How to Improve Your Leadership DNA

an article by David Simmonds
Every organization has a unique leadership DNA, and it is perfectly designed for the results the enterprise achieves.

My 24 years of experience as an organizational and leadership consultant and coach has convinced me that it is an organization's leadership DNA that ultimately determines whether the enterprise will fail or thrive.

In this article, the first in a series, I offer you a six-part framework for strengthening your organization's leadership DNA.

Element # 1

Develop Your Organization's Leadership DNA

The place to begin strengthening your leadership DNA is to discover your organization's existing leadership reality. Are you serious about developing leaders? Here, courtesy of Noel Tichy and his book, The Leadership Engine, is a short quiz you can take to see how your company rates.

Never   Sometimes   Always
1 2 3 4 5

1 In our company, leaders are selected for promotions and assignment based on their ability to develop others. _______
2 We assess and differentiate levels of performance for how well people develop leaders _______
3 Our leaders are committed to and effective at giving honest and constructive feedback on performance and potential. _______
4 Our leaders are skilled at mentoring and coaching their people. _______
5 Rewards are allocated to motivate people to develop other leaders. _______
6 Training and development boosts people's ability to develop other leaders. _______
7 Our development and career planning provides information about an individuals ability to teach and lead others. _______
8 When people are selected for a new position, they receive training and development that prepares them to teach and lead in their new role. _______
  TOTAL _______

If you circled 1’s for each of these questions, you are not in a company where leaders develop other leaders – or if they do, they do so in spite of the company. If you scored a 5, you are probably in an organization with a leadership engine – where leadership at all levels is valued and leaders make it an important part of their mission to develop other leaders. Companies like Syncrude Canada Ltd., GE, Intel and the United States Special Operations Forces are great examples. In these organizations, leaders are encouraged to teach and are rewarded for it.

Consider your scores and write the implications for your organization below.

Element # 2

Appoint Your CEO as "Chief Talent Officer" & Custodian of the Succession Plan

Recently, the CEO in an organization I consult to said to me, "In every strategy session we have held recently we agreed that winning the war for talent is the key to our future performance. If it is really that important, why do I only address the issue once or twice a year? That is going to change! I have just appointed myself Chief Talent Officer. I have just delegated some other parts of my job so that I can spend time ensuring that we have the processes in place to win the war for talent."

Element # 3

Competency Modeling - Knowing What Effective Leadership Looks Like

This third element of the framework is based on the following assumption, an assertion I make at the outset of the leadership workshops I deliver:

Every organization has a unique leadership DNA, and it is perfectly designed for the results the enterprise achieves.

While we don't know what new challenges leaders will face in the future, the research of Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger, and the work of James Kouzes and Barry Posner, and others demonstrates that the competency model for leadership effectiveness and credibility has remained constant for generations. The data is consistent. Leadership failures are principally caused by the lack of the soft skills, people management skills.

We don't have to guess at what it is that makes a leader someone that others will willingly follow, someone to whom followers will volunteer their discretionary effort, creativity and passion. Kouzes and Posner have convinced me that exemplary leaders are those who:

  • challenge the process
  • inspire a shared vision
  • enable others to act
  • model the way
  • encourage the heart

As indicated in Figure 2, their research demonstrates that the characteristics of admired leaders don't change much over time.

Figure 1
Characteristics of Admired Leaders

% of People Selecting

% of People Selecting

Honest 87 83
Forward-looking 71 62
Inspiring 68 58
Competent 58 67
Fair-minded 49 40
Supportive 46 32
Broad-minded 41 37
Intelligent 38 43
Straightforward 34 34
Courageous 33 27
Dependable 32 32

The Corporate Leadership Council has just published the results of a comprehensive survey, The Voice of the Leader, which clarified and confirmed that People Management - as distinct from Strategic Management and Process Management - is the primary determinant of organizational effectiveness. The Survey identified the most significant People Management attributes of a leader as:

  • clearly communicating expectations
  • recognizing and rewarding achievement
  • inspiring others
  • persuading and encouraging others to move in a desired direction
  • holding people accountable

So, the third element of the framework requires that you develop a competency model that includes the right soft skills.

Element # 4

Listen to Jim Collins - "First Who, Then What"

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins says that Great organizations practice "First who then what." Even before they develop their strategy, they make sure that they have "The right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats on the bus, and the wrong people off the bus." When you are hiring from outside or promoting employees to leadership roles it is critically important that you hire to a carefully crafted competency model.

Element # 5

Choose Wisely - Not All Leadership Development Programs Are Created Equal

Thanks to the Survey, we now know which of the many leadership development interventions give you the most traction on the road to strengthening your leadership DNA. The Survey data are depicted in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Amount of decision-making authority. 1
Creating leadership development plans.  2
Interacting with peers.  3
Meeting with an executive coach.  4
Meeting with a mentor.  5
Feedback.  6
Turning around a struggling business.  7
People-management skills courses.   8
Working in new functional areas.  9
Working in foreign countries.  10
Working in new lines of business.  11
Launching a new business.  12
Number of direct reports.   13
Quality of direct reports.   14
Off-site seminars in business skills.  15
Technical skills courses.  16
Business skills courses.   17

Armed with this ranking, you can choose the activities that will give you the most traction, such as:

  • giving your thoroughbreds increased decision-making authority
  • ensuring that every leader and future leader has a Leadership Development Plan and stewards to her or his Sponsor
  • offering executive coaching
  • teaching everyone in the organization how to give and receive formal and informal feedback, and implementing formal feedback processes
  • providing people-management skills courses

Your Chief Talent Officer needs to ensure that these initiatives are seen as priorities and that the necessary nourishment is available.

Element # 6

Reward & Recognize Leaders Who Develop Leaders

Clearly, your organization's reward system - perhaps framed around the Balanced Scorecard Concept - needs to provide rewards and recognition to those who demonstrate their commitment to being a part of the Leadership Engine.

Strengthening your organization's leadership DNA is a journey, not a sprint. It took GE 10 years to change its leadership DNA.

Come to think of it, so is strengthening your leadership DNA, or mine.

If you stop learning today, you stop leading tomorrow.
Howard Hendricks


You are welcome to reprint these articles as long as the following quotation is printed at the conclusion of each reprinted article. Hyperlinks as below must be included in the quotation.

Barb McEwen is a Master Executive Coach and Organizational Strategist who works with corporations and individuals worldwide. As founder of 20/20 Executive Coaching and 20/20 Executive Women she has spent the past twelve years working with high potential individuals to help them hone their leadership and management skills. Contact Barb at