Boost Team Performance by Pairing Complementary Leaders

October 29, 2019

Contributor: Jackie Wiles

To better equip todays leaders for their ever-expanding roles, HR should enable them to find and join forces with other leaders who complement their strengths.

Leaders today are having a crisis of confidence, with only half of more than 2,800 surveyed by Gartner reporting they are well-equipped to lead their organization in the future. The best way for HR to support leaders — and boost team performance — is to help them to share their growing number of responsibilities with other leaders who have complementary skill sets.

“ The best leaders identify others who have a stronger grasp of skills at which they are weak and share responsibilities with them”

“‘Complementary leadership’ is the intentional partnership between one leader and one or many leader partners with the goal of sharing leadership responsibilities based on complementary skill sets,” said Rina Ong, Gartner Director, Advisory, said at the Gartner ReimagineHR Conference in Orlando, FL. “Gartner research found that leaders who use complementary leadership saw a 60% increase in their teams’ performance and a 40% increase in their own performance.”

Amid the volatility and uncertainty that many leaders face today, complementary leadership also provides the breadth, depth and agility required for both current and future business, for which leaders need to acquire new capabilities at an accelerated pace.

What complementary leadership looks like

“The best leaders identify others who have a stronger grasp of skills at which they are weak and share responsibilities with them,” said Ong. But complementary leadership can take many forms, for example: 

  • A formal partnership forged through HR or an organic leader-initiated partnership
  • A relationship between one leader and one or many leader partners
  • A relationship between close or distant colleagues across the business (at any level)
  • A relationship of short or long duration

Equally important to understand is what complementary leadership is not — the reassignment of responsibilities or the delegation of unwanted tasks. Whatever its form, practicing complementary leadership demonstrates self-awareness and judiciousness in the face of challenges. 

Leaders who share responsibilities in this way have the highest team performance: Gartner research shows that 29% of the leaders who use this approach attain team performance that is 13% above average.

Learn more: Why some leaders build exceptional talent — and others don’t

3 ways to unlock complementary leadership

Organizations that are enabling complementary leadership are doing three things in particular: Helping leaders identify locally relevant gaps, developing leaders for practical application of key skills and creating leader partnerships.

  1. Equip leaders to identify their locally relevant gaps, not universal needs. Leaders need to know their own skill gaps and areas of strength, but also those of the others on their team. Today’s leadership assessments can be misleading because they assume that everyone should be measured against the same metrics, and they capture only a snapshot of an individual at a certain point in time. Rather than evaluating leaders against standard organizationwide metrics that are too broad and static, enable leaders to understand their strengths and development areas in their own contexts. They will then know when to lean in to support others and when to leverage support from others.
  2. Develop leaders for practical application, not personal transformation. Many leadership development programs last only a few days and aim to completely transform a leader’s approach to their role. But leaders often struggle to apply a drastic transformation once they return to their desks. A better approach centers on integrating leaders’ workflows and priorities into development programs to enable leaders to apply their learning into real workflows. Start by identifying what work processes and frameworks leaders are comfortable with, and then adapt those processes for development.
  3. Support quality partnerships. Help leaders to identify and make the most of partnerships. In some situations, even if leaders have uncovered their gaps and started to develop those areas, the business still has urgent needs that leaders must fulfill. Instead of trying to rush leaders’ development, help them identify and make the most of leader partnerships to fill urgent skills needs.

Quality leader partnerships enable each leader to specialize in core skills, develop needed skills and lead in critical areas. This type of partnering can increase leaders’ skill preparedness by 54%. 

By supporting leaders and applying the complementary leadership approach, HR leaders can also ensure they meet their goal of preparing leaders for the future, noted Ong.

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