“What is at the heart of transformation? It is the release of the power of intrinsic motivation. How? By creating joy, pride, happiness in work; joy and pride in learning . . . Create leaders with attributes that work to help their people, who know how the work of the group fits in to the aims of the company.” – W. Edwards Deming
How serious are you about developing leaders? Virtually all companies talk about the importance of leadership development, and a Google search of the term will return almost 17 million hits. So businesses obviously take it seriously, right? Well, not really . . .
I’ve dealt with a number of organizations over the years and found that, although most talk about the importance of leadership development, very few actually take it seriously. The usual process is to identify those with potential and send them to a seminar to train them how to be a good leader. From that point, these future leaders may enter a sink or swim program where stretch projects may thrown at them to see if they can survive. And for those who are able to make it into leadership positions, the higher they go, the less time they have for further development. In the end, many organizations let other companies develop their leaders and hire them away when they’re ready.
Among the problems caused by an ineffective leadership development system include variation in leadership styles, excessive costs and time associated with recruiting new leaders from outside the organization, demotivated team members who see that leaders are regularly hired from the outside, and sub-optimal business performance.
Those organizations that do a good job of developing leaders are deliberate about developing talent and have a clearly defined process for making people succeed. These companies tend to view leadership as a system rather than a group of individuals focused on managing people and achieving targets however in their own way. This is a critical distinction because approaching leadership as a system naturally drives the organization toward a standardized approach that requires continual improvement in order to assure that the business continually improves.
Some of the elements that are generally a part of an effective leadership development system include:
- Clearly Defined Competencies: Understanding the DNA of the organization’s leaders is critical to assuring that you are selecting the right candidates and developing in the right areas. Besides selecting the wrong people to develop, failing to clearly understand the expected competencies of the organization’s leaders can result in a wide variety of leadership approaches across the company that confuses the organization and demoralizes people.
- Standardized Approach: Creating a standardized approach for identifying and developing leaders assures consistency in results and provides a basis with which to improve. As with any process, knowing what you expect and comparing to results identifies the gaps that need to be addressed to move closer to the desired state. A problem with a particular leader should be looked at as a problem of the system for development. The individual may need action to deal with the immediate issue but the system needs to be looked at to determine why the problem occurred and how it can be prevented in the future. Standardizing the development process also clarifies expectations of existing and future leaders.
- Everyone has a Coach: Although assigning challenging projects focused on development is an important part of the process, the results can backfire when they aren’t combined with effective and ongoing coaching. The objective of assigning a challenging project is development – not to weed out those who can’t cut it; and without coaching, there is little chance that any real development will occur. Also, since everyone develops bad habits now and then, senior leaders need coaching to assure problems are identified and corrected quickly.
- Leaders Continually Develop: Leadership development does not end when a person moves into a leadership position. If the organization is to continually improve, its leaders need to continually develop their own abilities. There is no such thing as the perfect leader and, although it is something everyone in a leadership position should strive to become, it won’t happen without continual development. In fact, one of the biggest problems with western leaders is, the higher one moves up the ladder, the less personal development that tends to occur.
- Pipeline of Future Leaders: One of the biggest complaints people have about investing heavily in developing leaders is that, the better the system, the greater the chance they will be recruited by other companies. Although this will undoubtedly happen, the better the system, the more likely you will have a pipeline of potential leaders to fill the gaps. In fact, anytime a leader is hired from the outside, it should be seen as a failure of the system because someone from the inside was not ready to move into the position.
No system is as important to the company’s success as leadership development. Because there is no easy way to measure the system’s performance, though, it is often given little attention and done poorly. All too often, it is assigned to a small team within the HR department and, although supported, lacks the commitment and involvement of the most senior leaders needed to succeed.