Expert Interview Series: Elaine Varelas About Maximizing Leadership Skills Within an Organization

In her more than 20 years of career consulting, coaching and leadership development, Elaine Varelas has had the opportunity to work with many executives and management teams to improve individual and organizational effectiveness. Her experience spans a broad range of industries and businesses, including Fortune 500 companies, start-up ventures and nonprofit organizations.

Currently, Elaine is the treasurer on the Board of Career Partners International LLC, a global partnership delivering coaching, leadership development and career management services; a managing partner with Keystone Partners; and a Job Doc for The Boston Globe’s Job Doc blog and live chats.

What’s your leadership philosophy?

Be kind in all you do. Be truthful and respectful with feedback. Be hard on the problems, not on the people. Consistently share the strategic vision. Know the people who surround you, and expand the circle.

What are the keys to maximizing the leadership skills within an organization?

Organizations need to commit to the goal – starting at the top. This isn’t an HR initiative. The direction needs to come from executive leadership, based on the strategic goals of the business.

Define what you are looking for; be clear on the specific leadership characteristics that are needed for your business and organization. Be on the lookout for examples of what you are looking for and highlight them. Make these visible to others to promote a shared understanding and to make sure the value is inculcated throughout the culture with these examples.

Another key to maximizing leadership skills is to provide very good feedback – helpful, constructive, timely, and balanced feedback. Every level employee needs to know what is working well and where improvement can happen.

What seem to be the biggest roadblocks to organizations when it comes to growing leaders from within?

The lack of definition and alignment of leadership skills. Defining sounds easy, but many organizations want to use a list of generic terms. It is important that senior leadership defines the skills which are right for its organization, and commit to developing leaders consistently. This isn’t easy; it is a consistent, financial commitment and part of the culture and structure of successful organizations.

How should organizations approach leadership development?

This is an organizational responsibility, not just HR or L&D. Executives and mangers need to be assessed on their ability to develop their people. Have a clear definition of what you want in your leaders. Have clear examples and reinforce them.

What do you think are the most common mistakes or oversights organizations make when it comes to leadership development?

Skipping the task of defining leadership and alignment among executives. A second common mistake is not providing good, clear, helpful feedback. Difficult messages can be provided respectfully and kindly. Often, managers don’t have that capability, which limits development. Variability in funding leadership development is a huge mistake. This is not the area to cut in a bad year.

What companies do you think do an exceptionally good job at maximizing the leadership skills within their organization?

The leadership development commitment at iRobot under Russ Campanello is exceptional, as is the work of Ken DiPietro at Biogen.

What should managers at all levels of an organization be doing to spot and develop future leaders?

To spot leaders, be observant. Listen more; talk less. Be looking for the leadership and management characteristics that your organization wants. Highlight good examples. Offer opportunities, and recognize not everything works on the first try! Give very good direction and clear expectations so people can work toward the goals.

What are some of your favorite resources (books, blogs, publications, etc.) for leaders who need inspiration and fresh ideas?

On a recurring basis, we like HBR. It provides great frameworks that can be understood and applied into the workplace. And the exceptional basics of Collin’s Good to Great and Goldsmith’s What Got you Here Won’t Get you There.