Leadership Versatility

How being versatile makes for good leadership – at any level

The word versatile  is defined as ‘embracing a variety of subjects, fields, or skills’ and if this makes you think of the old adage ‘Jack of all trades and master of none’, you are not alone. Studies have shown that despite outwardly wanting versatile employees, recruiters are only paying lip service to the word and when push comes to shove, those candidates with a variety of skills and disciplines are often overlooked in favour of those with a more singular, specific, career path. I remember too, on graduating as a new coach many years back, being told to ‘find your niche and stick with it’. In other words, pick a particular area for coaching and stay with it. Whilst the advice didn’t sit well with me, I thought it best to follow it, as even management textbooks extol the virtue of niche marketing. I wonder how many of you were given similar advice when starting out on your chosen career? I also wonder how it’s working out for you in this disrupted, complex, Covid world? If this current pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the world of work as we knew it, has long gone. For many, the hard reality is the long hours spent building a specific career have come to nought as their roles have been reduced or made redundant completely. Another part to the versatile definition is ‘turning with ease from one thing to another’ and those who had, either by design or by accident, built their versality range, are more likely to find new roles and quite possibly in completely different industries to where they once were.

The second part of the versatility definition is key to exponential leadership growth, at whatever level you may find yourself within an organisation and the good news is that versatility, like many other key leadership attributes, can be developed. Being versatile is more than just being adaptable and flexible. Robert Kaiser, in his HBR article [March 2020] titled, ‘The Best Leaders are Versatile Ones’, defines versatility as ‘the capacity to read and respond to change with a wide repertoire of complementary skills and behaviours’. He goes further to explain that it’s about being able to hold the complexity of how you lead, i.e. how you behave when interacting with others, and what you lead, which refers to the organisational issues, like strategy and operations, that need to be focused on. An adaptation of his explanation is shown on the continuum below:

Leadership Styles:Leadership Styles:
Empathic leaderStrategic leader
Consultative leaderDirective leader
Empowering leaderOperational leader
Skill Set:Skill Set:
Empathy and compassionStrategic thinker
Ability to bring out the best in peopleProcess oriented
Encourage growth and explorationExecution focus – get the job done
Collaborative decision makingDecisive and take charge

The challenge with versatility comes in with our very normal human tendency to stick with what we’re good at and comfortable with. Most leaders have a default way of being, resulting in a default focus and a default set of skills or strengths. In Kaiser’s research, he shares that leaders are five times more likely to use behaviours that are related to their strengths when other behaviours would be more effective. Playing to our strengths is an important way to build leadership capacity, however a strength overused can become our weakness as we become reliant on that which we believe we’re good at and stop challenging ourselves to develop additional skills. In this way, our leadership ability is limited, and we may find our career trajectory levelling off.

So what are some of the ways in which we can build our versatility? Kaiser suggests three broad strategies:

  1. Actively seek out different work experiences. Put your hand up for a project that you know nothing about. Don’t be afraid to start at the bottom again. Observe leaders that you admire and compare your skill set to theirs. Work at developing the skills in the gap.
  2. Willingly seek out feedback, on a regular basis. Ask colleagues, peers, subordinates and managers for specific feedback on your strengths and input on your development areas. Check in often around what you are doing well and what you could do differently for a more effective result. Action all valid feedback and ask for feedback on your actions.
  3. Work on yourself. Check your biases and viewpoints. Challenge yourself to have conversations with those who hold opposing views and really listen to their opinions. Develop a growth mindset and a sense of curiosity.  Become a life-long learner. Get a coach!

The more versatile a leader is, the better their ability to move seamlessly up and down the People / Organisation continuum, thus providing strong and successful leadership which is so hugely important in our world of never-ending change. A true versatile leader will be recognised as a ‘Jill of all trades and a mistress of many’!

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