Want to build better leaders? Focus on mindset, skills, knowledge

Too many companies fail to see the potential of their best middle managers—and lose them to other firms. Hise Gibson and Shawnette Rochelle offer a framework for helping these promising leaders grow

Published: Dec 21, 2021 04:33:06 PM IST
Updated: Dec 29, 2021 03:12:56 PM IST

Want to build better leaders? Focus on mindset, skills, knowledgeThe foundational level of the MSK Leader Development Framework pyramid targets a leader’s mindset, in particular, the beliefs that orient the way we handle situations and sort out what is going on.
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Middle management used to be the place where careers stalled, but the Covid-19 pandemic has turned that notion on its head. In fact, mid-level leaders possess more agency now than at any other time in recent history.

The tight job market is opening up new opportunities for capable middle managers who show initiative. The old saying “people don’t leave organizations; people leave people” has never been truer. Companies that don’t tangibly show that they value their best people—by developing their skills and helping them reach their full potential—will lose them, perhaps to competitors.

Unfortunately, many organizations lack a strong development culture. They view leader development as a tactical issue instead of a strategic imperative. In contrast, companies with strong development cultures invest in their middle managers, increasing their leadership capacity. These companies put leaders on the path to lean into more responsibility and more complex programs, projects, or initiatives.

What is leadership capacity?

At its root, leadership capacity is what the leader can do. Companies tend to gauge capacity based on leaders’ technical execution of tasks, but that perspective overlooks foundational elements that help these professionals reach a higher level—the T-shaped leader.

What is a T-shaped leader? In this development model, the vertical line of the T represents depth of expertise, and the horizontal line reflects broadening experiences aimed at preparing the individual for enterprise-level leadership. The goal is to build technical competencies in both directions. While the T-shaped manager framework has many advantages, it has a critical flaw: It overlooks the importance of emotional intelligence.

Enter the MSK Leader Development Framework. This approach builds on the Day, Harrison, and Halpin’s view of leader development, which argues that improving leaders’ knowledge, skill, and attitudes will increase their capacity. The pyramid shaped MSK Framework takes these principles a step further, offering organizations a way to apply these three principles:

Want to build better leaders? Focus on mindset, skills, knowledge


M: Mindset. The foundational level of the MSK Leader Development Framework pyramid targets a leader’s mindset, in particular, the beliefs that orient the way we handle situations and sort out what is going on. In order to assess what a leader can do and build additional capacity, the organization must create the space for the leader to gain clarity about conscious and unconscious beliefs they hold. An understanding of those beliefs and how they inform actions is critical to understanding different perspectives and thinking more broadly.

S: Skills. The middle tier of the pyramid addresses a leader’s skills. Conventional thinking considers skills merely a person’s abilities. In the MSK Framework, the skills level seeks to answer the question: Who are you as a leader? Emotional intelligence reigns supreme here. Leader development work around skills presents both the leader and the organization the opportunity to assess whether the leader is flexible, resilient, adaptable, empathetic, and self-aware, among other qualities. The results of those assessments can shape the actions that grow the leader’s capacity. Investment in this tier empowers leaders to engage in critical conversations and develop their direct reports.

K: Knowledge.
The top tier of the Framework considers a leader’s knowledge. Knowledge includes the leader’s technical training, socialization, and executing abilities. Some organizations focus on this tier at the expense of the previous ones, but a shift in perspective can produce significant results, particularly for middle managers. Whereas the T-shaped model emphasizes technical competencies in the vertical and horizontal axes, the MSK Leader Development Framework assumes that leaders are technically competent and will continue to grow. Investment in the mindset and skills tiers, however, is not a given. Making that investment enables leaders to fully bring to bear their knowledge on behalf of the organization. The self-awareness created by the exploration of their mindset and the ability to self-regulate that comes from examining their skills puts leaders in a place of greater agency that allows them to more fully deliver their Knowledge.

Implementation of the Framework

How can organizations translate the MSK Framework into concrete actions? Here are a few suggestions for those seeking to invest in their leaders.

Cultivate the leaders’ mindset. To begin exploring and cultivating a leader’s mindset, organizations should shift from “telling” to “inquiring.” Directive dialogue teaches your direct reports about how you think. Inquiry creates the opportunity for your direct reports to slow down and gain insight into how they think. When you engage with direct reports, inquire about the beliefs that underpin their assumptions. Avoid questions that begin with “why,” as they tend to place people on the defensive and stifle dialogue. Instead, ask questions that begin with “how” or “what.” For instance, “What assumptions lead you to that conclusion?” Based on their response, continue to explore their answers from a place of curiosity, not judgment. At times, this will likely require some emotional self-regulation on your part.

Facilitate the exploration of skills.
Organizations should invite leaders to identify no more than two areas in the emotional intelligence domain on which they would like to focus. The areas selected will offer greater insight into the question: Who are you as a leader? For example, if the individual wants to become more adaptable, the organization can seek opportunities for them to lead early-stage initiatives that will likely change often. During periodic assessments, organizations can ask leaders:

  •     What are they noticing in themselves?
  •     How have they responded to evolving events?
  •     How do they use those insights as they lead their teams?
  •     How do they want to respond to the next challenge they encounter?

Harness knowledge. The work done at this tier is the culmination of the progress made in the two previous tiers and the execution of their technical duties. Leaders with sufficient technical training can always access specific know-how to deliver, but whether that delivery meets the moment for the organization depends on the work done in the mindset and skills tiers.

To further explore the knowledge tier with your leaders, ask questions that allow them to make connections between all three tiers. For example, when leaders provide briefings of their projects, their performance reflects their development in the knowledge tier. Questions that then explore their executing abilities through the lens of mindset and skills invites them to recognize how the growth in those areas applies to their technical performance.

Next Steps in MSK

Organizations establish the conditions for reaching a leader’s full potential. The MSK Leader Development Framework is not meant to remain in the conceptual domain; it is designed to be put into practice. Implementation facilitates the necessary shift from “telling” leaders what to do to “inquiring” about the thinking that informs their decision-making. This work will ultimately lay the foundation for both leader and organizational growth.

Hise O. Gibson is a senior lecturer in the Technology and Operations Management Unit at Harvard Business School. Shawnette Rochelle is an executive coach and president of the firm Excellence Unbounded.

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[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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