From 1985 through 1999, the American Achievement Network conducted a comprehensive scientific study to determine what specific knowledge and skills were most critical for success as a supervisor, manager, or team leader in the United States. Unlike other studies, the American Achievement initiative sought to identify leadership proficiencies rather than leadership qualities or characteristics. This study was also different because it included only first-tier and second-tier leaders – i.e., front-line supervisors, team leaders, and their managers – not senior executives.
Each year, leaders from more than fifty occupational disciplines were invited to become subjects of the study. The participants were selected on the basis of having been recognized for their outstanding leadership through industry awards, professional associations, and news media reports.
Participants were asked to complete a battery of tests and interviews that probed their backgrounds, personalities, and professional experiences – including the approaches they took to address a wide variety of hypothetical and “real life” leadership and supervisory challenges. The subjects of the study were a highly diverse group with almost nothing in common in demographic terms. Yet each individual had applied a remarkably similar set of skills to effectively address each particular situation.
The study suggested that these leaders had been successful because they were proficient in four general areas:
Scholastic proficiency – the capability to read, write, perform mathematical computations, etc. The study determined that this was primarily attained through elementary and secondary education.
Occupational proficiency – a working knowledge of the job tasks performed by the people they led. The study determined that this was typically achieved after two to seven years of experience in a field or profession, combined with an apprentice or mentoring program, trade school, or an applied degree.
Administrative proficiency – a basic understanding of how resources, finances, information, etc. were obtained, distributed, and utilized within their organizations and industries. The study determined that this was normally gained after three months to five years of employment in a specific job function or location.
Leadership proficiency – the ability to produce desired results through other people working together with skill, confidence, motivation, and judgment. The study identified 137 leadership competencies that ranged from interviewing job candidates to conducting performance appraisals; from managing one’s time to managing organizational change; from giving praise to dealing with conflict. 26 of these were highlighted as Core Leadership Competencies, the key factors in a proven leader’s success.
The study concluded that most supervisors and managers were initially placed in leadership roles because of their scholastic, occupational, and administrative proficiency – and their leadership potential. There was nothing wrong with this, except in most cases, their potential was never formally developed. Leadership proficiency was something that most people had to acquire by trial and error, and perhaps with some occasional coaching from their bosses. The study noted that, “When leaders make mistakes because they lack leadership proficiency, and especially when they make the same mistakes repeatedly, the results affect safety, productivity, teamwork, morale . . . everything.”
The Darden research also concluded that the successful leaders who were the subjects of the study consistently avoided such mistakes because they possessed and applied the 26 Core Leadership Competencies.
In 1996, Doug Heatherly was asked to participate in the ongoing study when he received the prestigious Project Leadership Award, and was named one of the top five project managers in North America by the Project Management Institute. Doug’s responses confirmed what the study was already discovering – that effective leaders were developed – not born. In fact, when he was presented with specific leadership challenges, he used exactly the same models, processes, and techniques to deal with them as all the other subjects in the study.
What were these models, processes, and techniques – and how did effective leaders learn them?
That question was posed to the study’s 1996 participants. The group identified almost sixty methodologies or “leadership tools,” each of which they had all used effectively. The group then assembled a list of sources – where they initially learned of each tool, and how they were taught to apply and use it. In some cases, the answer was through years of “trial and error,” yet the list also included 139 books and periodicals, 15 audio tapes, 23 videos programs, 30 training courses (custom and off-the-shelf), and a handful of personal mentors. In other words, each of these highly successful leaders had sought out keys to leadership proficiency – the same keys – from more than 200 different sources.
Recognizing that most people and most organizations simply didn’t have the time to learn by trial and error – nor the money to invest in hundreds of training resources – it was clear that a new kind of leadership development course was needed. Doug Heatherly and four other award-winning leaders signed on to create this course.
From the beginning, the group was committed to making the program unlike any other by combining only the “best of the best” from publishers and training providers around the world – with no “fluff,” and no ties to a single proprietary philosophy or keystone product. The group also wanted to offer a comprehensive, yet modular design that allowed leaders to attend the units that presented the most relevant skills and topics for their needs – and skip the units that covered techniques they had already mastered, or for which their companies offered in-house training.
The group insisted that program emphasize the transfer of skills, rather than the mere delivery of useful knowledge – so program participants could leave each session with a new leadership “tool” – and the ability to apply it immediately. Finally, the group pledged that the program would never be presented by trainers or “academics,” but only by experienced leaders who had successfully applied the skills and techniques themselves as supervisors, managers, and project leads.
Doug Heatherly and his group began by assembling and licensing a wide array of third party tools, processes, and models that each of them had used successfully. Then they wrote practical instructions and guidelines on how they had applied the various products in each of the leadership challenges and situations they had faced in their 85 years of collective experience. Their mission was to deliver the knowledge that any newly assigned or moderately experienced leader would need to be successful in a supervisor, manager, or team leader role – then reinforce that knowledge with clear, proven action steps that leaders could put to use as soon as they returned to work.
During the next year, several universities and professional associations signed on to provide additional guidance and expertise in adult learning, course design and development, and the latest training technologies. In 1998, the Leadership Skills Certificate program was offered in six North American cities, and has continued ever since.
Although Dr. Heatherly’s background was not in education and training, he enjoyed conducting the pilot sessions so much that he continues to facilitate Leadership Skills public seminars in select locations, and to provide customized versions of the courses and materials for his consulting clients.