Oct 25

What To Ask The Person In The Mirror

Heinz Landau
Heinz Landau is a seasoned business leader who has gained valuable working and leadership experience on three different continents.

I recently read an excellent book by Robert S. Kaplan titled “What to ask the person in the mirror – critical questions for becoming a more effective leader and reaching your potential”. The book became immediately my favourite book on leadership. I believe it will become a leadership classic.

The book is full of actionable advice that helps us to grow, to overcome our shortcomings and to become more effective leaders.

To clarify, it is not the Robert S. Kaplan who co-created with David P. Norton the balanced scorecard method. By coincidence, both Kaplans are professors at Harvard Business School.

In the introduction of his book, Kaplan states:  “Good leadership is not about having all the answers – it is, more often, about having the courage to ask the critical questions.” The book challenges the reader to reflect on himself/herself. This requires courage and honesty. The fact that the higher you climb in the hierarchy ladder, the more senior you become as an executive, the more challenging it becomes to maintain an accurate and realistic self-perception.

In his book, Kaplan provides a valuable framework that includes seven key areas for inquiry.


Critical questions:

-          Have you developed a clear vision for your enterprise?

-          Have you identified three to five key priorities to achieve that vision?

-          Do you actively communicate this vision, and associated key priorities, to your organization?

When I used to hold presentations about vision and strategy in my previous company, I used to show always a chart that read: “If you don’t know where you are going, any path will take you there.” Kaplan’s message in the book is similar: “If you know where you are going, it’s a lot easier to get there.”

The development of a vision is a crucial process in a company that should not only involve the CEO. A modern vision should not only address the interest of the shareholders, but must also take care of the needs of the employees, the customers and the society. A clear vision provides guidance to all employees and can be a powerful motivator.

The vision must be complemented by three to five top priorities that are critical for achieving the vision and the corresponding metrics for these key priorities.

Vision, strategy, and top priorities must be communicated frequently and deeply, not only by the CEO, but by all managers. No matter how often you communicate, you can hardly over-communicate these messages. Too often, the communication needs of your people are not met.


Critical questions:

-          Do you know how you spend your time?

-          Does it match your key priorities?

Make sure that you are spending your time on key tasks relevant for the implementation of your vision and your strategy. Be aware that your time allocations as a leader send an important message to your co-workers regarding what activities are truly valued in your company. Therefore, it is crucial that you plan, track, and assess your time.

While reading the book, I recalled a positive and a negative example of myself. In my previous company, attracting, developing  and retaining top talent was a key priority. So I spent a considerable amount  of time in these fields, e.g. I devoted a lot of my time to interviews, assessment centres and other human resources related activities.

However, as mentioned in one episode in the book, I fell in the same trap as described overthere. At one stage, I had up to 20 direct subordinates. Of course, there is no way that I could have led, managed and coached them effectively.


Critical questions:

-          Do you coach and actively develop your key people?

-          Is your feedback specific, timely, and actionable?

-          Do you solicit actionable feedback from your key subordinates?

-          Do you cultivate advisers who are able to confront you with criticisms that you may not want to hear?

Kaplan makes the point that effective leaders coach their people and actively seek coaching themselves. Giving and getting feedback is a difficult and time-intensive process. At the same time, feedback is a critical vehicle for reinforcing priorities and creating alignment to achieve the employee’s and the company’s goals.

Kaplan states that, in many companies, giving feedback is concentrated in the year-end review. This doesn’t give employees adequate time to take actions that will influence their compensation, review ratings and their promotion prospects.

According to Kaplan, in the most successful enterprises, there is a culture of learning, in which all professionals, regardless of level, are doing their best to improve and to reach their potential. A mind that is open to learning, adapting, and hearing constructive feedback, is key to this learning culture.


Critical questions:

-          Do you have a succession-planning process for key positions?

-          Have you identified potential successors for your job? If not, what is stopping you?

-          Do you delegate sufficiently?

-          Have you become a decision-making bottleneck?

An essential responsibility of an outstanding leader is to develop potential successors for key positions (including his/her own). You must own this challenge.

Dominant leaders need to realize that their subordinates may not do tasks as well as them – but that doesn’t mean that they won’t do them quite effectively. Allowing them to do so will train them, build your bench, and free you to focus on tasks critical for your company.

Also be aware that there are delegated tasks that are different in terms of importance to the organization. Some tasks need to be done at a very high quality level, while for other tasks “sufficient” quality levels are o.k.


Critical questions:

-          Is the design of your company still aligned with your vision and priorities?

-          If you had to design the enterprise today with a clean sheet of paper, how would you change the people, key tasks, organizational structure, culture, and your leadership style?

-          Why haven’t you made these changes?

-          Have you pushed yourself and your organization to do this clean-sheet-of-paper exercise?

Kaplan states that two of the most important roles that effective leaders play are “architect” and “change agent”.

The architect asks the key questions and is constantly seeking clues in order to determine whether the business is in or out of alignment. In today’s fast paced and quickly changing world, businesses can easily be derailed.

When it becomes clear that the business has gotten out of alignment, the leader has to be an effective agent of change.


Critical questions:

-          Do you act as a role model?

-          Do your behaviours match your words?

-          How do you conduct yourself under pressure?

-          Is your conduct consistent with your stated values?

Leaders need to communicate what they truly believe and value. And then, they need to act accordingly. A leader’s behaviour will speak louder than any slogan, speech or leaflet.

In developing my own leadership point of view, I followed a seven step -process described in Ken Blanchard’s book “Leading at a Higher Level” and shared it with my co-workers.

Self-discovery, self-awareness and self-management are critical for leaders.

Success, in senior management positions, requires you to have an understanding of who you are, an appreciation of the power of the role you are in, a careful plan for delegating key responsibilities and empowering others, and a conscious approach to the messages you want to be sending with your behaviour.


Critical questions:

-          Are you pursuing a path that is consistent with your assessment of your strengths, weaknesses, and passions? If not, what are you waiting for?

-          Have you developed your own style at work?

-          Do you speak up, express your opinions, and conduct yourself with confidence?

-          Do you encourage your people to be authentic and express their opinions?

Kaplan states that being true to yourself is critical for reaching your potential.

Superb leaders are constantly learning and adapting. They are learning about the world, their industry, and the people around them – but in particular, they are learning about themselves. This learning evolves at every stage of their life and career.

You need to understand your strengths and weaknesses and to recognize  your passions. The challenge for you is to develop a leadership style that fits not only who you are but also the needs of your company. If your style doesn’t fit who you are, it is unlikely to be sustainable.

You need to understand your strengths and weaknesses and to recognize  your passions. The challenge for you is to develop a leadership style that fits not only who you are but also the needs of your company. If your style doesn’t fit who you are, it is unlikely to be sustainable.

Kaplan urges you to have the confidence to say what you think. You have that obligation to your colleagues and to your company. Great companies are built around a willingness to debate and disagree, and on the wise decisions that arise out of those disagreements. People in these companies are true to themselves, and act like owners.

At the end of his book, Kaplan mentions that the key to managing your organization and your career does not lie in “having all the answers”. The key lies in making a conscious effort to regularly step back to reflect, and then identify and frame the issues that are central to leading your organization effectively into the future. Kaplan makes a strong case for building time for reflection into your life, and to build it into the life of your organization.

Kaplan’s book is full of savvy and practical advice that, if constantly applied, will help us to become more effective leaders.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 25th, 2011 at 03:01 and is filed under Human Resources, Leadership, Management. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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  1. elan says:

    Definitely a must read book.