dislikes, it delivers ads tailored to your profile.

Netflix does the same thing. Before you stream a movie, the website gives you a “movie quiz,” asking if you’ve seen various films and how you’d rate each one. On the basis of the results, it suggests only those movies that align with your past preferences. Even the venerable New York Timesdelivers different news to you than to others. If you have a digital subscription, part of what you see online is a list of articles from a recommendation engine that’s powered by a record of which articles you have clicked on in the past, along with which articles your friends have clicked on.

As the personalization of content delivery becomes increasingly pervasive, it might even be that you begin to notice it most when it is absent—when there is a setting in which you should be identifiable as an individual, yet the information presented to you is strangely undifferentiated. I’ve noticed such a setting: your leadership development program. Even a decade after leadership training began to recognize different styles and strengths, and even in organizations that have made cultivating high-potential talent a priority, the content served up is generic. Your leadership program tells you that you’re a vital part of your organization’s future, but it displays little understanding of you.

Best-Practice Leadership

Virtually every corporate and academic leadership development program is founded on the same model—we can call it the formulaic model. It tries to collect all the various approaches to leadership, shaves off the weird outliers, and packages the rest into a formula.

To those of us who toil in the field of leadership development, the model works like this: We convene top performers, pick their brains for their best techniques and practices, and codify those techniques into a leadership competency formula. We then use 360-degree surveys to assess other managers’ grasp of the competencies. We bake the formula into our performance appraisals and use it to mark the rungs on our succession-planning ladders. It gets coded into our talent management software and provides the building blocks of our online learning content and the titles of our corporate university handouts.

Even in firms where leadership development is a priority, the content served up is generic—it shows little understanding of you.

The notion behind all this is simple: The right way to lead is out there. A best-practice model exists. Once we discover it and turn it into a formula, development is just a matter of bringing you in line with that formula.

But could it be otherwise? Should leadership development instead be tailored to individuals? The answer is yes, as long as two things are true—if leadership is not generic, meaning that there’s no best practice, even for the majority; and if it’s feasible to build a system that delivers appropriately different training content to different types of leaders.

Perhaps the first of these concepts, that leadership might be idiosyncratic, seems obvious to you. You may have been assessed as a leader, found to have certain strengths, and been encouraged to run with them. Or it may be that you have seen enough successful leaders to know that they are not all from the same mold. If you haven’t realized this, meet Ralph Gonzalez.

A few years ago, while conducting a study of top-performing managers for the electronics retailer Best Buy, I interviewed Ralph. He was a star, having transformed one of Best Buy’s lowest-performing stores into a repeat award winner. On virtually every metric, from revenues to profitability to employee engagement, he had taken his team from the bottom 10% to the leading 10%. What had he done, I asked, to effect such dramatic change?

Ralph said that he had played on his likeness to the young Fidel Castro. He had called his store “La Revolución,” posted a “Declaración de Revolución” in the break room, and made supervisors wear army fatigues. As I was scribbling all this down, he told me about the whistle.

Because his team was at the bottom of every district performance table, he wanted to give people a way to celebrate the fact that good behaviors were actually happening in the store, and to make them aware that they were happening all the time. So he issued a whistle to all employees and told them to blow it whenever they saw someone do something good. It didn’t matter if the person they observed was their superior or worked in another department; if they saw anyone go above and beyond, they were to blow the whistle.

“Didn’t it make the store incredibly loud?” I asked.

“Sure,” he replied, with a wide Castro grin. “But it energized the place. It energized me. Heck, it even energized the customers. They loved it.”

I was so taken with this innovation that I included it in a book I was coauthoring, Now, Discover Your Strengths (Free Press, 2001). But I didn’t include what happened next.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Marcus Buckingham is the head of people and performance research at the ADP Research Institute and a coauthor of Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World (Harvard Business Review Press).


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