How to turn Professionals into Leaders and Role Models

By: Nita Korsten

Recently I designed a leadership development program for chairs (the most senior professors) of one of world’s highest-ranking universities. Through this program, I showed the importance for an expertise-focused organization to turn their professionals into professional leaders. The importance to turn professionals into professional leaders does not only count for universities, but for any expertise-focused organization like hospitals or research centers, and also for consultants, investment bankers, accountants, architects, and lawyers.

For most, the scenario of an organization full of intelligent experts does not sound as a problem, but rather as too good to be true!  But actually there is a problem. Professionals almost always move to the next level because they are experts in their fields, not necessarily because of their managerial skillset, emotional intelligence, or communication skills.

Often I am asked: “why not just hire managers; why would you turn professionals into managers?”   My answer: these experts form an extremely important asset for their organizations. They attract top-students, interesting clients, potential colleagues and institutions interested in research.  Yet, organizations need these knowledge leaders to also meet the competitive and complex challenges organizations face today and in the future

With my university client, we used the McKinsey model for change[1] as a guide to design a program to help leaders and managers navigate their organization in new directions:

Purpose and Dialogue (Fostering understanding) - Through interviews we recognized the need for a better understanding of where the university is headed. The program offers dialogue-sessions in which executive board, directors, chairs and business unit managers address the dilemmas and complexity of the task at hand.

Using systems and Instruments (Reinforcing with formal mechanisms)– We provide information sessions on the use of instruments and mechanisms such as the planning & control systems, and appraisal systems.

Leadership training (Developing talent and skills) – Through assessments we conducted a needs analysis and translated this into a leadership training in which we acknowledge the great learning mindset and fast pace of acquiring knowledge of the participants. Though management and leadership skills are relatively new to the target group, they often quickly understand (head) what needs to be done. We therefore focus on reflection (heart) and skill-based training (hands).

Role modeling – As leaders, they need to build a common purpose. With the aid of coaches and team-coaches we help them reflect on their own assumptions and behaviors and challenge them to be role models. Staff should recognize that leaders “walk the talk”. It is not enough to have a clear strategy, it needs to be embraced and experienced in each level of the organization.

During lunch sessions with professors we learned that they are very positive about the program. Or as one participant said: “We are under constant and great pressure, this program helps us to work on our own life-long learning process”.

The primary ambitions of these great experts are, and always will be, to be top-notch professionals; through this leadership program we connect the strategic ambitions of the organization with the development of their professionals as leaders and role models in their fields of expertise.   



[1] McKinsey Quarterly - April 2016 The four building blocks of change. by Tessa Basford and Bill Schaninger