What is a High Performing Leader?

At Agile Organization Development we regularly design and deliver High Performance Leadership Development Programmes for MNCs. The set up by the client is typically a few months to one year journey among a pool of mid to senior leaders designated as “HIPOs” (high potentials) and next generation executive leaders. Client side programme managers and stakeholders approach us with ambitious asks on programme contents with understandably high expectations. Consequently programme design is every time a laborious process involving heavy dialogue with the client.

One core question I always enjoy throwing to the client is the definition of “performance” in their organization, and what separates a performing and high performing leader. As you can imagine the discussion goes all over the place, but interestingly, I see some convergence in the final answer across different organizations. I’d like to share that common theme in this article.

Performing at the Operational and Aspirational Levels

After the dust settles from the flurry of descriptions of what defines “performance” in the client organization, I typically can separate the answers into two categories of “operational” and “aspirational” asks of performance. The key follow-on question that helps the categorization is, “How do you measure that performance?” “Operational” asks are solidly measured; that’s P/L, KPIs, outputs, deliverables. The “aspirational” asks are “discussed” in performance reviews but not very well measured and consequently, although deemed important, people are seldome held accountable on such performance factors. People skills, customer centricity, agility and so on are typically mentioned in this “aspirational” performance category.

“Jane gets things done,” “Jack’s solid and reliable,” “Jim’s organized and always follow-throughs,” “Leave it to Jill and she’ll deliver.” I ask for examples of “operational” performance and these are the descriptions I receive. And these compliments are not at the task execution level but at the organizational level where delegation of authority and latitude on solutions approach is already given, and work coordination among people is an integral part of the leaders’ job. Clearly, these leaders are doers and solutions generators and the senior leaders acknowledge.

“How about areas of development?” My next question brings out examples of the “aspirational” performance factors: “We want Jane to operate at the bigger picture, strategic level, Jack to take risk and be more dynamic in his approach, Jim to be more passionate and engaging with people, and let Jill know that it’s okay to be less quick with her work so she can deliver more in-depth outcomes.”

erforming vs High Performing

The Unhelpful Feedback

“And how do they take the feedback? Do you see changes in behavior?” “Well, I guess that’s why we’re asking you to come in to coach us!”

In all fairness to the people, these feedbacks are ambiguous and hard to act on. In fact, I won’t be surprised if there’s negative sentiment, a sense of unfairness and frustration against these feedbacks. “I deliver, I get things done, I bring solutions; what else do you want from me?” “This feedback is not helpful. I need clarity on what exactly is the ask or else I don’t know what to change.”

Seeing the big picture, thinking at the strategic level, risk taking, displaying positivity and enthusiasm, connecting more with people, working in an exploratory way, these are all great virtues and no one will object to the goodness. However, unless people see direct relevance and benefit to their performance (or more specifically, their performance evaluation), these factors won’t be taken seriously. In fact, they may be actively ignored as distraction to their performance.

Beyond Solutions-Oriented Leadership and Getting Things Done

“But they are important elements and we need people to take these things seriously. In fact, probably this is exactly where we see what separates a performing and high performing leader.” Hearing this from the client, I offer the following reframing as a distinction between performing and high performing leaders:

Performing leaders are solution-oriented and they reliably get things done at the operational level.

High performing leaders lead at the aspirational level as well, on top of at the operational level.

Sensing we are getting to the core of the ask for the High Performance Leadership Development Programme, it’s now a golden moment to help the client grasp why they want their performing leaders take the aspirational element of leadership seriously. Excitement, hope, motivation, energy, belief, trust – these are keywords that typically come up when exploring the why of leading at the aspirational level.

It’s in the Why, Who and How of the What

So how do we frame the importance of leading at the aspirational level?

Here’s my suggestion. First, let’s not skip the important step of acknowledging that solutions-oriented leadership and getting things done is an important leadership philosophy for many. Let’s appreciate that and give due credit and praise to the leaders of their achievement as solutions generators and doers.

Then comes the crucial step of introducing leadership at the next level. My advice is to consider this as a process of invitation, rather than convincing or pursuading. With humility, let’s acknowledge that individually, we don’t have answers to everything – our imagination and ability to generate solutions is limited to the boundaries of our mind. So the next level of leadership is all about tapping into the larger, collective pool of possibilities for solutions.

The Essence of High Performance Leadership Development

This can be about tapping into the genius of others; e.g. facilitating teamwork. It can be about exploring complex topics in a more experimental and iterative way, e.g. agile. Or it can be about going into the reflective space of developing the meta skill of critical thinking, scientific thinking, Systems Thinking, Design Thinking.

I like to describe this process with a visual of going beyond the “what” of solutions. If we channel our attention to “who” we can collaborate with in generating solutions, “how” we can approach the solutions generation process differently, and fundamentally exploring “why” we want to develop a given solution, we will be operating at an exponentially larger scale and energy of developing and delivering solutions. I believe this is the space where high performing leaders operate.

With what, who, why and how, the message becomes clearer:

“What solutions you bring to the problem is still important. But as you grow as a leader, we want you to think beyond your individual contribution to the what. Now what’s important is to think of who to bring in to develop solutions together, help frame why it’s important to develop solutions to the problem, and facilitate how to develop and deliver the solutions in smarter ways.”

Designing a High Performance Leadership Development Programme with Agile

Now that we’ve clarified the intent of the High Performance Leadership Development Programme and a solid framing of how to communicate that intent with participants, the rest of the designing of the programme would be smooth.

As an agile coach, I conveniently package this “why,” “who” and “how” with the “what” of solutions development as “Agile Leadership” and therefore will typically design the programme as an agile experiment. Other high performance leadership development coaches may label this space differently (e.g. emotionally intelligent leader, servant leadership, resilient leadership, intent based leadership, strength based leadership…) and come up with different contents and learning approaches. So long as there is a balanced approach to knowledge and skills building around the “why,” “who,” “how” and “what,” I’m very sure it will be a solid programme.