Everything is important. How can I manage it all?

“That’s a common reaction we hear from leaders making the transition to higher-level roles,” says CCL’s Richard Walsh. “And it is true. Senior leaders’ roles are much more intense and complex. Everyone is expecting more, and leaders need to step up their game.”

Walsh and colleagues Stephanie Trovas and John Fleenor wondered if the assessment data from participants in CCL’s Leading for Organizational Impact (LOI) program could help refine the leadership priorities for anyone managing a function or business unit.

Over a two-year period, CCL collected data on senior leaders who participated in LOI. The study involved 1,397 senior leaders; 1,347 bosses; 4,850 direct reports; 5,205 peers and 1,199 superiors.

In this article, we give you a preview of their findings and some clues to how you might focus your leadership goals in 2014.

What’s Most Important?

Using a newly developed executive assessment available exclusively in the program calledLeading the Function 360, raters were asked to choose the seven competencies (out of 13 Factors for Success) they believed were “most” critical for senior leaders.

There was high agreement among all raters on what’s most important, including:

  • Communicating effectively.
  • Results orientation.
  • Influence.
  • Thinking and acting strategically.
  • Engagement.

Working across boundaries and demonstrates vision were also in the top seven, with peers and bosses placing more importance on the first and direct reports giving more value to the latter.

Knowing what is generally most important for leaders in roles similar to yours may help you narrow down your leadership priorities. But consider another aspect of the research, too.

Are Senior Leaders Effective?

Raters were also asked to assess how effective the leaders were in demonstrating the 13 competencies in the assessment. The five highest-rated competencies were considered “more effective,” and the five lowest-rated competencies were considered “less effective.”

  • All raters ranked senior leaders as more effective in communicating effectively and results orientation. Good news: The two most important competencies are strengths for these leaders as a group. This means you can leverage those strengths and then turn your attention elsewhere to boost your overall effectiveness.
  • All raters ranked leading globally and innovation as less effective. Although these two competencies were not considered in the top seven “most important,” in some markets and organizations these are considered most essential competencies. So, consider your context. If leading globally and innovating are important for you and your organization, now is the time to start strengthening your skills in these areas.

That’s where the broad agreement ends. Bosses and superiors perceived our leaders as more effective in the areas direct reports ranked less effective, and vice versa, showing a clear split by level. Superiors tended to agree with bosses, and peer rankings were more variable.

  • Direct reports rated senior leaders as more effective in the areas of influence, thinking and acting strategically, working across boundaries, and engagement. Bosses said leaders reported that senior leaders were less effective in these same areas.
  • Direct reports described leaders’ self-awareness, learning agility, approachability and demonstrates vision as less effective, while bosses ranked them more effective.
  • Peers, in agreement with bosses, ranked approachability and demonstrates vision as more effective and thinking and acting strategically and working across boundaries as less effective.
  • Peers then sided with direct reports in giving more effective ratings on influence and less effectiveratings on engagement, self-awareness and learning agility.

“These findings show that the perceptions of senior leaders’ effectiveness differ notably by level in the organization,” says Trovas. “This explains much of why, if you’re in a leading the function role, you feel conflicted about your performance and leadership skill.”

What Matters Most to You?

The upside of knowing that different groups are likely to have different opinions of you is that you can use this insight to fine-tune your leadership efforts, suggest Trovas and Walsh.

First, you’ll want to gauge to what extent your situation reflects CCL’s findings. In the absence of a formal assessment, seek out honest input on what’s most important and how others see you. Pay close attention to differences between levels. Use this research as a starting point for asking for feedback.

Next, consider what leadership improvements would have the greatest impact? Pick one competency to focus on, that if you improve, would have the most value to your relationships and effectiveness with direct reports. Do the same with a peer and your boss. Then, with a coach, mentor or strong ally, set specific goals and identify behaviors to change, actions to take or learning to pursue.

“By focusing your energy on just two or three areas, you can also bring focus to your own development,” says Walsh. “Plus, you’ll feel less fragmented by the daily pressures to deliver results while knowing you’re working on those areas that are most important for success.”

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