5 Questions for Michael Watkins, Founder of Consulting Firm Genesis Advisers

By Jessica Marquez

Jan. 9, 2007

Leading an organization has become a minefield, according to Michael Watkins. It’s not enough for leaders to be visionaries; they need to be apt negotiators. It’s up to companies to nourish these skills, Watkins says. A former Harvard Business School professor and author of The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, Watkins recently spoke to Workforce Management staff writer Jessica Marquez.
Workforce Management: How have the skills that leaders need changed over the years?

Michael Watkins: We live in times where authority is not given the credence it used to [get]. Younger people are not willing to be led by authority in quite the same way as the World War II generation was. That trend, on top of the trend toward flatter organizations and the implementation of matrix structures within organizations, requires leaders today to be negotiating all the time. Any mandate or authority a leader has is won through negotiations.

WM: So how should leadership development programs be structured?

Watkins: Companies are trying to help managers understand the real complexities and trade-offs of managing a business. Some are doing this through “niblet learning,” where they give people tools when they have a problem through e-learning. For example, if a manager wants help giving employee performance feedback, they can pull up a few tools and worksheets to help them. There is more action learning. I have worked with Johnson & Johnson for a number of years. They took 100 of their top people in the medical device sector and went through half a dozen business issues and diagnosed the problems and delivered solutions. Those kinds of programs give leaders strategic insight into the business.

WM: What metrics should be used to evaluate leadership development programs?

Watkins: If the core line managers think something is valuable and you can sustain that belief in its value, then it’s worth doing. All the measurement in the world isn’t going to help you if the line doesn’t think it’s important. In the long run, you want to look at whether the organization has a reasonably robust leadership pipeline, meaning that they have a group of candidates for any given position. Companies also want to identify key gaps in the leadership pipeline—where are there choke points and what is the organization doing to address them?

WM: Are leaders today more aware of the importance of ethical behavior?

Watkins: We are in an environment in which ethical lapses have been punished very severely. If you look at the options backdating scandals, there wasn’t really illegality in what they did, but it wasn’t ethical and it wasn’t consistent with business values. Are people being severely punished? Not always, but often. The backdating scandals reveal the extent to which ethical lapses have been a road to ruin for managers, and I think they get it.

WM: But shouldn’t managers have learned this lesson from Enron and WorldCom?

Watkins: I think this is different. It’s hard to think of another example where legal but unethical behavior has been so severely punished. I think this does mark a watershed event, but of course, only time will tell.

Workforce Management, December 11, 2006, p. 11Subscribe Now!

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