Your First Leadership Job: A book review by Bob Morris

Your First LeadershipYour First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others
Tacy M. Byham and Richard S. Wellins
John Wiley & Sons (2015)

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” Jack Welch

I agree with Jack Welch’s insight that serves as the subject of this review. Throughout history, great leaders are those who seem to have a “green thumb” for “growing” others to become leaders. For decades, especially during Welch’s tenure as chairman and CEO, GE was among the major corporations where executive search firms “hunted” for the best candidates (“heads”) for senior-level executive positions. I thought about all this as I began to read Tacy Byham and Richard Wellins’ book as well as another, The Catalyst: How You Can Become an Extraordinary Growth Leader, co-authored by Jeanne Liedtka, Robert Rosen, and Robert Wiltbank.

The title of their book is a word that they chose very carefully to describe exemplary leaders. “Catalysts drive action. But there’s more. In science the term catalyst refers specifically to an agent that is [begin italics] required [end italics] to activate a particular chemical reaction. In other words, chemical catalysts don’t just make things happen; they make things happen that wouldn’t happen at all without them. They accomplish this by reducing the barriers that would, under normal circumstances, prevent a reaction. That is exactly how the growth leaders – our corporate catalysts – overcame growth gridlock [i.e. an entrepreneurial initiative is neutralized by administrative skepticism] and the terror of the plug [i.e. an arbitrary, often unrealistic revenue target] in their organization.”

This is essentially what Byham and Wellins had in mind when formulating their own concept of catalytic leadership, exemplified by someone “who ignites action in others. That ignition might jump-start a change in an inefficient process, spawn a new idea for a new product, or, most important, effect change in others.” In their book, they identify and discuss the defining characteristics of a Catalyst Leader:

o Asks and listens
o Fosters innovation
0 Provides balanced feedback
o Builds trust
o Focuses on other people’s potential
o Collaborates and networks
o Empowers others
o Encourages/nourishes personal growth and professional development
o Energizes and mobilizes both individuals and teams
o Gets action in proper alignment with strategy

Whatever their size and nature may be, Byham and Wellins are convinced — and I agree — that all organizations need such leaders at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise, and, that such leaders can be developed. How? They answer that question in their research-driven book. First, they present “a clear picture of what catalytic leadership is really about.” Next, they introduce the concept of leadership brand, one that can cement their reader’s standing as an effective leader. There are “clearly identifiable practices associated with your leadership brand that separate truly effective leaders from average to poor ones. Finally, they “share some secrets for making every interaction a successful one. As a leader, you have dozens of conversations [Doug Conant characterizes them as ‘touch points’] with others every single day. Your ability to connect with them — by making people feel valued, heard, motivated, trusted, and involved — will go a long way toward making you a perfect leaders!” If not perfect, at least a significantly more effective one.

As indicated earlier, Byham and Wellins identify and discuss the defining characteristics of a Catalyst Leader. They also respond to questions such as these:

o What are the core concepts and values of Catalyst Leadership?
o What is the Leadership Brand? What is it not?
o How to bring out the best in you?
o How to bring out the best in others?
o How to make people feel heard, valued, and motivated?
o How to improve communication, cooperation, and (especially) collaboration between and among everyone involved in the given workplace?
o How to drive results with focus, measurement, and accountability?
o How to attract, develop, and retain the talent needed in given workplace?
o How to establish and then sustain a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development thrive?
o How to provide as well as receive and then act upon the most helpful feedback?
o How best to measure both individual and organizational performance?
o How to improve the nature as well as the extent of both internal and external connectedness?
o How to avoid or eliminate what Jim O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom” in the given workplace?

No brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the wealth of material that is provided in this book but I hope I have at least indicated why I think so highly of it and its authors. Here are Tacy Byham and Richard Wellins’ concluding thoughts: “When people ask you what you do for a living, tell them you’re a leader. And mean it.” Adding, “We believe that leadership is a craft that is perfected through the focused dedication of time, attention, and self-awareness — not unlike a chef, artist, or surgeon. When you become a leader, whatever your level or industry, it becomes your profession. We believe that you have an obligation to invest the time and effort to become the best leader you can be.” I presume to paraphrase an inquiry by Hillel the Elder (110 BC-10 AD): “If not you, who? If not now, when?”

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