Leaders Must Learn by Doing

By Bill Leonard Jun 24, 2008
CHICAGO—When students arrive at the Harvard University Business School in hopes of becoming successful and innovative business leaders, one of the first things business school professors tell them is: “We can’t teach you to be a leader; you have to learn how to become a leader.”

“It comes as a bit of shock sometimes when we tell them that, especially after they’ve just handed over their tuition,” said Linda Hill, Ph.D., a professor with the Harvard Business School and featured speaker at the SHRM Masters Series session held here on June 23. “Leadership skills cannot be taught; instead, they must be learned through your life experiences.”

Hill has analyzed a variety of businesses throughout the world and focused on how these businesses develop talent and engender innovation. During her in-depth presentation, she discussed several businesses that are building innovative work teams by tapping into the “collective genius” of the organization.

Although business terms go in and out of fashion constantly, two of the hottest and most used terms right now are “talent and engagement,” Hill said.

“For businesses to be successful and compete in today’s market, they must have talent that is engaged. The real art of leadership is creating a world that other people want to belong to,” she said.

She pointed to the example of HCL Technologies, a global information technology company based in India. At the suggestion of a colleague, Hill traveled to India to work with HCL’s management and learn about the company’s new initiative called “Employees First, Customers Second.”

Hill said that most business leaders might cringe at the idea of putting customers second but the logic behind HCL’s program is that businesses must first have loyal employees to build customer loyalty.

“Employee loyalty leads to customer loyalty, which in turn leads to shareholder loyalty,” Hill said. “HCL’s first step in the process is now to focus on employees, and they are very transparent about it.”

Hill said that HCL’s commitment to transparency means they are very upfront and let their customers know that they come in second.

“It’s something that [HCL CEO] Vineet Nayar is very comfortable doing, because his company is committed to the idea and making it come true,” Hill said.

HCL is in the middle of making this transition and is working on the first phase of the plan, Hill said. However, the initial results have been promising. Two of HCL’s goals in the next five years were to have 100,000 employees worldwide and to move up from being the No. 5 IT services firm in India.

“HCL has grown and now has 46,000 employees, so they’re nearly halfway to one of those goals,” Hill said. “The company is also much more competitive in its market and has captured some large contracts that two or three years ago they would’ve had no chance of getting.”

Hill said that one of the keys to having innovative work teams was to have leaders who are what she described as “T-shaped,” or have deep knowledge or skills at one point and are broad across the top with good knowledge about the entire organization.

She added that possibly the most overlooked and misunderstood quality of a good leader is generosity.

“Leaders who give credit to others are many times misunderstood by others in the organization,” she said. “I have heard CEOs tell managers that they will never get ahead by letting others shine. But good leadership and the most innovative leaders tend to be people who are comfortable getting out of the way and allowing people to reach their full potential.”

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM Online.

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