How to Give Every Employee Customized Leadership Advice

How to Give Every Employee Customized Leadership Advice

By Marcus Buckingham –

Virtually every corporate and academic leadership development program is founded on the same model — we call it the formulaic model. It tries to collect all the various approaches to leadership, shaves off the weird outliers, and packages the rest into a formula. The notion behind all this is simple: The right way to lead is out there. A best-practice model exists. Once we discover it and turn it into a formula, development is just a matter of bringing you in line with that formula.

We need a new model — one that is scalable but accommodates the uniqueness of each leader’s techniques; one that is stable enough to permit the training of hundreds of leaders at once but dynamic enough to incorporate and distribute new practices and other innovations in real time.

But is that possible? The answer is yes. Over the past couple of years, many organizations have begun doing just that. The effort at Hilton Worldwide’s focused-service brands — Hampton, Homewood Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, and Home2 Suites — is a good example. My company worked with Phil Cordell, the head of those brands, to create an algorithmic model of leadership development and an app that sustains personalized learning.

We started by creating a tool for identifying each person’s leadership type. That type then became the filter through which some, though not all, leadership development content is delivered. We designed an algorithm within StandOut, our online strengths-assessment tool. StandOut is a situational judgment test, meaning that people indicate their likeliest response to a series of situations. By focusing on behaviors, this type of test captures how people come across to others better than assessments that ask respondents to rate themselves on a variety of traits.

Then, we gave the assessment to the company’s best leaders. Our analysis showed that the range of behaviors seen across those thousands of people could be divided into nine categories, which we call strength roles. These represent the most common ways specific strengths cluster and combine in individual leaders. Next, we interviewed a cross section of leaders to discover their leadership techniques.

This is where the algorithm comes in. You can use an algorithm to target techniques to the right people. Companies should assess all developing leaders and feed each one practices derived from excellent leaders who have the same leadership type.

Our algorithm draws on a constantly growing database of concepts, innovations, and practices and pushes them out to leaders as a series of techniques they might try. Because the suggestions reflect only what has worked for others who “look like” the recipients, they accelerate creativity without eroding authenticity.

Results may show up quickly. Kevin, a Hampton general manager in Atlanta, found that this was the case for one of the hotel’s key metrics, a measure of guest satisfaction known as SALT (Service and Loyalty Tracking). Soon after assessing individual strengths on the management and front-desk teams and targeting suggested techniques accordingly, the hotel saw the SALT score for front-desk helpfulness rise by 4.8%, while the overall service score rose by 3.7%.

New knowledge evaporates if it isn’t reinforced. Realizing this, Phil Cordell charged us and the Hampton brand team with sustaining the learning at Hampton’s 1,850 hotels by developing a web application for laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Twice a week the app feeds new techniques, in video and text format, from top-performing general managers to other leaders.

When devising the app, we relied on certain principles. We wanted every communication to be:

    • Short. Each technique is delivered as a staccato burst. Some commentators believe that society’s fascination with alerts, updates, and tweets is harmful, raising levels of distraction and shortening attention spans. We think the causal arrow points the other way: People like alerts, updates, and tweets precisely because the brain is built to pay more attention to short, frequent stimuli than to sustained input.
    • Personalized. Although the algorithm ensures that most of the techniques someone receives come from leaders whose strengths match his, occasionally the app delivers techniques from leaders with different sorts of strengths, both to add surprise and to avoid the echo-chamber effect.
    • Interactive. After receiving a technique, an employee can either “ditch” it or “bank” it. Those that are ditched disappear, and those that are banked are stored in an ever-growing idea vault of the leader’s own making, where they can be organized and “favorited” for later use.

If you’re a Hampton team member, every Tuesday and Thursday the app delivers a new tip to your inbox, and you decide how to react. You might put it into practice right away. David recently received this tip: “Cultural differences are never an excuse for not getting along. People will default to culture to explain rocky exchanges. More often than not, the issue is tied to something far simpler and more pragmatic. Get people back to the table to work it out. You will excel at this kind of pragmatism.” As it happened, David had been avoiding a sensitive issue within his team. The tip jolted him to step up as a leader and give the team suggestions about how to come together and move forward.

The tip might even resonate so strongly that you’d wish to have it tattooed on your forehead. Jean received this tip: “Your presence fills a room. If you’re having a good day, everyone feels it and is buoyed by it. If not, the opposite happens—you drag your people down. On those days, don’t fake it — they won’t buy it. Instead, take a break and get out of the office, or stay in your office and shut the door until you’ve rekindled your energy.” Jean’s reaction? “I banked it and keep watching it,” she says. “First thing in the morning, I flip it on. I need constant reminding of the emotional impact I have on my people.”

Lastly, we made the system dynamically intelligent. Intrinsic to the notion of a personalization algorithm is that it must get to know you better over time. With every interaction, the app adds detail to your leadership profile. As you rate the effectiveness of the techniques you receive, the system tracks your reactions and becomes smarter about which techniques to feed you. As the sample size of leaders, techniques, and reactions grows, this two-way communication channel should become as good as the very best consumer recommendation engine at offering content that is relevant to you.

It will not turn you into a Richard Branson or a Warren Buffett, a Steve Jobs or a Sheryl Sandberg. It will do something much more valuable: help you become the great leader that is you.

This blog post was excerpted from Marcus Buckingham’s article “Leadership Development in the Age of the Algorithm” in the June issue of the magazine.

Marcus BuckinghamMarcus Buckingham

Marcus Buckingham is the founder of TMBC, a company that builds strengths-based tools and training for managers. He is the author of several WSJ and NYT bestsellers, including his latest book and accompanying strengths assessment, StandOut: Find your Edge, Win at Work.

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