Over the course of her business-coaching career Kristin Ihle Molinaroli, president and 17-year veteran of the Fortune 500 talent acquisition and retention consulting firm Avant, has learned firsthand what goes into making an effective leader because she’s become one herself. (One might even argue she began her apprenticeship on the leadership track during her stint as a seven-time All-American athlete and while running for Nike under the name Kristin Ihle Helledy in her post-graduate days.) Although she’s quick to point out effective leadership isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all proposition, Molinaroli does believe all true leaders possess several consistent traits in common.
If you think of the corporate world in terms of athletics, as Ihle Molinaroli often does, acknowledging which league your company is competing in and picking your coaches and top players accordingly should be priority one. Everyone wants to win the championship. That said, the kind of coach needed to take a team to the Super Bowl doesn’t necessarily have the same instincts, drive, and expertise to bring home a World Series pennant.
Molinaroli maintains there are central core components that go into the making of a superior “corporate athlete.” She warns, however, that the formula can vary from company to company, from industry to industry — and from leader to leader. This means that what works for a strong marketing organization head honcho won’t necessarily fly for a cutting-edge tech incubator guru, and vice versa.
For a leader to be truly effective, Ihle Molinaroli’s major caveat is they must reflect the givens of their playing field. “Once you’ve been briefed on the relevant business conditions, aware of specific industry givens, and the team dynamics — given all of those things,” she explains, “then you can say, ‘Here’s the best type of fit for a leader.’”
The No. 1 Trait of a Good Leader is Self-Awareness
Once you get past choosing your arena of play, Molinaroli firmly believes the first tenet of exceptional leadership begins with self-awareness. “How can you build a following [followership] and be a leader if you don’t know about who you are and what you do effectively?” she asks.
To be clear, Molinaroli asserts the self-awareness required to command can’t be solely based on how corporate athletes see themselves on a particular day. The internal focus she’s addressing goes deeper than merely assessing one’s corporate report card or parsing a performance review. “Success isn’t just a set of facts that tell me, ‘I did these things well,’ or ‘I’m not as effective at those things,’” she says. “That’s good information … but it’s static. People who are self-aware, who actively and consistently go after feedback — that’s the real core of leadership.”
The Most Effective Leaders Have a Growth Mindset
According to Kristin Molinaroli, one of the most pertinent pieces of leadership wisdom to come down the pike in recent times is a concept known as “the growth mindset.”
“You’ve probably heard about it,” she says. “The growth mindset — which is the opposite of the fixed mindset — is pretty much just what it sounds like. There’s a technical definition (coined in 2006 by Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck), but to me, it’s about having an abundance of mental acuity; it’s someone who is consistently curious and is continuously assessing their environment.” And by environment, Molinaroli means the people, the process, the business conditions, and the market conditions that impact the company that person is tasked with leading.
At its most basic, Molinaroli says the growth mindset is epitomized by “someone who’s learning oriented.” She adds, however, that doesn’t mean a leader needs to be “professorial or academic.” In fact, in her experience, Ihle Molinaroli has observed that having someone overly academic or highly esoteric in a leadership role can be a disadvantage.
While theory and conjecture may be all well and good in their place, Molinaroli believes when it comes to true leadership potential, those things are no substitute for the ability to think fast on your feet combined with practical experience. That’s why it’s critical for a “corporate quarterback” to be able to consistently process changing environmental data and make the necessary adjustments and corrections in real time.
If you factor in the long- and short-term variables — fluctuating team rosters resulting from trades, injuries, and retirements; unforeseen weather conditions, and even contentious contract negotiations, maintaining a winning record season after season becomes even more of a challenge. “You want somebody who’s an agile learner,” Molinaroli says, “and someone who can move into action pretty quickly.”
Good Leaders Can Learn From Anyone
In addition to self-awareness and a growth mindset, Molinaroli cites two more key factors the finest leaders have in common. “The first thing is they’ve got to have ‘coachability,’” she says, “meaning, the ability to receive coaching from anybody.”
In a fixed mindset, people erroneously think they can only learn from someone who possesses a more advanced education or subject matter than they do. They believe valuable information can only be gleaned from experts with the appropriate advanced degrees or from world renowned firms. But the truth is, a good idea can come from anywhere and from anyone.
“For example, say I’m being interviewed by ‘Mr. So-and-So’ and he’s not a licensed psychologist. That doesn’t mean he may not still have some information that would inform my practice and really help me. Instead of sitting on my ‘highest expertise pillow,’ I should be open to his insights,” Molinaroli explains, adding that it’s useful to be open to learn from any peer or colleague.
Why the Best Leaders ‘Scale the Lattice’ Rather Than Climb the Ladder
Along with being open to ideas, the strongest leaders are willing to walk a mile in their employees’ shoes. For Molinaroli, it’s a concept that again plays out as a sports metaphor. “I talk about this idea of being willing to play any position. It doesn’t mean you necessarily have to play any position. It just means you have to have enough knowledge and experience that you could play any position,” she says.
So, what might that look like on the corporate playing field?
“I might need to move into a new role to understand more about how the back office that runs the business really delivers to my customers,” Molinaroli explains. “I think the idea of having breadth of experience allows you to empathize with people on the team. It allows you to say, ‘Hey, you know what? I haven’t spent a lot of time in the finance function, but I can understand why this is a problem for you.’”
Even though being able to tap into this kind of business empathy and use it to your team’s advantage is a powerful leadership tool, unfortunately, some fixed-mindset management folks sometimes view it as counterintuitive. Molinaroli cautions that a too-narrow focus on striving to reach the top as quickly as possible can result in far more negative outcomes in the long run.
“It’s really important that you have some perspective, that you have different roles that you’ve served,” Molinaroli says, “but I think that can be hard to sell to people who see career achievement as climbing up a singular ladder versus a career lattice. Maybe to get to the top of whatever mountain you’re climbing, you need some horizontal experiences to be able to better scale the mountain. And that career lattice, to me, gets people into the playing position.”
The final analysis? When you’re hunting for your next corporate quarterback, it might be easy to get swept up by a list of shining achievement stats on a player’s résumé — but remember, a brilliant mind alone does not a brilliant leader make. If you’re looking to fill a top management slot on your team, the qualities Kristin Ihle Molinari can’t stress strongly enough are self-awareness, a growth mindset, “coachability,” and the ability to see and appreciate the lateral possibilities as well as the vertical ones. “I’d take a self-aware, learning-oriented, above-average-intelligence leader before I’d take an off-the-chart intelligence leader who doesn’t have those other factors. Any day,” she says.
And so should you.