The need to empower natural leaders isn’t an HR pipedream, it’s a competitive imperative. But before you can empower them, you have to find them.
In most companies, the formal hierarchy is a matter of public record—it’s easy to discover who’s in charge of what. By contrast, natural leaders don’t appear on any organization chart. To hunt them down, you need to know . . .
Whose advice is sought most often on any particular topic?
Who responds most promptly to requests from peers?
Whose responses are judged most helpful?
Who is most likely to reach across organizational boundaries to aid a colleague?
Whose opinions are most valued, internally and externally?
Who gets the most kudos from customers?
Who’s the most densely connected to other employees?
Who’s generating the most buzz outside the company?
Who consistently demonstrates real thought leadership?
Who seems truly critical to key decisions?
A lot of the data you need to answer these questions is lurking in the weeds of your company’s email system, or can be found on the Web. Nevertheless, it will take some creative effort and software tweaks to ferret it out.
A few suggestions . . .
- Establish a directory of key words corresponding to critical skills and competencies within your company, and then see who generates or receives the most emails on any particular topic.
- Add a small box at the end of every incoming email that lets the recipient grade the sender’s response: was it timely, was it helpful?
- Analyze internal email flows to see which folks are most likely to respond positively to emails from colleagues in other divisions—who’s collaborating across unit boundaries?
- Create a system for ranking the frequency and value of each employee’s contributions to internal wikis or communities of practice.
- Encourage employees to write internal blogs, and to rank posts and comments.
- Using key words, analyze company emails to see who’s had the most to say about important corporate decisions, and to see how widely those views have been disseminated and discussed.
- Identify emails relating to key projects and then identify the individuals who were the most critical “nodes” in the project team—the folks who seemed to be in the middle of every email exchange.
- Review incoming emails from customers to determine who’s getting the most requests for help, who’s been most responsive and who’s receiving the most praise. Or, give customers the ability to immediately score the email responses they get from company personnel.
- Use Google Alert and news tracking to find out which employees are getting quoted most often online, and who’s showing up most often in the press.
There are other types of data that might also be useful—but you get the idea.
Sure, there are some practical challenges in collecting and analyzing this sorts of data. But ultimately, it should be possible for a company to create a multivariate leadership score for every employee.
Obviously, the old top-down hierarchy isn’t going to disappear any time soon. What would happen, though, if every employee had the chance to compete for leadership “points,” whether or not they had a management job? What would happen if everyone’s leadership score showed up in their online profile—so everyone knew how their colleagues ranked on expertise, helpfulness, collaboration and thought leadership? What would happen if anyone could attach a public comment to a colleague’s leadership score? What about including highly rated “natural” leaders in every important decision meeting? And finally, what would happen if leadership points were considered in compensation and promotion decisions? I’m not sure, but I bet it would do more good than harm.
One thing’s certain, though: we can’t invent Management 2.0 without inventing some new ways for people to accumulate and exercise authority. In the tempestuous seas of today’s creative economy, top-down leadership structures are fast becoming a liability. We need is a new currency of power—one based not on titles, but on every individual’s capacity to lead, every day. We need fewer zero-sum battles for plum positions, in which Machiavellian maneuvering wins the day, and more positive-sum competition to increase one’s personal leadership score—by delivering real value to colleagues and customers. We need a system that forces titled leaders to justify their positional power by competing in an open market for leadership esteem. And finally, we need organizations that aren’t built around a single, dominant hierarchy, but are comprised of many soft hierarchies, each corresponding to a critical skill or issue.
A few years back, two of my colleagues at the London Business School posed a cheeky question in the title of their leadership book: “Why,” they wondered, “should anyone be led by you?” If you reflect on this question every morning, your leadership score is bound to go up.
So, readers, here are some questions to ponder: How would you find the natural leaders in your company? And once found, how would you help them expand their influence? Can you imagine other alternatives to traditional power structures? If so, what might they be?