Steve Arneson founded Arneson Leadership
Consulting in 2007 to provide executive talent management,
coaching, and leadership development solutions to corporations and
not-for-profit organizations. He was named one of America's Top 100
thought leaders on leadership for 2008, 2009, and 2010 and one of
the country's Top 25 leadership coaches for 2008 & 2009 by
Leadership Excellence magazine. Arneson is the author of
Bootstrap Leadership: 50 Ways to Break Out, Take Charge, and
Move Up, a book about leadership self-development.
Q. You write in your book, "True leaders make everyone
around them better and it starts with role-modeling a passion for
continuous learning and development." How do leaders show that
passion and create a culture for continuous learning and
First of all, you have to share your own development needs and
development plan with your direct reports, your peers, and your
boss. You have to be transparent about what you are working on
yourself. Everybody needs to be working on something. It's natural.
If people don't believe that they have something to work on, then
they are crazy. It starts with sharing and being open.
Next, I think you have to be proactive and relentlessly talking
with your people about their development needs. You have to be
asking them questions. You have to demonstrate that it is important
to you. You have to do all the normal performance management stuff,
but you also have to do the off cycle stuff too. You have to ask
them, "What are you learning? What are you noticing? What can I do
to help you?" You have to be a really good manager and help them
craft their development plans.
Third, you have to be talking about development all the time. Any
chance you get - at meetings or at large public addresses - you
need to be weaving in this notion that it is important to be
growing, developing, and learning. Richard Fairbank, my CEO at
Capitol One, makes a great example of this. He always talked about
lifelong learning in just about every speech he ever gave. It was
hard to miss that he considered it important for you to be working
on something. You have to be constantly talking about development.
The fourth thing is you have to coach or mentor. You have to
practice what you preach. For example, you have made it a point to
help them develop goals; you have to be talking about those goals
and offer counsel and advice on those goals.
Q. What are the most critical competencies that leaders
must possess and why?
The first thing that leaders have to do is create the vision,
purpose, and meaning. It is a leader's job to say, "Here's where we
are going and why." I call it a mission, purpose, and meaning. The
second thing that leaders have to do is build the team (your direct
reports) - that means hiring, shaping, and crafting the team of
people who are going to make that mission come alive.
The third thing that leaders must do is create the strategy - the
how. They have to bring that mission alive. Leaders do that with
their team - they roll their sleeves up and lead the team through
the implementation. I never liked leaders who gave me the strategy
- I wanted to be part of crafting it.
Fourth, leaders must delegate and empower. Once the strategy is
set, leaders must make sure that everyone has meaningful and
challenging work and get out of their way.
The fifth step is to evaluate, give feedback, and coach. It is a
leader's job to guide, help, give feedback, and put it in a
positive frame of reference. The final competency is to reward and
This is a cycle that starts with establishing the vision, purpose,
and meaning and then moving through the six steps until you start
Q. Most people underestimate their weaknesses and
overestimate their strengths. How do leaders take an honest
assessment of their strengths and weaknesses?
The process that we have used for the last 25 years in our field is
360 degree feedback. I don't think anything is better. You can do a
formal 360, an online tool, or use an executive coach, but you can
also do it informally. Leaders can ask people, "How am I doing?"
Self evaluating your own strengths and weakness is a bit of a
fallacy or flawed game. If leaders are not asking others how they
are showing up as a leader, how they are coming across to the
company, what their leadership brand is, or how did the
presentation go, I think they are missing the boat. The easiest way
to get a clear picture of your strengths or opportunities (I don't
usually call them weaknesses) is to ask people. You have to ask the
people who see you and live with you every day. You have to be
sincere with that request because people won't tell you the truth
if you are not sincere.
CEOs who have the best brands within their associations are the
ones who role model this process. They are asking the question,
"How am I doing?" If leaders are not asking that question, they
won't get a true picture of what they need to work on. It is a
simple question, but it is a great reminder for all of us that we
have to get out there and seek input.
Q. There is a lot of mistrust with today's leaders. How do
they begin to regain the trust of their employees and
That is a great question, especially when you add customers into
the mix. Some clear steps are involved here. First, leaders have to
outline a vision and a strategy - here's where we are going and
here is how we are going to get there. That has to be clear, and
they have to be doing it constantly. Then, leaders must set clear
goals that people can understand.
The second step is to set clear goals and tell people how the goals
will be accomplished. That is what BP probably didn't do very well.
Every day we read in the paper about a new trial they were going to
attempt - it would have been nice if the leaders of BP would have
said, "We are going to try these things in sequence."
The third step is leaders must be transparent. They must be able to
talk about failures and successes. When Tylenol thought there was
tampering, they pulled the product off the shelves. You have to be
honest with your customers.
The fourth step is leaders must follow through. People will give
leaders the first three, but if they don't follow through, the
vultures will start to circle.
And finally, leaders must be clear about tough messaging. Leaders
must admit, "That didn't work. Now we are on to Plan B."
People lose trust if they can't connect what leaders are doing to
what they said they would do.
Q. How does the leader of BP save face?
I believe that there is a dearth of straight talk in politics and
corporations that I frankly don't understand. I really wish that
President Obama or the CEO of BP would just tell it like it is. I
would love to see BP CEO Tony Hayward step up to the microphone and
say, "You know what, this is much bigger than we thought it was. We
are not prepared. We've screwed up, but we are going to do the
following things to correct this. This isn't going to be solved in
a day." You never really hear that kind of straight talk.
I would love to hear President Obama say something like this about
the war in Afghanistan: "Look folks, here's the deal" - literally
saying those words. You never really hear that kind of talk, and I
don't know why. I feel like it would go over better with Middle
America. There is a simplification of a message that is missing
from this political speak that we get from our leaders. It
Q. Does the message have to be different for the customer
than for the employee?
I don't think it should be different. I think leaders want their
employees to hear how they are talking to customers. I think
leaders get into trouble when they start crafting separate messages
on a topic for different constituencies. Leaders should speak to
one and all. I would hate to see leaders tell one thing to
employees and another thing to customers.
There is an old adage that I live by, "If you just tell the truth,
things will go a lot easier." We tell our kids this all the time,
"The truth is the easiest thing to remember." It is the easiest
thing to communicate." Although, a lot of companies missed that
I do think some of the recalls are examples of where you've seen it
handled the best. Toyota did a bad job of it, but Johnson and
Johnson, with the Tylenol scare in the late 1970s, did a good job.
They were very clear about their messaging. This example gets
written up in business books under the heading, "Straight talk won
the day." I just don't understand why we haven't seen it from Enron
Q. Is there something in our leadership development that
has gone awry?
That is an excellent question. Integrity and honesty are hard
things to teach in leadership development classes. Some people
think "you have it or you don't." I would tend to agree with that.
It is hard to open up someone's head and dump in five pints of
integrity. It shows that in stressful situations, someone's true
character comes out. Often leaders want to be more transparent, but
they get talked out of it. The litigation society contributes to
some of the cloudy messaging that we hear.
Q. Edward Betof invites leaders into the classroom as
teachers to lend credibility to the strategies and goals of the
companies, show passion for learning, and promote the learning
culture. What are your thoughts on this concept and how should
leaders approach the leaders-as-teachers concept?
I am a huge proponent of leaders as teachers. In all of the
leadership development programs that I have helped design, the
leaders-as-teachers concept is a core element of what we do. It is
leadership development for the leader to have to prepare his
thoughts and point of view for the class. You are actually getting
dual development happening at the same time.
I think it should begin with the leader's journey. It is nice if
the participants can learn a little bit more about the senior
leader when they enter the classroom, so I always have him do a
slide on his journey - here is where I started, here is where I
came from, here is the lesson I learned there. I do think it is an
opportunity for leaders to personalize themselves.
I always encourage leaders to tell stories - corporate success
stories or failures - because that is the way messages sink in. It
humanizes the leader. I also tell them to take lots of questions,
and visit with their high potentials. People want to spend time
It is one of the best ways to align the participants with what the
organization is trying to do.
Steve Arneson was interviewed by Paula Ketter,
editor of ASTD periodicals; firstname.lastname@example.org .