Professors Barbara Tarasovich and Bridget Lyons both spent decades in the corporate world of accounting, finance, mergers and acquisitions, until their professorial curiosity led them on a quest to define the undefinable.
“I’ve always been curious about what makes a great leader,” Tarasovich explains. Before arriving at Sacred Heart, where she serves as an assistant professor and director of the master’s in accounting program, she spent many years at Unilever, attached to its Leadership Initiative. Lyons, a professor in finance, had pondered the same question in her discipline. In short, what is that je ne sais quoi that great leaders possess…and can it be taught?
The professors—whose article, “What’s in Your Leadership Toolbox?” was published in the journal, Strategic Finance, this past year—offer mixed responses.
“I can teach you how to use Excel,” says Tarasovich. “It’s a hard skill, and a student’s competency is easily quantifiable. But I can’t instruct you on value of hard work, or of making ethically sound decisions.” Certainly these are important to know, she continues, but they can’t be lectured about and learned—they are part of a knowledge that must be gained through experience.
“That’s not to say leadership can’t be taught,” Lyons adds. “But it does have to be taught in a different way.” In short, leadership can’t be memorized. It must be cultivated.
Of course, there are a number of factors—‘leadership competencies,’ as the authors refer to them—common to most successful business leaders, and defining the knowable seemed the most reasonable place to start. “We looked at 12 top companies,” explains Tarasovich. “We spoke to their senior executives—the CFOs and vice presidents of human resources—and asked them what are the qualities they value in a leader?”
Many are the leadership characteristics of old we all can recognize: strong ability to communicate a vision and a path, inspiring team commitment and propelling the team to action, for example. But times have changed since the original leadership rulebook was written, and so have job expectations. Being good at crunching numbers is no longer adequate. Those numbers have to have a context to the larger, external world, incorporating modern technology and a formerly unimaginable level of access to data.
It’s a type of big-picture thinking that takes the immediate linear cause-and-effect process and attempts to forecast the ripples of any given decision. For practice, Lyons’ students gather in the Finance Lab of the Martire Building, where they run models on real companies and portfolios in real time, projecting results and comparing their forecasts against actual outcomes. Think fantasy football for finance majors.
Skills alone do not make a leader, however. Thus, while most entry-level positions are more technical roles, growth within a company only opens up for the individuals who demonstrate the ability to affect influence. It’s not just about whether you get results, the professors agree. It’s about how you get your results.
The puppet-master who instructs his team to perform single-purpose tasks is missing the point; the approach is not adaptable to any situation other than the one at hand. Alternatively, the leader who develops cooperative and complimentary thinking and support within the organization is likely to have a team that is readier to tackle a wider array of problems, accessing more team members’ talents and, thus, proving themselves and their people to be the better problem-solvers.
One critical skill very well might be the capacity to listen in 360 degrees, which means listening to one’s peers, one’s supervisors, and (sometimes most importantly) one’s subordinates. The current generation entering the job market has a unique sense of personal worth which, Lyons notes, is not necessarily a negative trait. It’s not entitlement, though it’s often written off as that. “They are not content to humbly ‘pay their dues’,” she explains. “They expect to be noticed. They want a response. They want feedback.”
In exchange, the way in which this generation is interconnected with the larger world makes them an invaluable resource for leaders seeking to adopt an external orientation, one of the key competencies identified by Lyons and Tarasovich.
It would seem the old kindergarten report card line, “Plays well with others,” is every bit as important in the boardroom as it was in the classroom.
So how does one teach the soft skill of leadership, along with the hard skills necessary to land the job in the first place? “They can’t sit back. They can’t be allowed to hide,” says Tarasovich. “They have to write. They have to present. If they’re quiet, they have to answer when called upon. That confidence will only come with practice.”
“And they need to know the value of both giving and getting feedback,” adds Lyons. Be able to phrase it respectfully. Be able to receive it gracefully.
“It’s good to create a little stress,” she says. “It gets them ready.”