December 10th 2019

CRFCast – Leadership in the Age of Expertise with Wanda Wallace

One of the toughest transitions for leaders is progressing from a role where your value is largely driven by expertise, into a broader spanning role, which demands a different set of skills, relationships and a change in mindset about the value you add as a leader. In conversation with Wanda Wallace, author of You Can’t Know It All: Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise, we discuss how leaders can anticipate and prepare for the transitions required, and practical advice on what this means for leadership models and strategies for leadership development in our organisations.

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Wanda Wallace will be leading a Two-Day CRF Residential Workshop in February 2020: Better Conversations: Why they Matter and How to Have Them.


Episode Transcript

Gillian Pillans [00:00:03] You're listening to the CRF cast where we explore research we've been working on here at the Corporate Research Forum and we discuss the latest thinking and strategic H.R. topics with academics, practitioners and leading experts in the field. I'm Gillian Palin's research director at CRF. You can explore the full podcast archive, unsubscribe for updates by searching CRF cast on iTunes or Spotify. You can also find more about CRM and access all our podcasts and other research materials. W W W dot c our forum doco UK.


Gillian Pillans [00:00:48] My guest on today's series cast is Dr. Wanda Wallace, a leadership expert and regular CRF collaborator. We'll be discussing her new book, You Can't Know It All leading in the Age of Deep Expertise.


Gillian Pillans [00:01:01] We'll be talking about the challenges leaders face as they progressed from roles where their value is largely driven by expertise into what Wanda calls spanning leadership, which demands a different set of skills and a change in mindset about the value you add as a leader. We'll share practical advice about how leaders can anticipate and prepare for the transitions required.


Gillian Pillans [00:01:22] And we'll also discuss what this means for leadership models and strategies for leadership development and our organizations.


Gillian Pillans [00:01:31] Wanda, thanks very much for joining us on the Sarah cast today. It's great to have you with us. It's good to be here. Thanks, Gillian. So your latest book, which you just published, is called You Can't Know It All Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise. So we first worked together on this topic actually back in 2012 when we did a report for CRF on them, the idea of specialists as leaders. And back then we we found that this idea of developing general managers was already becoming a little bit outdated. And organizations were increasingly demanding that even then with senior leaders maintain something of their deep technical expertise.


Gillian Pillans [00:02:12] So how has your thinking since then evolved about this balance, that the appropriate balance between technical and and so general, an expert leadership? And then what what led you to write this particular book right now?


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:02:30] Well, I have to say thanks to CRF, because it was that research report in 2012 that convinced me there was a bigger story to tell. So if we go back to 2012, we were talking with lots of lawyers, lots of accounting firms like so professional services firms where we had people who were technical experts. The clients wanted their content knowledge. And we were asking them to take on leadership roles above and beyond that content, technical knowledge. And that was where we were working at the time. And at the time, I had the theory that general management was largely dead. It was a theory at that moment in time today. If I could kill the word general manager, I would do it. Now, I know a lot of leadership specialist, a lot of schools, a lot of ill and deep professionals are going to hate me for that. But I think we should kill it. And let me tell you why. I don't think we have a thing called general manager anymore.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:03:27] The notion that even at a CEO level, that I would take a CEO who knows how to lead and motivate people, for example, and knows nothing about the industry and plop them into that industry, no one would do it.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:03:45] There may be one, but just rarely, because even when you go looking for a new CEO or a new head of legal or in anything, you're looking for somebody who's been an experience similar to ours, similar to our evolution as a company, similar to knowing our industry a bit, having been there and done that before. And that's the expertise. So I think the metaphor we should be talking about is the proportion what proportion of expertise do I need to be using to do the job and what proportion of something else that I call spanning, meaning stretching outside a single area. I know.


Gillian Pillans [00:04:22] Well, in order to lead, it's always been thus that you wouldn't necessarily bring someone in as a CEO into an industrial company from a retail business. That there's always some element of continuity in the career. And I guess what we found in our research was one of the most difficult transitions is when you go from a purely expert expert role into a leadership position.


Gillian Pillans [00:04:51] And working out how that will change is what the different requirements and expectations are. So can we drill down a little bit further into what we're talking about, the difference between expert leadership and expanding leadership? So what are we actually talking about and what are the difference? What are the key differences between those two types of leadership?


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:05:14] I want to back up just a minute. I will answer that question. But there's a very important subtle difference that is really at the heart and soul of the book. And the reason I wrote the book and the notion is expert leaders are individual contributors who are professionals. And that's not what I mean. Expert leaders can lead massively large teams.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:05:36] Think of somebody who's head of I.T. and knows I.T. deeply through and through so that any I.T. specialist could come to them and say, hey, boss, I have a problem. Help me think through this technical I.T. problem. That's what we mean by an expert leader. They can do every job that's underneath them. They know more contacts than anybody on their team is going to know and they can be phenomenally senior. I have seen CFO shows who are dug deep as technical expert in the company and they breed other CFO who are equally technically deep. OK. So it's not that you just progress to do spanning leadership. The transition, the really hard one comes when I suddenly give you something that you are not an expert on and don't. Have the time or bandwidth to become an expert on. And now you don't know how to lead because you've always led with my credibility comes because I know more than my team. And now it doesn't know what. What am I doing now?


Gillian Pillans [00:06:45] Okay, so. So when you put in that situation, that requires a completely different style of leadership. Different leadership capabilities. Where do you see the main differences between the requirements of expert leaders and those leaders?


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:07:01] So the first one and the most important one to get over is really a mental one. It's a mindset one. And I know as an expert what my value is in the company. I know what problems I solve. I'm in effect the hero of the company because I can fix stuff no one else can fix. I can get things done. I execute. I know. And I get it done. As a spanning later, though, the value was very elusive. It's very hard to know where you're actually really contributing, what problems you are uniquely solving. You're probably not because your job is fundamentally an enabling job. You're making it possible for other people to do that work. And it's scary. So getting your head around. I'm adding value in a different way as the first piece of this. And then the second piece of it is, what's the work I'm doing then? In that case, if I'm not actually doing the content knowledge, what am I doing? What does that look like? And then the third piece is the way I interact with people. And probably that's the one everybody focuses on first, because as an expert, what you're going to do is to drill down to the facts. It's going to be a very rational, very logical, very detailed, often kind of conversation with somebody about what we do or how we do it or what's the right answer.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:08:14] As a spanning leader, you can do none of that and you find out what your value add becomes is the ability to lean into the emotion that's present. The ability to coach other people. The ability to ask the questions that get people think differently. And so they feel and look very different. And what's interesting for most leaders is it's sometimes you're the expert leader and sometimes you're the spanning leader.


Gillian Pillans [00:08:37] And it's learning to wear both hats and recognize when you're in a situation that requires the different types of leadership to be effective. Thinking about the CRF audience. I mean, we get lots of questions at the moment around the evolution of career paths, ladders, whatever terminology you want to use. And we're seeing both within organizations and also external social demographic factors are changing that sort of perspective of what a career looks like these days. I'd like to just explore and to what extent organizations views of leadership and leadership careers are realistic today. We see lots of leadership models, but are they? How realistic are they in terms of reflecting that requirement of leaders to to balance expertise and founding type leadership?


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:09:26] I think we're not talking to people properly about what it really looks like to develop a career. And we're not helping them understand that the difference between the spanning and the expert. And how do you recognize which one I'm in and how do I shift from one to the other or back again? So people come up and then they're suddenly on a roll and a bigger role and all excited about this bigger role. But nobody's helping them say you can't do what you've always done. You've got to do it differently. And then we say, oh, well, we've just promoted them beyond their level of competence. Well, that's criminal.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:09:58] That's just criminal.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:10:00] We have to be explained. So I think we need to be talking to people. The metaphor now I'm hearing is the jungle damn notion of career that you move sideways a lot. That's great, because what that does is build breath and that's actually going to be really beneficial, but it can't be a hodgepodge.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:10:18] I'll grab a bit of this and grab a bit of this and grab a bit of that. We still need to be giving people some clues about what they need to be grabbing and when is the right time to be grabbing it. And importantly, we have to be talking to them about both the expertise acquisition as well as the spanning acquisition. So people see what's needed when what do you find is most missing in organizations?


Gillian Pillans [00:10:44] Is it this recognition of of the challenge of developing spanning capability and sort of making that explicit or is it something else?


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:10:54] You know, there's a lot of wonderful organizations out there with long, fabulous learning and development, people who are really doing the best they can. They worked hard on their leadership development models. And in many ways, there's nothing wrong with. There is just that is inadequate. It's not complete enough. So I guess the best way to do this is to describe what happens in a typical seminar setting or a talk with me. So I often start talking about what do you think makes great leadership? And we have a conversation about that. And the number one principle I want to draw out is balance. There is no one thing. It's always a blend of things. And I'm glad to talk about what I mean by that. You just it's like a seesaw.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:11:32] I kind of got to get the balance equal between the seesaw to be effective since one piece of it, but then after we have that conversation, I'll go on to draw this path to talk about being the expert leader and what that looks like and then adding scope to that responsibility where that scope is outside of your expertise and what is now required. So exactly the model we've been talking about in the room, always people are saying, oh, my gosh, no one ever said that to me. That's what I'm living with. That's why I'm so frustrated with why it's not working at the moment. That's what we have got to start helping people see is when do those skills become critical and when are they critical?


Gillian Pillans [00:12:21] Coming up in the second pass of the CRF cast. We'll focus on practical actions we can take in our organizations, both as leadership development professionals and as individual leaders to be better prepared to successfully navigate the transition from expert to spanning leader.


Gillian Pillans [00:12:37] We'll look at ways individuals can create opportunities to practice the behaviours and mindsets of spanning leadership before they have to do it for real in a business critical role. And finally, we'll explore the particular challenges women face in moving beyond expert roles and how organizations can support women along the way.


Gillian Pillans [00:13:01] If you're enjoying the series cast, please subscribe to our channel by searching for the Corporate Research Forum on iTunes or Spotify, you can sign up to get the latest editions automatically and to share with your colleagues and leave as a review.


Gillian Pillans [00:13:18] So for those organizations, I'm hoping there are some who are doing this well. What are some of the good practices that we might be able to emulate? What sort of support could we be offering to make that transition easier for for these leaders to navigate?


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:13:36] One is an explanation of the different nature. What does the transition look like? It's not the same as what we've always described. As you're a manager of sell off, your manager of others, your manager or team manager. It just isn't that clean because expertise flows across all of that. So that that model isn't actually helping people understand what to do. I think we need provide some assessment that people can figure out where am I and what do I need? And then I think we need. What skills are you missing in this spanning capability and how do I get you to acquire the skills you need at this moment in time? It's not a generic kind of classic leadership model. It's, you know, it's almost like a shopping list. And what is it I need to be working on where to get that help.


Gillian Pillans [00:14:22] And that's going to be quite tailored to the individual because every leader will be in a different position with with different strengths and different gaps. Though, if you're running a large organization, I'll make bets that you've got a lot of people with some of the same gaps. Yeah, yeah. Right. Yeah.


Gillian Pillans [00:14:38] You'll have you'll have certain pockets of things that you can focus on. So let's let's imagine I'm currently my I'm 80 percent an E leader and I need I'm I am either I either need to or I want to build more of this as leader capability. And some that doesn't necessarily mean that you're gonna move straight into an s leadership role. But are there ways of practicing these skills without having to take that huge risk of you shifting from from one road into another?


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:15:14] Absolutely. And I am not advocating you go from one to the other overnight. That would be probably a disaster for everybody. So I kind of gradual in our way forward. All right. So I would encourage people to think about the extra curricular activities that you already do inside your company and outside your company.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:15:32] So things like running a women's network, running a charity event, running a recruiting session, running a family day, I mean, or any of those kind of extra things that you do as a good citizen corporation as well as, you know, community give you opportunities to practice as leaders and leadership because you're not an expert in that stuff. Great. Don't try to become one.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:15:59] Learn try to sample their will. How do I get other people on board? How do I bring them along? How do I know enable folks who know more about this to be effective. So there are the opportunities and if you look for them, there are plenty of them.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:16:13] You can even say with a team that you're currently leading. Don't abandon your expertise. Leadership would take a project you're working on or a task you're trying to do. And for that task only lead in a different way. In fact, I don't think it's harmful to say to your team. I want to practice a different style on this project. So we're both going to experiment and go for. So there's plenty of opportunities. You just have to grab them and do something. We'll see them for that. I don't think you can also see a lot of this. Once you know what you're looking for, starting to watch more senior leaders and saying, do they do expertise, leadership? Do they do spanning leadership? What did they do? How did they do it? Why did they do it? How do I emulate one or the other? You've got that one. Once you see the opportunity, then the question becomes how? How do I do this? Where do I start to practice? And there's a bunch of them. But I want to highlight a couple of things. The first one has to do with understanding how you add value and to places I would point people to on the adding value piece, which is understand what is it that needs to be top priority. That's going to make the difference here more than anything else. That's a skill you can do. Even as a leader. But it becomes mandatory as a Spanish leader. And the second one is starting to be conscious constantly of the commercial impact of what you're doing. Again, a skill that's useful. You can practice even as any leader, but it becomes mandatory. Become a leader or spanning leader. So that's the value. The second thing is what's the work you're doing? And the most important things to do right now or to start to focus on a broad network outside sort of your usual day to day interactions. Because as a Spanish leader, you need that breadth so you can call on people. Stuff you don't know. And the second piece of this one is getting comfortable with ambiguity. We say this. We talk about volatility. We talk about learning and adaptability. It's nothing other than having a learning mindset. OK, that's a practicable skill, right? And then the third piece has to really understand what's the word, the value? How are you interacting with people is really it? And there are three things I'm going to say there. One is emotion. Getting comfortable with having emotion in conversation. No, we don't say IQ. I'm going to be much more specific on that. Focus on the emotion. Focus on the diplomacy. How to say this in a way that's going to get heard but not offend an executive present. Say it and we people listen.


Gillian Pillans [00:18:48] OK, so let's take a step back and think about leadership development. I mean, we've we've talked a little bit about how careers are now viewed in organizations and the sort of support that organizations provide. But if I was a leadership development professional, how should I be thinking differently about the programs, the strategies that I designed around, or indeed to ship development within the organization to to support this notion of a form of developing spanning leadership capability? OK.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:19:20] I think going back and taking a census of where are people in your organization and asking the hard question of your stakeholders? Where are these roles largely expertise driven leadership and where are these roles largely supplant spanning, driven leadership and getting that language into the organization. So we recognize it for what it is. And then to ask what is it that my expert leaders need to be stronger? What is it that my spanning leaders need to be stronger? And who's in the transition? What does that transition process look like? I think.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:19:55] But until you go back and take out the old thinking and really see what you have from a different light, you're not going to see the opportunities. I think from a general leadership development, you know, there's there's no question we could all do with more emotional intelligence as an example, like take any one of those topics or authenticity in those topics. You're not going to go away, but they take on a more tangible tone. When I put it in this context is it's not just all emotional intelligence. It's a specific kind of emotional intelligence. That is I think is more practical.


Gillian Pillans [00:20:33] Can you perhaps give an example of that, more practical aspect of emotional intelligence?


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:20:38] Can you bring that life a little bit? All right. So I do. I mean, I'm I love assessments because assessments help you see where you are and how you stand up to other people and kind of take the blinders off.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:20:47] And so we do a lot of emotional intelligence assessments or personal assessments and 360 assessments and, you know, do the training. They're all wonderful. That's all great and good. But I'm always frustrated the end of the day because people have the concept, but they don't have. What does that really mean? When we get to what it really means. It's down to there's a personality over here that I don't necessarily enjoy working with. How do I carry on a conversation with that person without being enormously frustrated myself, giving away, faking it, whatever way the two of us can actually talk about what the substantive issue is. That's a tangible application of emotional intelligence. And it will force you to say, where is that person coming from? How do I listen to hear it? How do I ask questions that's going to draw out the right thing? How do I keep my own emotions under check?


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:21:47] And how do I say things in a diplomatic way not to miss the message, but not to overplay the message as well? If I just come back to this whole notion of experts in spanning well, things about expert leaders is you tend to interact with people who are a lot like you, who think like you, who are trained like you from the same language as you when you're spanning later. It's the polar opposite of that. So that's where that skill becomes so important.


Gillian Pillans [00:22:13] Yeah. Yeah. And are there are there good ways of practicing that skill to better? You're talking about some perhaps you've got a conversation with someone who you do naturally gel with and you have to get from one position to it to another in that conversation. Are there ways of perhaps preparing for those conversations, practicing ahead of time, playing those out beforehand that will that will help you kind of build that awareness of what might happen in that situation and think through some of the options scenarios?


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:22:50] Definitely. The first thing is you can't just get up, walk down the hall and assume that the time between your desk and the other person's desk or meeting. ROOM is effective. It isn't. These conversations take an incredible amount of preparation and rehearsal and there's no substitute for standing in front of somebody else and saying what you think you're going to say to this other person and have a neutral third party go.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:23:15] I don't think so. Let's try that again.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:23:18] So you're ready for it. But the steps to practice this one are one.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:23:23] Admit to yourself that perhaps you don't have the only viewpoint that's legitimate. That's the first one being open to hearing another possibility. Number two, what's the real emotion you are experiencing? Frustration. Yes. What else and why? What's that really about? Now, I don't advocate that you necessarily start the conversation with that emotion, but until you understand your own emotion, you're not ready to actually listen. So this is preparation here. And then the third piece is, what's that emotion really about? Because it's almost always tied to a time something didn't go well for you in the past. So unpack that a little bit so I can park it over to the side and then I'm ready to say we'll d what might be going on with this person. Now, I can speculate, but I don't know. All that speculation does is open me up to possibilities and then think, how am I going to open a conversation? What I want out of this conversation, what I want to say and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.


Gillian Pillans [00:24:23] And I think the other thing to say is that am one of the things I loved about the book is it's absolutely packed full of practical exercises, suggestions. So you've just given us a snapshot here of of the ways in which you can practice these skills. But some in the book, there's hundreds of other options that say that are well worth exploring. And I'd like to look at the particular issue with women. But you've highlighted that some this transition from expert to Spanish leader is particularly challenging for four women. So what's that all about? And are there good examples of organizations who have recognized this and maybe done things differently to help women alone?


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:25:09] Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's watching and coaching my senior women that got me to see the expertise challenge that we sort of started talking about.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:25:19] I don't think it's I no, it's not unique to women. Men are experiencing it as well. And I also think it's part of what's holding back many of our other minority populations. Being in an expert role is safe. It's safe for the individual because my expertise can speak for itself. People call on me. I don't have to do the networking. I don't have to worry about the politics as much. I can get down to the facts. And my confidence comes because I know what I'm talking about better than anybody else in the room, or at least as well. So that plays well to women and to other minorities where, you know, kind of I don't quite feel that you fit as naturally as the dominant coalition does. It also is a safe place for organizations because it's awfully handy in an organization to have people who are the experts and who will execute and make it happen. So if I'm running a group business, I would rather like to have a very powerful, strong woman or a strong black candidate or whomever who can get it done. Make it happen. Knows what's happened is on top of the details and therefore I can trust them intimately. I'm probably not very enthusiastic about taking them out of their comfort zone because it's comfortable for me. But the risk for the individual and for the organized it is that for us and particularly for women or for your minorities, when we move them into these, you know, out of the comfort zone moments, they're visible, highly visible. So everybody sees if it doesn't go well, that it was my bad judgment or my lack of preparation in moving her to that role. Everybody sees are doing or not. And there's just no hiding. So safety zone is in the comfort zone, which is in the expertise right now. This happens because the way this comes about in my awareness is I do a lot of panels of senior men talking about the progression of their careers. How did you get to hear what were key turning points? Where were mistakes you made? How do you recover from those? Pick any senior executive anywhere and they will always talk about key turning points. That time they took something way out in left field. We're completely mortified that they were going to mess it up beyond all belief. So confidence was an issue and they sort of got over it and did it and it put him on a whole new playing field.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:27:44] I don't hear women telling those stories. Even your senior most women are telling stories about coming up through an expertise rank. So I think this is why we have so few women and the. Or business P and L roles. Because of those roles require that you've stepped out of the expertise. So I think the glass ceiling is this expertise is this barrier between expertise and spamming.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:28:12] And I think once you explain that to women and once you show them how to do it in, once you say, yes, everybody suffers from confidence when you're out of your comfort zone and it's not so much fake it as it is. Here's how you do it. Here's how you move from one to the next. Yeah. Is there any one thought that you would particularly like our audience to take away from this conversation? Well, the main thing is I want people to get out as a general description and discussion and assumptions that we know.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:28:43] We have a mythology around leadership, around the leader as hero, the authentic leader who knows everything. When we it's just so baked into our thinking about this knowledge and content that we want people to go back and re-examine that, re-examine for yourself, re-examine for your organization, re-examining for your development agenda. I think that's the really big thing on Wallace.


Dr Wanda Wallace [00:29:07] Thank you very much. It's a pleasure, as always.


Gillian Pillans [00:29:15] Let's take a moment to recap the key messages of my conversation with Wanda first. The key to mastering the transition from expert to spanning leadership is to understand what's different. You have to work out where your value as a leader comes from, the unique contribution that you make. It's much easier to identify when you're leading from a position of expertise, but when you're a standing leader, it's about enabling others, which requires a different mindset. You also need to be clear about what work you'll actually be doing as this is different to work that's driven by content knowledge and you have to understand how you need to interact differently with subordinates. Peers and bosses know your added value comes from the ability to ask questions, coached people and make connections. Bringing this all together, you need to develop the capacity to recognize when you're required to lead from a position of expertise and when spanning is required so you can develop the ability to switch your behaviour to suit the demands of different situations. Second, looking at the implications for leadership development, we need to make sure our approaches to developing leaders recognize the particular challenges of managing this transition.


Gillian Pillans [00:30:26] Often we aren't having enough honest conversations with leaders about how the balance between expertise and spanning will evolve as they progress and how they can acquire the necessary skills.


Gillian Pillans [00:30:38] Leadership development professionals can make the scale of the task explicit by identifying where in the organization these critical challenges are happening, who and how many people are affected, and to provide resources to support these leaders. Finally, one does, but you can't know it all.


Gillian Pillans [00:30:56] Leading in the age of deep expertise is packed with practical tools and suggestions about how to put these ideas into practice. My thanks again to wonder for taking the time to sit down with us today.


Gillian Pillans [00:31:12] You've been listening to the series cast with me, Gillian Pillans, research director at CRF. You can find out more on our website at W W W Dot C R Forum dot co dot UK. Follow us on Twitter at C underscore our underscore forum or join the CRF group on LinkedIN. Bye for now and thanks for listening.


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