Accelerating Leadership Development

Richard Citrin and Michael Couch

Is your company ready for the coming tsunami of retiring baby boomers or for the increasing demand for new leaders to support growth?

If not, you aren’t alone.  A recent survey conducted by the University of North Carolina and the Human Capital institute found that 85 percent of the respondents agreed that they urgently need to accelerate the development of their leaders.  This may come as a challenge to many organizations since the state of current leadership development programs is not inspiring.  (Check out the 2011 Forbes Magazine article entitled, “The Great Training Robbery: Why the $60 Billion Investment in Leadership Development Is Not Working.”)

Accelerating leadership development is possible.  To do so requires a commitment and an approach that was not like typical development efforts.

Begin With the Business Strategy

To be relevant, any talent practice must be built from and directly linked to the organization’s strategic plan.  This assures that there is a clear business case for the additional investment required to create an impact.  And yes, accelerating leadership development usually requires an additional investment in terms of time and resources.  Done properly, the return on that investment is worth it.

Know What Success Looks Like

The other reason to begin with the strategy is that strategy can be translated into the competencies (knowledge, skills and abilities) required for leadership success.  Starting with strategy means that the success models will be future-focused; the competencies will be defined in terms of what is needed in the future, not what was important in the past.  Development can be accelerated by knowing and focusing on the competencies that make a difference, not any and all skills.

Don’t Focus Just on the Top

Focusing on developing talent in just the top positions is what got us into this situation in the first place.  Accelerating development requires that you look at the capability and availability of talent at all levels.  It is most beneficial to think of your organization as different pools of talent and to understand the capability of each of those pools.

Know Your Existing Talent

Accelerated development cannot happen without a robust and objective tool to assess the capability of the talent in different pools.  And we’re not talking about performance ratings done by lone managers.  Our experience has shown that facilitated, multi-rater, and competency-based talent reviews are by far the most effective and valuable tool.  These reviews create a common talent language and generate a wealth of valuable data on the overall capability of your company.

Invest Where the Risk is Lowest and Reward the Highest

Development can be accelerated by focusing the investment on the talent that will have the greatest chance for success and that will create more value for the organization.  Not all talent is created equal nor do all people have the same capacity for growth.  Development that focuses on all leaders, no matter the need or ability, slows leadership development overall and wastes limited resources.  That’s why knowing your existing talent is an important component of the acceleration equation.

Make Development Intentional

Of all the factors that can accelerate development, intentional development is the most critical.  Intentional Development involves:

  • Framing development in the context of the person’s career and the business case so that the WIIFM is clear.
  • Placing employees in challenging jobs, projects, or assignments and building development into the work, not bolting it on as something extra to do.
  • Focusing development not just on skill gaps or weaknesses but also on enhancing existing strengths, addressing blind spots, compensating for skills that are tough to develop or toning down over-used competencies.
  • Employing cohorts of learners that can support each other, create mutual accountability and act as an unbiased source of feedback.
  • Using training or self-study as a small but just-in-time component of the development process.
  • Supporting development with expert coaching, supervisor feedback, and mentoring.

The commitment is significant.  The change in talent practices can be a challenge for some leaders.  But the standard approach to developing leaders doesn’t work.  Improving the capability and capacity of your leadership pipeline can be accelerated to the point that any talent tsunami can be reduced to a mere ripple.