“Know-How” by Ram Charan

There is certainly a correlation between certain personal attributes and the ability of a person as a leader in contributing to the business success of their organization. In Know-How: The 8 Skills That Separate People Who Perform from Those Who Don’t, the author, business consultant Ram Charan, draws from his personal experience to make those connections. He moves quickly through the danger of looking only at the surface when evaluating a leader, then mentions briefly the character traits of effective leaders. The heart of the book expands on eight skills that Dr. Charan deems crucial for high-level leaders, especially those in large organizations

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The book begins by pointing out the fallacy of selecting leaders based on superficial information, describing these superficial traits and characteristics as the following:

  • The seduction of raw intelligence (similar to a point made in one of my recent articles)
  • A commanding presence and great communication skills
  • The power of a bold vision
  • The notion of a born leader (a reference to charisma on its own)

Instead Dr. Charan urges people to look at what he calls “the whole person” (and in my words the character of the person) when selecting a leader. He especially identifies the following character traits as those he sees most often in effective leaders:

  • Ambition – a desire to achieve something visible and noteworthy, when it is combined with integrity.
  • Drive and tenacity – an inner motor that pushes people to get to the heart of an issue and find solutions, when it is combined with a clear view of reality.
  • Self-confidence – the ability to know and speak your mind and act decisively, combined with humility and social awareness
  • Psychological openness – the willingness to allow yourself to be influenced by others and to share your ideas openly, promoting candor and communication
  • Realism – a healthy balance of optimism and pessimism, which causes one to seek the truth and clarity
  • Appetite for learning – seeking to improve from new information and experiences

All of these traits interact with each other and all can have their dark side when carried to extreme or not adequately balanced by the other traits.

With these traits in a proper combination, Dr. Charan’s experience in consulting with many leading global companies has led to the conclusion that the most effective leaders excel in the following eight skills.

  1. Positioning and Repositioning: finding a central idea for business that meets customer demands and that makes money.
    Positioning encompasses the strategic decisions in understanding customer needs and defining where and how to compete to provide value to those customers. This skill is the ability to see the whole system and to adapt to changes in the business environment.
  2. Pinpointing External Change: detecting patterns in a complex world to put the business on the offensive.
    In a world where change is more rapid and abrupt, this is the skill to use an outer focus to understand the threats and opportunities that lie down the road. The best leaders are the ones who understand the changes and their implications before anyone else and have the foresight and confidence to move based on their intuition.
  3. Leading the Social System: getting the right people together with the right behaviors and the right information to make better, faster decisions and achieve business results.
    Social systems is the term Dr. Charan uses for the way that people in an organization work together to manage the business. To make the social system effective the leader needs to be sure that information flows properly, that conflicts are surfaced and resolved, and that the proper trade-offs are made for the benefit of the long-term health of the organization.
  4. Judging People: calibrating people based on their actions, decisions, and behaviors and matching them to the non-negotiables of the job.
    Leading an organization requires achieving results through the people around the leader, so the focus of the leader needs to be on finding the right people and developing them to maximize the contribution that the people can make to the organization’s success. This requires insight into both the requirements of the various positions and the capability and potential of the people under consideration.
  5. Molding a Team: getting highly competent, high-ego leaders to coordinate seamlessly.
    Leaders seek to surround themselves with very capable people but then must mold the group of people into a strong team. To do so requires building buy-in to a vision that represents the whole organization and supersedes any individual’s interest. The team must utilize the capabilities of all members and operate as a unit, and it is the leader’s responsibility to develop this unity.
  6. Setting Goals: determining the set of goals that balances what the business can become with what it can realistically achieve.
    The leader needs to select goals that will provide leverage for the future. Among the many potential goals, finding the select few is the challenge. And then the goals need to be set at a level that is achievable while still being motivational, providing a challenge to the organization that will make it stronger.
  7. Setting Laser-Sharp Priorities: defining the path and aligning resources, actions, and energy to accomplish the goals.
    There are always more things that could be done than should be done. The leader needs to set priorities based on what is important, what is urgent, what is long-term versus short-term, and what is realistic versus visionary. Then the high priorities need to be provided with resources to be accomplished.
  8. Dealing with Forces beyond the Market: anticipating and responding to societal pressures you don’t control but that can affect your business.
    An effective leader needs to have an outer focus that is aware of both threats and opportunities to the business that come from the world outside of the organization and its markets. In this respect the leader needs to continually develop within the organization the capability of responding to these societal forces.

There is a chapter devoted to each of these eight skills, each with a wealth of examples of leaders who practiced these skills well (and some that did not). Having had the opportunity some years ago to work alongside Dr. Charan, I have a great respect for his intellect and insight. He makes the point that he believes these eight skills are the key differentiators of high-performing leaders.

My view of the book is that it is good but not great. The downsides are that these skills and most of the examples that are provided are based on the large, multi-national companies where Dr. Charan spends most of his time. Smaller business need a different mix of skills. Also, leadership can never be boiled down to eight skills. It requires a much broader set of skills, all built upon strong character, i.e., the competency + character model of leadership.

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