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Skills Capability

The speciic work of leaders is to make changes that improve their own capabilities as well as those of other individuals and entire organizations. Our leadership framework goes beyond the development of skills; skills, though, are the starting point.

As I noted in the preface, at a point in time, DuPont Canada's senior leaders decided to markedly improve their company's performance by embarking on a strategy: that everyone would learn to become a competent leader. Over the years, to accomplish this goal, they made many changes to processes and systems.

One of these initiatives involved “management by objectives” (MBO). Many conventional organizations use this well-known tool: managers set objectives in co-operation with the individuals in their organizations. They then measure the performance of those individuals to establish their pay. DuPont Canada had been using this tool for many years; now, though, it was decided as part of the evolving design of the developmental leadership organization to redesign it in ways that would allow everyone to selfmanage. This new “SMBO” approach shifted accountability for setting short-term work objectives onto each individual and joint responsibility for review of outcomes onto that individual as well as the person's manager. More will be said about self-management in part three of this book. Around the time the SMBO system was introduced, I was leading and managing a small group of engineers that was dedicated to the design and construction of capital projects. We switched, like everyone else, to the SMBO approach. Early on in this transformation, I observed behaviour that encouraged me to believe that our strategy of Everyone a Leader was

making DuPont Canada a better company.

A number of people in my group set SMBOs that were not much different than those that had been set for them under manager-directed MBOs. But over the years following the change, more and more of them became motivated to improve their functioning capability by setting personal objectives that were more challenging and more developmental.

The less motivated, at least at the beginning, set more traditional engineering functional objectives: performing speciic design tasks more eficiently, communicating well with the business sponsor to keep them informed, and so on. But the more motivated engineers set personal objectives not just to communicate well with the business leaders – they would seek out those leaders to learn from them; they would determine any unrecognized business needs that would make their projects more successful; and they would help them extend the potential of their projects. Instead of taking conventional approaches, they set out to explore the potential for innovation.

In one case, an enterprising leader-engineer wanted to explore ways to shorten construction times in the Far North during the winter. His unit took the time to experiment with ideas and materials that would shorten concrete cure times at ambient temperatures far below freezing. Their experiments succeeded.

Also, many of these aspiring leader-engineers set the objective of learning more about their engineering specialties. To that end, they took outside graduate courses at night, or they participated in a variety of self-learning initiatives. The message for me was that when people are encouraged to take accountability for leading themselves, they often develop their functional expertise and become more skilled at their work.

Functional Expertise

Expertise, here, refers to the skills people have that are the focus of their professional contribution to society. These might be engineering skills, science skills, machine maintenance skills, or sales skills. They are the functioning capabilities in which the individual is capable of becoming an “expert.” Engineers, scientists, or technologists, to become effective leaders, must continuously develop their capability as a functional “expert” in their chosen ield. They must be prepared to maintain and indeed expand their knowledge and understanding of their ield.

The philosophy of Everyone a Leader is what motivates the individual to develop as a role model leader. A closely related idea here is “Everyone a Functional Expert.” There is enormous power in a team of people with diverse and highly developed functional skills – in inancing, marketing, engineering, manufacturing, and so on. Even more powerful, then, if in
addition, each of these talented people is developing leadership competence. Such a team is equipped to meet the most challenging transformational goals.

I did some consulting work with a company that invented and manufactured medical devices. I had the opportunity to meet with other consultants who were medical doctors. One doctor was especially interested in leading and he was a senior manager in a large medical device sales and distribution company. He told me that he was a more effective leader because he was still a good doctor and was continually renewing his skills by taking shifts in a local hospital emergency ward.

Even the most senior leaders – the ones at the very top of the organizational hierarchy – need to maintain and grow their functional expertise. Leading my company was a welcome challenge for me in terms of my leadership skills. It would have been much more challenging had I not been convinced of the need to maintain and grow my expertise as an engineer. This technical savvy allowed me to communicate effectively, to engage in problem solving with some project teams, and to engage with thought leaders each with their own expertise. This was essential when it came to determining future directions for innovation. I was not alone in this determination. The role model leaders whom I knew and respected in the company and in other organizations were all determined to maintain and grow their functional expertise throughout their careers.

Of course, personal choices need to be made in terms of which functional expertise to maintain and grow and to what extent. It is normal for individuals to develop their functional capabilities in many different ways and directions during their lifetime. A graduate engineer may focus on a speciic set of engineering skills or evolve into a generalist. Another graduate may decide to develop as, say, a technical sales representative or a inancial manager. All of these people, though, will beneit from developing their leading and leadership capabilities.

Again, personal choices will need to be made in terms of the time and energy devoted to either functional expertise or leadership competence. The key point here is that every individual needs to develop both.

In too many organizations there are too many leaders who believe that they can allow their functional expertise to slide as they learn and become better at leading, managing, or supervising others. This is a mentality of scarcity. The belief that a person can learn and practice only so much functioning capability is false. Rather, I believe in a mentality of abundance – that learning is both a continuous process and a cumulative one. Newly graduated engineers can, if self-motivated, maintain their engineering skills
and indeed broaden and deepen them. I have seen many graduate engineers serve their organization, themselves, and society with their learned engineering skills and then move into other areas of expertise – sales, accounting, personnel, and so on. But the very best of these people do not abandon their previous functional capabilities. Instead, they carry them forward and use them in a cascading development of capabilities and learned skills. They work at maintaining and growing their skills throughout their careers.

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