What is an Achiever Leader?

A few months back I wrote an article about Catalyst Leadership where I outlined why Catalyst Leadership matters, what key characteristics a Catalyst Leader has, and also how one can become a Catalyst Leader. Many people believe that Agile Leadership is synonymous to Catalyst Leadership. I fundamentally disagree. Personally, I believe that Agile Leadership is the ability to think and act very differently depending on the context.

A true Agile Leader - from my perspective - is someone who, in addition to being a Catalyst Leader, can also act as an Expert Leader and an Achiever Leader (which this article is about). Why? Because leadership, be it people, products, or organizational is never one-dimensional. In theory, one could argue for a certain type of leadership or management. But in practice, we must realize that based on varying contexts we cannot define one true way to lead employees. Hence, Agile Leadership is about our agility as leaders to inspect and adapt our leadership style based on the situation and challenges we are facing - often referred to as situational leadership.

The ability and skill to demonstrate different leadership styles is key. There is more and more evidence on this. This article will primarily focus on Achiever Leadership including its strengths but also its limitations. In addition, it will connect the various leadership styles i.e. Expert, Achiever, and Catalyst, so that you - as our reader - can get a better sense of the big picture. Now, let's dive in.

Why Achiever Leadership Matters?

One of the key characteristics of an Achiever Leader is their ability to set goals not only for themselves, but for their team, and their organization. Goal setting is not easy... not every one is able to set good goals. Good goals are goals that are a) aligned with the mission and strategy of the organization, b) achievable, and c) challenging.

Now one might wonder why a good goal needs to be challenging. The answer is simple, neuroscience shows over and over again that if we are not challenged we do not grow and we do not have fun. But there is a line or a corridor between too little and too much challenge and of course that also depends on our skills. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did a ton of research on this topic over many decades. His key findings are demonstrated in the chart below.

Achiever Leadership Chart

So, being able to set good goals for oneself, for the team, and for the organization is a valuable skill that is needed within any organization. Ideally, everyone in the organization is good at this. But - as with so many other things - life is not ideal. This means, until everyone within an organization is good at setting goals, we need people to either help others with goal setting or set goals for them.

Goal setting is only one piece of the puzzle that makes an Achiever Leader valuable to an organization. The other piece is the discipline needed on a daily basis to achieve the goals. It is easy to lay out what needs to be done. Usually, it is much more difficult to deliver on those things with the time and resources the organization can afford to invest. Great Achiever Leaders not only define what they aspire to achieve, they actually achieve it within the boundaries or constraints set by the organization. They are by definition high achievers.

What are Key Characteristics of an Achiever Leader?

We cover Achiever Leadership extensively in our Self-paced online course for Agile Leaders and our live Certified Agile Leadership Training - below a quick summary on the key characteristics. Achiever Leaders:

  • are very clear on their requests i.e. they lay out their goals, the way they believe and choose the organization to take
  • are great at creating buy-in which means they are great at selling their vision and strategy for the organization
  • prefer a 1-to-many meeting style as this helps them scale their messaging and align the team around them better than in 1-on-1 conversations (see Expert Leader)
  • tend to influence and sometimes manipulate in order to get everyone on the bus
  • have little patience with regards to people that are not willing to go along which means those people are off the bus and depending on the organization this could mean being out of the organization
  • Compared to Expert Leaders (more details on this further below), Achiever Leaders know they cannot achieve their goals without help i.e. they consider people as valuable resources to achieve those goals
  • are very competitive, constantly trying to move up in an organization, and believe in a clear top-down approach
  • set out stretch goals for themselves, their teams, and the organization
  • are focused on achieving results towards the strategy they laid out
How does Achiever Leadership work?

Depending on how you read these characteristics and what you associate with them they might sound good our not so good to you. In general, I personally do not look at any of the characteristics as good or bad. It really depends on the context one is in - more on that later.

Achiever Leader (video by Scrum Academy)

How can one differentiate between Expert, Achiever, and Catalyst Leaders?

We already mentioned a few of the differences between Expert, Achiever, and Catalyst Leaders. In this section I want to briefly summarize and add a few on top.

One of the big differences is how they see their own role within the organization. The Expert Leader believes they need to lead with their expertise, the achiever leads by setting goals and ensuring that those goals are achieved, whereas the Catalyst focuses primarily on creating the right environment for everyone else to align based on a shared vision and deliver in a self-managed manner.

Connected to this is how they prefer to meet with people and how they engage in those meetings. The Expert Leader prefers one-directional 1-on-1 meetings because that's how they can give orders. Achiever Leaders on the other hand prefer 1-to-many meetings in which they try to align everyone on the goal they have chosen for the organization. Catalyst Leaders prefer many-to-many meetings in which they participate as everyone else and believe in co-creation.

There is also a big difference in what he individual leaders focus on. Expert Leaders are primarily focused on the very short-term i.e. individual tasks or projects. Achiever Leaders are focused on a bit longer time-horizon i.e. the strategy of the organization. Catalyst Leaders take a very long-term perspective i.e. they are focused on the vision, mission, or purpose of the organization.

Finally, we can compare these three leadership types with regard to how they perceive people. For the Expert Leader that want to clone themselves people are problems as they don't do stuff the way the Expert would do them. For the Achiever Leader people are resources necessary for the achievement. For Catalyst Leaders people are people, they are persons with whom they build a relationship. They are not just a workforce, they are human beings.

Of course there are other dimensions we can look at. The video below shares with you the Leadership Agility Model from Bill Joiner. In that you can learn about a few other differences between the various leadership styles.

Leadership Agility Model (as developed by Bill Joiner)

Who are Examples for Achiever Leadership?

Many top leaders primarily display an Achiever Leadership mindset especially in industries that are heavily driven by sales e.g. banking, insurance, and consulting. I worked for about 3 years at Bain & Company and based on my current assessment the vast majority of their leaders i.e. partners and managers fall into the Achiever Leadership camp. Why? Compared to Expert Leaders they know they can't do it all by themselves, they are great at delegating work especially given the amazing workforce they have. But compared to Catalyst Leaders very few of them display any interest in continuously developing their people and co-creation. Don't get me wrong, this is not necessarily bad. For their business model this works well and I learned a ton during my time at Bain.

This behavior by leaders is of course a result of how they are measured by their supervisors and their peers. In most of these large consultancies the top people are measured based on the number and size of projects they sell. The same happens in banking, insurance, and many other industries. Leaders are measured based on their achievements with regards to business growth not people growth. That is simply why most then focus on that much more.

One of the best known Achiever Leaders is Steve Ballmer - the former CEO at Microsoft. But before we talk more about Steve, let's set the context first.

Microsoft was co-founded and lead by Bill Gates. Bill - based on my observation - was a tremendously creative person, an incredible talent, and a very hard worker. At a young age - he was after all a college drop-out - he managed to build a business that is still thriving today, almost 50 years after its founding. Bill was a clear Expert Leader who then managed to evolve and broaden his leadership capabilities. He displays this incredibly well at the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation he co-founded with his wife (now divorced).

In 1998, Bill Gates decided to hand-over the CEO role to Steve Ballmer. Steve had been with the company for many years (since 1980), he was actually employee number 30. During his time with Microsoft he held various positions the last one being Executive Vice President for Sales and Support. He was known to be a great sales man, to constantly grow business and build a phenomenal sales force. He was not known for being a great innovator.

During his tenure as CEO, Microsoft did well, but they also missed out on a ton of opportunities - see list below:

  • eCommerce - lost to Amazon
  • Search - lost to Google
  • Social - lost to Facebook
  • Music - lost to Apple and later Spotify
  • Mobile - lost to Apple, Google, and manufacturers like Samsung despite acquiring Nokia

Given the dominant position Microsoft had in the 1990s and early 2000s, one would have expected them to win in at least one of these areas. It's not that they did not try, but they - and this is ultimately the CEO - did not manage to create an environment for innovation and new business models. At the same time, a ton of Microsoft employees either joined other companies such as Amazon or like Rich Barton founded companies incl. Expedia, Zillow, and Glassdoor.

To close this short history of leadership at Microsoft, let me introduce another person: Satya Nadella. He is the third person to lead Microsoft. His promotion to CEO was a surprise to many industry insiders. Compared to Ballmer he did not come from Sales. His last position prior to becoming CEO was Executive Vice President of Cloud and Enterprise Group i.e. Azure.

Since he took over in 2014, he completely focused on changing the culture starting with himself and his leadership team. He covers the story of his personal and the organizational transformation in his book "Hit Refresh". Nadella is a great example for a Catalyst Leader compared to Ballmer who - at least from the outside - did not demonstrate that he has the abilities to think more about partners than competitors, think about ecosystems, and focus on the long-term success of the organization and everyone around it.

How to Evolve as an Achiever Leader?

As with any change journey it is hard. The first step is to create the awareness that one needs to change and then create the willingness of wanting to change. Without these two change is not going to happen. Then, it is all about setting out a plan and working on it in a disciplined manner. Let's dive into this with a bit more detail.

How does one create more awareness?

Awareness can be created in many ways. Two practices that cost nothing but patience are frequent retrospectives and meditation. Sitting down at the end of every day or at least every week one can identify what they did well and what not. Where did they struggle, and what could have been done better in hind-sight. Retrospectives also help with the next step i.e. creating a concrete plan on what to do next.

Another technique that one can get for free is what Tasha Eurich refers to as "Dinner of Truth" with "Loving Critics". You can ask your spouse, your best friends, and trusted colleagues "What annoys you most about me?". Give them permission to be honest. Tell them this is about your growth as a leader and as a person. You will learn incredible things about yourself, about your strengths, and your weaknesses.

Finally, you can also increase awareness by running a 360 leadership circle profile or any other type of assessment where different people provide constructive feedback. Every good organization has these types of assessment as part of their leadership development program. If you don't have one already, I can highly recommend either the Leadership Agility assessment or the Leadership Circle Profile.

How does one create a plan and follows through on it?

This is all about discipline. It really doesn't matter what kind of initiatives one starts out with. The important thing is to get started and to continue your reflection e.g. by writing a diary. No matter if you want to improve your coaching, facilitation, listening, or strategy development skills, you need to monitor your progress.

Some of the techniques that I find helpful are the Catalyst Conversation from Pete Behrens, Delegation Poker from Jurgen Appelo, and the Radical Delegation Framework from Shreyas Doshi. Each of these can help a leader identify to either lead better conversations or how to delegate more and more of their work. Both our Self-paced online course for Agile Leaders and our live Certified Agile Leadership Training cover a bunch of helpful tools and techniques and provide exercises with which you can already start practicing.

When to Apply Achiever Leadership?

Leadership can be learned in many different contexts. Obviously you can learn leadership at work, but you can also learn the different aspects of leadership as a parent, being part of an NGO etc. Personally, I learnt a ton from being the father of three kids. Whether to apply a certain type of leadership depends on two things, a) your ability to do it and b) the context.

Let's assume you have the ability, how do you decide whether the context requires your to act as an Achiever Leader or not. In general, I look at four things to make that decision. Those four things are about the people I work with.

Clarity

To what extent do people in our organization have clarity on where we as an organization want to go? If clarity is missing, most probably people won't be able to take decisions that support our organization achieving its goals. If there is a lack of clarity its mostly due to leadership communication or lack thereof. So in the short-term you might need to take the decisions for your team i.e. act as an Achiever or even an Expert Leader, but in the long-term you might want to make sure that your team gets the clarity they need to be able to take decisions themselves.

Competence

How competent are our people to take meaningful decisions? This relates to both domain expertise i.e. knowledge about customer needs, competitive landscape, etc. but also general problem solving skills. If we believe our people lack competence it is our job as leaders to first enable them before we can empower them. You need to identify which key competencies your people lack and help them develop those. In the meantime, you might have to continue take a lot of the WHAT decisions, but can probably start delegating many HOW decisions i.e. act as an Achiever Leader.

Commitment

Are people committed to achieving the organizational goals? Is the team working on the product, passionate about their work or are they just logging hours to demonstrate they are being busy? Do we have a group of missionaries or mercenaries? It is a leaders job to ensure an organization has missionaries working there. This is partly based on crafting and sharing a compelling organizational mission and product vision, but also it is based on recruiting and keeping the right people.

This is one of the most important areas to question your own judgement as an Achiever Leader. I have seen cases where leaders doubted their teams commitment because everything seemed clear to the leader, whereas the team had many questions. So in reality it was not a lack of commitment, but a lack of context and competence. Be aware of your own biases.

Courage

Are people courageous enough to take important decisions or do they postpone decisions and become too slow? Once people are enabled to take key decisions i.e. they have clarity or as Reed Hastings the CEO of Netflix would say context and they also have competence, it becomes a question of courage whether they are willing to take difficult decisions or not. A psychologically safe environment, a culture of experimentation and dealing with failure are all ingredients in creating more courageous individuals and teams. If people are afraid of punishment they will always play it safe. But if they are hungry for winning and success, they will take risks.

Seek to understand why your team is deferring decisions. If the risk is too high for them, it is your job to either reduce the risk or take the decision for them. As leaders we ultimately have responsibility anyways.

I am sure there are a ton of other questions and models that can help you determine whether and when to apply Expert Leadership. These four have served me well as they also result in concrete action items. Whenever I realize that I need to act as an expert, I can immediately ask myself what needs to be done to change this? Does my team need more clarity, more competence, more commitment, or more courage. Sometimes it's none of those, but the decision at hand is simply my decision to make.

Where Can I Learn More About Achiever Leadership?

There is a ton of content to learn from. The list below is by no means complete, but probably a great place to start to transition and expand your management style. Remember, the intention is not to move from Autocratic Leadership to Democratic Leadership, Transactional Leadership, or Strategic Leadership. The intention is to learn from various leadership theories, and upgrade your toolbox so that you have more agility in your leadership styles.

Learn

If you want to dive deep into the topic of Agile Leadership we obviously recommend our own offerings i.e. our self-paced online courses and the live trainings.

Read

There are many books covering the importance of deep expertise in leading teams, products, and organizations. Some other books can help you learn become a better student of leadership.

  • The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker is a management classic, that I believe is super valuable today
  • The Amazon Leadership Principles
  • Resources from Google on Management

Contact

Also, feel free to drop us a line if you have any questions or want to develop a larger number of leaders within your organization. You can contact us through team(at)scrum-academy.com.

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