act insight 1: Leadership Development for Professional Service Organizations

logoThis is the first in a series of act insight White Papers on Leadership and Change.

Click here for full PDF: ACT White Paper – Emerging Leaders final

Purpose of White Paper:

The purpose of this paper is to highlight some of the challenges Managers face when making the transition into a leadership position and provide insights into how they  overcame them. It is based on research that includes interviews with over 20 leaders worldwide that have gone through at least one major transition, focusing on the effectiveness of Leadership Development programs. It is also based on Mike Hutchins’s 20 years of experience working on large global change initiatives as well as web research.
Based on this research, we have created a story through which to illustrate the impact that a Leadership Program had on Todd White, the fictional character in this story. The questionnaire was structured around ACT Leadership’s role-based approach to this transition, as outlined below.

Role Shift Transition Description

Aspirant to Role Model: How Leaders become role models and aware of their impact. How they develop range, intuition and emotional intelligence and are able to inspire, invoke change rather than manage and control.

Tactician to Systems Thinker: How Leaders learn to think more expansively and critically, becoming aware of underlying assumptions and patterns and creating systemic rather than symptomatic solutions.

Expert to Generalist: How Leaders transition from functional expertise to a broader range of skills, knowing when to trust others and intervene.
Todd’s transition is told in three acts:
ACT 1 is about Todd’s character, his background, leadership style and relationship with subordinates, peers and superiors. This is from the position of him as Controller at FWG.

ACT 2 is the transition from Controller to SVP, his first six months in his new role and his learning from the Leadership Development Program (his 360 Leadership Assessment, first Coaching session and first Leadership Workshop).

ACT 3 looks at Todd after the Leadership Program, how he has changed and the impact at FWG. We see how Todd becomes more self-aware of his limiting beliefs that he recognizes will not serve him in this transition to becoming a Leader. We witness how he manages to unlock these assumptions and achieve both personal and professional transformation. We see how the investment that Synthetica PLC makes in leadership development pays huge dividends.

Act 1: Todd White

Todd, 30, joined Synthetica PLC (a fictional company) 3 years ago after successfully completing is Chartered Accountancy qualification with one of the big 4 Accounting firms, BWG. He spent his first year in Group Finance, at Head Office in Manchester before moving to Austria and taking a role as Financial Controller with one of their large subsidiaries, FWG.

Attitude to staff
Todd was a workaholic. He defined himself by his work. He believed that in order for him to be successful, he needed to be perfect. He had a team of 32. He tended not to trust his team and consequently would make changes to their work, often without telling them or providing feedback. Because of this he felt they needed to be constantly supervised. His natural predisposition was to feel more comfortable with numbers than with people. Todd discouraged his team from spending time outside of the Finance Dept. He set performance targets that discouraged cross-functional collaboration.
Outside of work his direct reports complained that they didn’t really know Todd, he didn’t solicit their input or communicate what his expectations were. He always assumed that they would mess up and he would have to go in and fix it. He had recruited staff that was largely sycophantic in nature and no threat to his position. The Finance Dept. had a reputation for being insular, siloed and unhelpful.
Attitude to peers and superiors

Todd was stereotyped as being a typical Accountant, internally focused, more interested in cost than value. Todd believed he had got to Controller position because of his intellect, Accountancy qualification, hard work and ability to manage costs. His relationships with his peers were strictly rational and professional. He was regarded by his peers as someone who did not attempt to learn the business and lived in “Fortress Finance”. He had a hardline in to the CFO for Europe and had a dotted line to Ulrich, the Austrian CEO. Consequently he felt protected by Group, as only they could fire him. As long as quarterly returns were in on time and accurate, he was.
Todd had done his Myers Briggs profile when he joined Synthetica PLC. His results were: ISTJ:
“Their primary mode of living is focused internally, where they take things in via your five
senses in a literal, concrete fashion. Their secondary mode is external, where they deal with
things rationally and logically. They will resist putting energy into things which don’t make
sense to them, or for which they can’t see a practical application. They prefer to work

ACT 2: Transition: From Controller to SVP

Todd was hugely ambitious. He was mainly driven by his peer group from BWG and Synthetica PLC. Promotion and high expectations were all he had ever known. He had outgrown his role as Controller and now wanted to a fresh challenge. Executives in Head Office were keen to give him a chance to
progress into a leadership position. He had been identified early on as a future leader of Synthetica. It
helped that FWG’s performance had fallen dramatically in the past two years, so Head Office decided to fire the incumbent SVP and promote Todd into his position with immediate effect.

From Controller to VP

There were many challenges facing Todd in his promotion to SVP of FWG. Firstly, he was not particularly well liked by the rest of the Austrian leadership team. Aside from the cultural differences, he was seen as cold, ambitious and an “insider” brought in by Head Office. Consequently there was little trust from either side.
Todd applied the only tactic that he knew and that had previously worked for him. He summoned his leadership team to his office to exert his positional authority.  He explained his strategy purely in financial terms, not mentioning customers or employees. It was a onedirectional discussion fuelled by his own insecurity. He tended to spend most of his time where he was most comfortable. He struggled letting go of his controlling tendencies and did not give the new Finance Controller, his successor, free reign. As a result, the new Controller quit after two months and Todd had to manage this role until he could find a replacement. As he had recruited a team that was no threat to him, none of the team was up to the task.
Performance continued to deteriorate. Their second largest customer that contributed to 10% of FWG’s
revenue, decided to take their business elsewhere. The FWG Sales Director quit. One other customer filed a lawsuit against them, accusing them of contamination. The HR Director resigned, emailing everyone in FWG in her leaving email that she did not believe in Todd. Her exit interview was scathing. His PA also resigned.

Todd had no idea about who to replace these positions. He hadn’t met any of the HR or Sales team and because of his recruiting style as Controller; there was no one up to the task. He decided to look outside and saw this as an opportunity to reduce costs by recruiting less experienced staff. He would continue as Acting Controller, so he could demonstrate his ability to multi-task and take on more work. This was how he saw himself and expected the rest of the leadership team to do the same. Do more with the same,
after all, a 10% fall in revenue would need an equal reduction in costs. He decided to shut down 3 non-performing branches and all discretionary expenses, including the Christmas Party (that he didn’t want to attend anyway) and non-mandatory training.
It didn’t take long for the news to get back to Head Office. Todd’s fear of failure started to overwhelm him. He had no one to turn to. He couldn’t share this with his peers in Head Office; he would be exposing his weaknesses to them. He noticed for the first time he wasn’t telling the truth, aggressively defending his position and blaming others. If he couldn’t control it, it was someone else’s problem. The meeting didn’t go well. Synthetica PLC prided itself on authenticity, transparency and trust. It was clear to them Todd was not living these values. They realized he was out of control and either needed support or moved. In the spirit of transparency, they shared this with Todd. It was the first time he had confronted failure of any kind and was very hard for him to take. They offered him the opportunity to attend a Leadership Development program and have a personal Coach. Todd reluctantly accepted, knowing he had no choice.
The Leadership Development program
It was a struggle for Todd to make time to attend the first week of his 12 month Leadership Program. He was exhausted. How am I supposed to run a business when I have to attend these courses? he thought to himself. The program was for 12 months. Over that period, he would complete a Leadership 360
Assessment, have 20 coaching sessions and attend 5 Leadership workshops on a range of different topics. There would also a number of books and webinars that he was expected to read.

360 Leadership Assessment

Todd had not taken 360’s seriously in the past and certainly didn’t value the feedback from his subordinates. He did not welcome receiving feedback from his leadership team at FWG, although was curious and somewhat anxious about what the Executives would have to say.
He took the Leadership Circle Profile, the most professional, comprehensive tool currently on the market.

You can see that others see Todd as a Controller (4 O’clock). His high scores here drag him down on Relating (10 O’clock). This means he is focused on his own personal ambition, perfection and drive at the expense of growing others. He prefers to do things himself rather than train others. He also scores highly in the Protecting dimension (6 O’ clock). Others see him as arrogant, distant and highly critical. He held assumptions such as I stay safe by taking charge and failure of any proportion, could lead to my downfall.


Todd was given a Coach when he made it to his new VP position. He was confused and slightly insulted by the fact that he had to have one, however everyone else at VP level had one, so he was no different. Also these sessions were 100% confidential, with no feedback loop from the Coach to Head Office.
During his first session, his Coach, Jasmin, reassured him that he was “naturally creative resourceful and whole” and that she was not there to solve his problems. Todd immediately looked at her cynically. How much are we paying for this service? How could she possibly be adding value if she’s not solving his problems? However given that he was now under the spotlight, he decided he would go along with it. Here is an extract from his first coaching session:

Coach: “So, you’ve had a chance to look at your 360 results, I’m curious as to what you think?”
Todd: “Well, to be honest I am surprised. My overall leadership effectiveness is only 40% and others scored me very highly in Controlling, when I scored myself fairly low”
Coach: “Surprised huh. What were you expecting?”
Todd: “Well so far everything in my career has been a huge success”
Coach: “What does a huge success look like to you?”
Todd: “Well, my first big work success was getting qualified as an Accountant, passing all my exams first
time, then a double promotion to Audit Manager. From there I moved to Synthetica and within a couple of years I got promoted to SVP of FWG.”
Coach: “That’s great. Clearly you are ambitious and so far have accomplished everything you set out for so far. How about right now?”

Todd: “To be completely honest not great. I’m worn out, frustrated and starting to question whether I’m cut out for leading a business unit. Maybe I should go back to Finance.”
Coach: “What’s wearing you out?”
Todd: “I hold myself to high standards and expect the same from others. When they don’t live up to this, which is most of the time, then I get very frustrated. I usually end up doing their work for them. Currently I am dual hatting, also doing my old Controller job.”
Coach: “It sounds like you set very high standards for yourself and others. What would be a
metaphor to describe this?”
Todd: “I feel I am the pilot and I have a shoddy crew. I feel like I have to serve the food,
make the announcements, do everything myself.”
Coach: “Wow, there’s a lot of responsibility there, sounds like you are taking it all on
Todd: “That’s right. If I don’t keep close supervision over everyone, then disaster could strike
and it would be my fault.”
Coach: “What’s the assumption you have here Todd?”
Todd: “Hmmm. Well, I guess I fear that others are not capable of carrying tasks”
Coach: That’s a big assumption. How is that serving you right now”
Todd: “Well, it’s making me tired, frustrated and well….. Performance is suffering”.
Coach: “What would it look like to trust that everyone was capable of doing their roles?”
Todd: “It’s difficult for me. I’ve always inherently distrusted people. However, I can see that
it’s not really serving me or FWG right now.”
Coach: “Wow. So what would it take for you to change that assumption?”
Todd: “Hmm, aren’t you supposed to advise me on that?”
Coach: “Maybe. I’d like to hear how you would deal with. Remember you’re the intelligent one!”
Todd: “Well, I guess it’s a matter of letting go. Creating a space for others to succeed. Trusting that others are capable of doing their job. Providing training where necessary.”
Coach: “That’s great. So what’s a challenge for you?”
Todd: “Well, how about I stop micro-managing and allow them freedom to do what they are good at.”
Coach: “That’s good; however I want to hear something more specific. Why not take them
for an off-site, away from the office for a day? Do it face to face? And what will this session
look like?”
Todd: “You’re right. I’ll do it as soon as I get back.”

Act 3: Todd the “Renaissance Man”

Todd was lucky that Synthetica believed in Leadership Development. The coaching had allowed him to open up in a safe environment. Workshops allowed him to learn new concepts, meet with fellow emerging leaders and build a support network where he could discuss challenges. Todd learned to be vulnerable, that it was OK to say to his team: “I don’t have all the answers”. Instead of focusing on detailed strategic plans supported by lengthy spreadsheets, he collaborated with his team to define the company’s purpose. He would learn to speak more from the heart. He realized that at its heart FWG still had a family culture and he should not try to change that. Yes they needed to embrace change; some employees would need to move on. They needed to acknowledge they were part of a larger multinational business; however at the core, conducting business relied on established personal relationships with their customers. Todd’s Leadership Program continued with several more workshops, on Effective Communications, Critical Thinking and Creativity and Innovation. He continued his relationship with his Coach for 18 months and re-did his Leadership Circle profile. This time he scored much higher in authentic relationships, whilst still being decisive and action oriented. By tapping into the potential of his team, so he was able to bring performance back on track. He took the whole leadership team to dinner
with the lost client and managed to win them back. He recruited a new HR Manager whose first task was to return staff morale back to old levels. He realized he could not sell the new strategy himself. He had
to work through his direct reports. He realized he needed to spend more time out of the office at the branches, with customers, internal operations and also at Group. Also he made it his mandate to spend more face to face time with his leadership team. The most important learning was what Todd learned about himself. He became a better listener and his relationships improved, both in his work and
private life. He realized he’d been holding on to assumptions that had been holding him back in all aspects of his life, such as always feeling the need to have the answers and he began using the coaching techniques Jasmin had used on him with his staff. Holding them naturally creative resourceful and whole, so they began to do his work for him. This allowed Todd to spend more time growing the business, deepening relationships within Synthetica. This was a new “win-win” definition of leadership; by serving others he could also advance his own career.


Did you know?

“62 percent who plan to stay with their  current employees reported high levels of trust in their corporate
leadership, while only  27 percent of employees who plan to leave express that same trust.”
Talent 2020 Deloitte Survey



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