Thursday, May 31, 2018

Likability in Leadership—Necessary for Some, a Liability to Others


Guest post from Cassandra Frangos:

We had a handy rule of thumb for hiring in my first job in management consulting. After the first or second round of interviews, if the candidate scored high on the prerequisites, the team would gather for a reality check and ask each other: "Would you mind being stuck in an airport for 9 hours with this person?” If the answer was, "Oh my, no way," we’d usually move on to the next highly qualified candidate. Consulting is a time-intensive business where exhaustive hours are spent traveling to remote locations, making presentations together in close quarter conference rooms, and collaborating with customers. You have to like the people you work with.

Yet, it’s not the same in every case—likability does not necessarily equal followership when it comes to leadership. When I’ve conducting executive assessments or performance interviews, for instance, I don’t need to hear that a leader is highly likable. In fact, if that’s the first thing a colleague says about a leader, it gives me pause. There are other arguably more important elements in gaining the respect necessary to lead.

When I weigh the pros and cons of likability, I put the question into context by looking at three lenses that help calibrate the question:

The first context is culture. A leader’s disposition needs to be in sync with the culture of a company. I met with the CHRO of a staffing firm in the southwest last month and the first thing I thought was: this person is really nice and I can see why she is so respected here. The organization was relatively small, everyone was together in one location, and they relied on local contacts to keep the business going. Likeability was built into the formula. Would that same CHRO be as successful at a firm where the culture was more about innovation and less about continuity? Doubtful.

Industry is the second context to consider. When people talk about the qualities that made Steve Jobs so successful, likability didn’t always appear on the short list. Yet, he was one of the most admired leaders of our time. Apple is in an industry where fresh ideas, fast thinking and constant change are keys to success. Jobs brought a highly distinctive design vision that keyed-in on user experience and an eye for engineering excellence that few could match. He was a brilliant in all the ways that mattered, and that, more than likability, gained him the followership he needed to lead in computing. Likewise, the aggressive and purportedly overbearing Jack Welch was highly respected and emulated, but likability was not a key ingredient for leading the massively complex global conglomerate.

Lastly, I look at circumstance. In general, I would expect customer facing leaders to be likable but the benchmark may be somewhat different for other types of functional or technical leaders. Likewise, there are numerous extenuating circumstances that make likability in a leader more or less necessary. If a leader is charged with reengineering or remaking a failing firm, they must be empathetic, but perhaps likability is too much to expect. Whereas, if a leader is hired to improve employee engagement, shore up retention, and bring the organization together, then achieving the necessary followership may depend upon being likable.

In leadership, likability looks different depending upon the context. The best leaders are decisive, commend respect, and connect with their followers. That won’t happen if a leader is a bully, tyrant or, yes, just plain untrustworthy. But likable? It’s not always a necessary quality in a leader.

BIO
Cassandra Frangos, EdD, is the author of Crack the C-Suite Code: How Successful
Leaders Make It to the Top and a consultant at Spencer Stuart, where she focuses on collaborating with Fortune 500 leadership teams on executive assessments, succession planning, leadership development and top team effectiveness. Previously, she led Cisco’s Global Executive Talent practice where she played an integral role in the 2015 succession planning for Cisco’s CEO, and conducted the research for Crack the C-Suite Code.

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