Leadership and the Invisible Fence

An Interview with Jean-François Pinsonnault, Queen’s IRC Facilitator
Human Resources

Do you want to be an enlightened leader? Then actively coach and mentor employees, pay attention to rewards and recognition, and make sure the fence you build for your colleague is far enough away that it cannot be seen, says IRC Facilitator Jean-François Pinsonnault.

How does one become an enlightened leader who nurtures leadership in others?

I am still working toward being an enlightened leader. It is a journey, and each day I make new discoveries. Nurturing leadership in others means creating an environment that enables everyone within your scope of influence to learn, grow, and develop the capacity to inspire others to achieve excellence. In the words of the Roman philosopher and poet Seneca the Younger, “Even while men teach, men learn.”

I compare a leader to an actor on stage or on the big screen. A leader also plays a role: leadership. The difference is that it is very interactive.

An enlightened leader demonstrates leadership by paying attention to a number of key areas, each of which I’ll discuss in turn.

Coaching and mentoring

Through conversation and dialogue, it’s important that a leader encourage individuals to explore possibilities, to go beyond ‘good enough’ and move toward ‘excellent’ and ‘outstanding’. This is accomplished by giving direction on fundamental skills to help the person develop mastery in analyzing situations and making decisions.

I’ve been fortunate throughout my career: I’ve had coaches who taught me how to analyze context, to explore problems or challenges, and to do risk assessments. I would get a clear understanding of what happened, what the results were, what solutions were available to me, and what impact those solutions would have. When I made a decision, whether it worked or not, I was able to defend it later on.

I have to say I’ve been involved in a few blunders! But no matter what the outcome, every one of these coaches would provide guidance in expanding my risk assessment for the next time. When it worked out well, we’d still consider how it could have been even better.

Acquiring insight through reflection

During the various coaching opportunities, it’s valuable to engage your employees and protégés and help them gain a clearer understanding of what transpired. This furthers their appreciation of the situation or circumstances.

Rewards and recognition

Know when to recognize and appreciate your employees’ accomplishments and achievements. Discussing shortcomings is expected, however a good leader must also balance this out with recognition for incremental accomplishments. Doing this once a year during the performance evaluation period is totally insufficient. Don’t wait: “see it, say it” — otherwise, it will be forgotten.

A study of over 200,000 employees and their managers around the globe, conducted over a 10-year period by the Jackson Organization, showed that 79% of employees who quit their jobs cite a lack of appreciation as a key reason for leaving. Further, the study found that 65% of North Americans said that they received no recognition in the previous year.

Similarly, research firm Watson Wyatt in a recent study asked employees to identify “very significant” motivators of performance, and 66 percent said “appreciation.” These conclusions come as no surprise. Recognition and praise for achievement contributes greatly to employee involvement, engagement and motivation.

Opportunities to learn by doing

Know that mistakes will occur. Leadership is helping the individual to understand and learn from mistakes — to explore alternatives in order to achieve goals. So ask, what do we learn from this? You need to coach and mentor to help individuals to be ready for the next time: you have to prepare them.

Guidance through observation

Take the time to talk about what you are observing, and share those observations with employees and protégés. There will be times when people might not see and be aware of their behaviours.

Providing space for action

Keeping a promising individual on a short leash and within your grasp will limit creativity and innovation, the lifeline of continued success and growth. So set boundaries that are clear yet not limiting.

What has been most important to your development as a leader?

Over my 30-plus-year career, I’ve worked with exceptional people whose leadership permitted me to grow, and be comfortable in using my leadership skills.

Of particular note, back in the early 80s when I was a young consultant, I was hired by the dean of social studies at a major university. He was also president of a consulting firm dedicated to enhancing employee participation, thus maximizing the effectiveness of the organization. I had been retained to support a major project. Within a short period of time, he had taken me under his wing, nurturing me to achieve my full potential.

During the course of this project, as well as for several years after, he would bring me with him to attend high-level meetings with senior leaders in order to expose me to various situations. I would observe and listen in on the exchanges. After each meeting, we would have a conversation on my thoughts concerning the exchanges.

He would challenge me to go beyond the obvious and learn how to read between the lines, pick up on various non-verbal cues and better analyze and understand what was happening — including the needs and expectations of a potential client. This provided me with a priceless opportunity to develop my analytical and communications skills.

After a while he transferred the project to me. I’d never have been so successful if he hadn’t fostered my development beforehand.

What’s your most powerful experience with a life-changing leader? How has it influenced the way you support others as they develop?

Working with an Assistant Deputy Minister of human resources in a major government department was my most memorable experience. Whenever I would have ideas that could bring about significant changes or improvements, he would listen, probe to understand, and ask questions that would push my own views to places I often had not explored.

Once we agreed, he gave me the latitude I needed to ensure success. During a farewell get-together when I was leaving this organization to explore other challenges, he told all in attendance that with me, he set clear boundaries, but also knew that if the boundaries were too close, I would not thrive. “I quickly learned that the fence I put around Jean-François had to be quite far away, so he could not see it.” I thought that was wonderful, and have kept it in mind.

Does how you inspire leadership depend on the individual’s generation or background? Or do the same factors apply equally to everyone?

Had you asked me this question 10 years ago, my response would have been quite different. I thought then that the approach was relatively the same for all, regardless of age, experience, and background.

However today, as I am more and more exposed to individuals from various cultures and generations, I realize that people come from different backgrounds and circumstances, and that the context varies from individual to individual.

The latest generation to join the workforce has a higher need for involvement and engagement. So what could be better than having a person from the baby boomer generation and another from the millennial coach each other? Baby boomers will learn and come to appreciate what they may first find challenging in these younger employees, while sharing their own views and knowledge with a younger generation thirsty for knowledge. For the younger generation, this will provide insight into the history of systems, as well as various cultural systems.

And as a leader you need to realize that different generations work differently. I had a co-op student a couple of years back. I gave him a task to do on Monday afternoon, and we agreed to meet Wednesday to discuss his progress. On Tuesday I walked by his desk and saw he was listening to his mp3 player. I almost lost it. Then I saw he was working on the project I’d asked him for, so I let it go.

Later that afternoon he knocked on the door and asked if I had a minute. I asked if he had run into a challenge. “No, I’m finished,” he replied. I couldn’t believe he could be done already. In fact he’d done a fantastic job, even better than I’d anticipated — while listening to music.

I’ve also learned, for instance, that millennials can’t stand the “you’ve got to earn your dues” idea. With boomers the growth and promotion cycle was 10 to 15 years. With millennials it is one to two years. They want to be challenged, engaged, and involved, as research demonstrates.

Is developing younger leaders an issue for CMHC?

CMHC has a relatively low separation and resignation rates compared with the marketplace. Though there is no solid information about reasons for resignations, anecdotal information indicates that many are under 30 years old and have been with us for less than three years. Comments received point to an ineffective use of their skills and capacity, too much bureaucracy, and an insufficient amount of challenging work.

Government in general struggles with this challenge. Government departments, agencies and Crown corporations will need to respond and interact more effectively with the younger generation, which will be coming in droves as the boomers retire over the next few years. The first ones will be eligible to retire by 2011, or before, depending on their individual situation. By the time Canada reaches 2021, 6.7 million baby boomers will be poised to exit the workforce. Private sector leaders and policy-makers need to realize this sooner than later and start developing strategies which will permit their continued growth and success — otherwise they will have a hard time attracting and keeping the next generations, much less developing them as leaders.

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