The health of your backbone is something most people rarely think about—until it demands their attention. That occurs when there is an unfortunate injury or when their back goes out and they suddenly decide it’s time to pay attention and give their backbone the care and maintenance it sorely needs.
The same can be said for the health and wellness of your organization’s leadership backbone. Your management team, from the front lines up to the executive team, is one of the most critical yet underappreciated parts of your organization. But it’s only when it breaks down, locks up, and doesn’t contribute what it should to the success of your organization that attention is directed there. That’s a major problem.
Let’s explore the analogy in a bit more depth. Think of the C-suite as the “head,” the brains of the organization that sets strategy, vision, and direction for the rest of the company. The frontline workers and individual contributors are the hands and feet, the boots on the ground who execute the vision and strategy. Now, what’s in the middle?
What’s in the middle is your management team. Managers often get a bad rap—comedians make fun of them, they’re maligned in movies and TV sitcoms, and Google even attempted to get rid of them altogether. But the stereotypes couldn’t be further from the truth. Far from being banal bureaucrats, managers actually form the backbone of your organization. Without them, as Google quickly found out, your organization will fall apart.
Why Your Leadership Backbone Matters
Your leadership backbone occupies the sweet spot between C-level leadership and the majority of your employees. It serves as a “nervous system” that constantly receives, interprets, and shares signals from above, then receives, integrates, and delivers feedback from the front lines to the C-suite. It takes great skill to navigate the path between leading and following, as well as agility to pivot quickly between the two while excelling at both.
It’s also where an organization’s culture truly comes to life. Whether managers are cutthroat, rigid, and tough or permissive and easygoing, how they behave dictates how your culture becomes real, day in and day out. If that behavior doesn’t square up with your corporate culture, the misalignment can break an organization.
Your leadership backbone is responsible for implementing the strategy that’s decided by the C-suite. Managers must be able to quickly translate abstract strategy and direction from higher-ups in the organization and then frame, deliver, and delegate that information as day-to-day tasks for their own direct reports so that execution is consistent and aligned throughout the hierarchy.
They must also be able to communicate effectively, listen, teach, empower, guide, inspire, engender trust, elicit engagement, and ensure high performance. It’s important to remember that as much as soft skills like communication, collaboration, delegation, strategic thinking, resilience, and empathy matter, so, too, does technical experience.
A strong leadership backbone must have sufficient functional, practical, and tactical expertise to perform at the appropriate level, critique and guide other contributors, and provide training and development to direct reports.
Your leadership backbone comprises the most valuable talent in your organization. Making sure you take into account and amplify their value can be a major competitive advantage. To do that, you should be looking at all levels for talent that is resilient; is willing to engage; and brings diversity of thought, perspective, and background.
Strengthening Your Leadership Backbone
Because these managers are so important, building a strong leadership backbone should be a core part of any business’s talent acquisition, retention, and development plan. Strengthening that backbone of talent ensures those individuals are ready to take on progressively greater responsibility and leadership in the organization that are key to driving success, regardless of your industry or market.
Building your leadership backbone starts with identifying and hiring high-potential employees at all levels and then working to develop their strengths and retain them long term. One proven way of fortifying your leadership backbone is to develop a method for hiring and development that goes beyond experience and the résumé to identify the right fit for the culture you desire and the right skills profile for your managers.
It’s important to use talent assessment tools to thoroughly assess a candidate’s soft skills and potential, as those capabilities are difficult to draw out via traditional interviewing and résumé reviews. By using preemployment assessment tools, you can develop an objective and nuanced view of your candidates, as well as identify the candidates with the most leadership potential.
It sounds simple enough, but the truth is, it isn’t easy; it takes a determined, concerted effort to be proactive about the process rather than reactive when your business is faced with a key skills gap or a vacant role when an employee leaves or is promoted.
Many organizations get it wrong because they only work on their backbone when it is thrown out of joint. They focus on the wrong elements at the wrong time and fail to identify the right people with the right skills and the potential to grow within the organization. Whether hiring from outside your company or developing and promoting from within, finding talent that nourishes and strengthens your leadership backbone is critical to your organization’s health and success and should be an ongoing practice.
Charlie Atkinson is the CEO of PeopleFactors, a pre-hire assessment solution for finding, hiring, and developing leaders to create the leadership backbone your company needs. Drawing on 20 years of experience advising global corporations, Atkinson specializes in aligning people, processes, and technology to build organizational capability. He has worked in more than 30 countries from Azerbaijan to the US and across a wide range of industries.