Developing open leaders

"Off-the-shelf" leadership training can't sufficiently groom tomorrow's organizational leaders. Here's how we're doing it.
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Lots of people in a crowd.

At Red Hat, we have a saying: Not everyone needs to be a people manager, but everyone is expected to be a leader.

For many people, that requires a profound mindset shift in how to think about leaders. Yet in some ways, it's what we all intuitively know about how organizations really work. As Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst has pointed out, in any organization, you have the thermometers—people who reflect the organizational "temperature" and sentiment and direction—and then you have the thermostats—people who set those things for the organization.

Leadership is about maximizing influence and impact. But how do you develop leadership for an open organization?

In the first installment of this series, I will share the journey, from my perspective, on how we began to build a leadership development system at Red Hat to enable our growth while sustaining the best parts of our unique culture.

Nothing 'off the shelf'

In an open organization, you can't just buy leadership development training "off the shelf" and expect it to resonate with people—or to reflect and reinforce your unique culture. But you also probably won't have the capacity and resources to build a great leadership development system entirely from scratch.

Early on in our journey at Red Hat, our leadership development efforts focused on understanding our own philosophy and approach, then taking a bit of an open source approach: sifting through the what people had created for conventional organizations, then configuring those ideas in a way that made them feasible for an open organization.

Looking back, I can also see we spent a lot of energy looking for ways to plug specific capability gaps.

Many of our people managers were engineers and other subject matter experts who stepped into management roles because that's what our organization needed. Yet the reality was, many had little experience leading a team or group. So we had some big gaps in basic management skills.

We also had gaps—not just among managers but also among individual contributors—when it came to navigating tough conversations with respect. In a company where passion runs high and people love to engage in open and heated debate, making your voice heard without shouting others down wasn't always easy.

We couldn't find any end-to-end leadership development systems that would help train people for leading in a culture that favors flatness and meritocracy over hierarchy and seniority. And while we could build some of those things ourselves, we couldn't build everything fast enough to meet our growing organization's needs.

So when we saw a need for improved goal setting, we introduced some of the best offerings available—like Closing the Execution Gap and the concept of SMART goals (i.e. specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound). To make these work for Red Hat, we configured them to pull through themes from our own culture that could be used in tandem to make the concepts resonate and become even more powerful.

Considering meritocracy

In a culture that values meritocracy, being able to influence others is critical. Yet the passionate open communication and debate that we love at Red Hat sometimes created hard feelings between individuals or teams. We introduced Crucial Conversations to help everyone navigate those heated and impassioned topics, and also to help them recognize that those kinds of conversations provide the greatest opportunity for influence.

After building that foundation with Crucial Conversations, we introduced Influencer Training to help entire teams and organizations communicate and gain traction for their ideas across boundaries.

We also found a lot of value in Marcus Buckingham's strengths-based approach to leadership development, rather than the conventional models that encouraged people to spend their energy shoring up weaknesses.

Early on, we made a decision to make our leadership offerings available to individual contributors as well as managers, because we saw that these skills were important for everyone in an open organization.

Looking back, I can see that this gave us the added benefit of developing a shared understanding and language for talking about leadership throughout our organization. It helped us build and sustain a culture where leadership is expected at all levels and in any role.

At the same time, training was only part of the solution. We also began developing processes that would help entire departments develop important organizational capabilities, such as talent assessment and succession planning.

Piece by piece, our open leadership system was beginning to take shape. The story of how it came together is pretty remarkable—at least to me!—and over the next few months, I'll share the journey with you. I look forward to hearing about the journeys of other open organizations, too.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in The Open Organization Leaders Manual, now available as a free download from

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DeLisa Alexander | DeLisa is Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer at Red Hat. Under her leadership, this team focuses on acquiring, developing, and retaining talent and enhancing the Red Hat culture and brand.

1 Comment

If Red Hat truly believes that everyone should be a leader, the logical outcome would seem to be that everyone is paid the same, and it's hard to imagine that happening.
For thirty years, I was medical director of a rehabilitation unit. A rehabilitation unit more or less is team medicine, where you have a large number of people working with patients and their families. What you want out of the people was a commitment to work on their own and with others to try for the best end result. You expect them to speak up when there are problems or obstacles, not just with individual patients but with the way the system works.
To have this work smoothly, you have to get to know each other well, what strengths and weaknesses each of us have. Some people don't need much encouragement, others do, but aside from being aware of the differences, you also come to appreciate them, since there are times when you need as many points of view as you can muster to solve some issue. This all separate from the education and specific skills that each one has that made them qualified for the job.
If you can do this well, what you find is that you never have any trouble with staffing, and finding new, fresh talent to fill vacancies or new positions, because you get a reputation for treating people fairly and appreciating the part that each one plays in the whole.

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