Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, may have retired 15 years ago, but his influence in corporate America still resonates.
Not only is he known as one of the most successful industrial leaders of the 20th century—most notably increasing the value of GE by 4,000 percent—but he is also a great example of how a company can effectively grow powerful leaders from within their own ranks.
Welch, who graduated with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, joined GE in 1960 as a junior chemical engineer. After a year with the company, Welch began seeking other jobs until a mentor in the company’s executive office recognized Welch’s talents and persuaded him to remain at the company. Just seven years later, Welch was appointed vice president of GE’s plastics division, and the climb up the corporate ladder continued. In 1981, Welch became GE’s youngest chairman and CEO.
As with GE and many other companies—Xerox, Harley-Davidson, Best Buy and McDonald’s— the next CEO of your company could very well be among your current employees. In fact, in a Forbes study of America’s 100 largest companies, 86 percent of CEOs were appointed from within company ranks. Your executive leadership most likely will be, too. Here are three ways to grow strong leadership from within your company.
1. Empower employees through mentorship and delegation. Everyone can be a leader, especially when CEOs become mentors and empower employees through delegated projects. Effective delegation creates leaders.
“An employee’s success, the lens they see through, the decisions they make and how they navigate their careers are all heavily influenced by the types of leaders they are able to observe and learn from,” said Glenn Llopis in his article “Leadership is About Enabling the Full Potential in Others.” “This is why you will find that many of today’s best leaders were mentored by great leaders themselves.”
Fishbowl started as the outgrowth of a project that was in danger of being shut down. I had been asked by the company’s investor to close the business because his large investment wasn’t being realized. Once I began working with the six employees, however, I noticed they were on the verge of delivering something amazing. I asked the investor for 30 days to help the small team realize their potential then and for the long haul.
One of those original employees demonstrated great potential, but he was reluctant to lead. I decided to delegate training responsibilities for all new customer service reps to him. While he initially declined the challenge, he took on those training responsibilities at my request. Now, 12 years later, this employee manages customer service, support, training and tech departments. He hires and trains 4-6 new people every six months. He is a strong leader and manager today because he was given an opportunity … and a little push.
2. Be patient. Your employees can become leaders, but sometimes it takes patience to help them find the right fit and grow into their roles. “Every employee is different, with their own set of experiences, values, cultural backgrounds, influences and beliefs,” said Llopis. “The best leaders are those that can identify and appreciate the differences that one brings to the table and knows how to put them to full use.”
Unfortunately, many CEOs don’t have the time or the patience to grow that leadership from within. Take, for example, a startup with traditional investment funding. The CEO is on a fast-growth trajectory with a three- to seven-year exit strategy. They need their leaders to be ready fast and panic when they don’t see their leadership team developing quickly enough. Because we were self-funded at Fishbowl, I’ve been fortunate to be able to take the time to grow our leadership.
“Developing an adequate supply of leaders is a long-term investment. The best companies understand that and work at bringing their people along, no matter the level of the organization—from entry-level to the C-Suite,” said Eric Jackson in his article “6 Things Best-In-Class Companies Do To Grow Leaders.”
Whether you are a fast-growing startup or an enterprise, taking a long-term approach to growing leadership will benefit your organization. If you are a startup with a rapid-growth trajectory, do what you can to be patient with your team, and talk with investors to get their buy-in on your strategy. They’ll thank you later.
3. Avoid bait and switch tactics. Sometimes, well-meaning CEOs promise to promote their employees into leadership positions but then lose confidence in their abilities—so they bring in leaders from the outside to grow the team. This bait-and-switch tactic should be avoided at all costs.
Don’t promise your employees something and then switch strategy midstream. If one of your employees is being groomed for a leadership position but is then supplanted by an outsider, that will set a dangerous precedent and destroy the trust you’ve worked so hard to establish. When employees lose trust and become worried, they start putting out their resumes and listening to headhunters. Don’t sacrifice your company culture to fast-track your executive leadership.
As Jack Welch said, “Management is all about managing in the short term, while developing the plans for the long term.” Keep the long term in mind, and watch your leaders grow as you effectively delegate and mentor employees, remain patient and build trust. And don’t welch on your promises.
By David K. Williams
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