My philosophy about leadership is simple: There is no success without successors, so it’s up to today’s leaders to develop the next generation. Successful companies that consistently stay on top are those with exceptional leaders who can inspire their employees and even the world at large. Apple stands out as the most valuable company in the world largely as a function of Steve Jobs’ extraordinary leadership. SAP is now ranked among the top 10 IT companies in market capitalization and number 19 among the world’s top 100 brands thanks to transformative leadership and market changing innovation over the years.
But the move from “Good to Great” at any company requires continuous investment in leadership – not just of product, but of people! Leadership development must be a priority for everyone in executive leadership. In fact, it should be an obsession.
For me personally, leadership is about the virtuous cycle of TEACHING and LEARNING. I believe every leader – and by leader, I mean more than just managers – must be a lifelong teacher and student. A decade ago, I took a class called the Teachable Point of View, a concept developed by Noel Tichy, who led leadership development for Jack Welch at GE. GE became famous through the 80s for being the “People Factory”, producing some of the industry’s best general managers. Tichy’s curriculum helps leaders teach leadership by linking their personal experience to organizational goals. The class had a seminal impact on my own leadership journey. Like Tichy, I believe it’s up to leaders to train the next generation of leaders at every level.
True, there are some special people who are born with exceptional leadership attributes. Business leaders like Jack Welch or Steve Jobs, sports leaders like Michael Jordan or Franz Beckenbauer, and leaders of movements like Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa all had uncanny leadership attributes that made them shine. But beyond what everyone is born with, there is also a lot that anyone can learn to hone their leadership skills and perfect them through daily practice, year by year.
To that end, I teach a leadership development class called Time for Leadership NOW. I don’t relegate these sessions to HR trainers but run the day-long classes myself. The class is divided into a journey of three chapters – Who am I, Who are We, Where are we Going. The discussions, case-studies and group exercises are set up like a mini-MBA program to be applied to our joint leadership journey. I make it clear that I’m far from perfect myself and as a teacher/student, I am as much a work in progress, as everyone else in the class.
One exercise is called the Leadership Journey. We divide into pairs and each person walks through their highs and lows in life, sharing events that have shaped their leadership experience. In hearing people’s passions, we learn what makes them tick, so we can help them realize their dreams. We look at the qualities of Multipliers, Servant Leadership, Tribal Teamwork, and many other simple frameworks that are easily applied with case studies. We also run through a visioning exercise where we watch some of the best communicators of our time such as Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King, and learn what made them great communicators – in essence, we learn about theirstorytelling skills. Because storytelling is a skill anyone can learn to help them become better communicators, and thereby better leaders, we also run storytelling workshops as part of our people development program.
Sessions like Leadership NOW allow for self-introspection and help managers realize the value of continuous learning through sharing experiences and giving back to their community of employees. Such sessions always energize me and give me new ideas and perspectives about my own leadership journey. My greatest joy is seeing how people hone in on their inner zen to identify areas where they can perfect their leadership, communication or mentoring skills.
Today, leadership seems to be in short supply, yet it’s crucial to any company’s long term sustainability and success. That’s why leaders have the responsibility and obligation of not just paying lip-service to the topic, but taking a hands on approach to developing the next generation of leaders. To do so means investing time in coaching, grooming and sponsoring leaders, as well as fostering diversity in leadership, but for me, the rewards far outweigh the effort. If you are in leadership position, I encourage you to develop your own teachable point of view and share it with your peers and colleagues. That‘s how you’ll secure the next vanguard of leaders for your company’s long term success.
Sanjay Poonen is President and Corporate Officer, Technology Solutions and Mobile Division at SAP, and can be reached @spoonen on Twitter.