Businesses are growing larger by the day. Unfortunately, the number of effective leaders ready to take the reins is dwindling. After adjusting for inflation, the 500th-ranked company in the Fortune 500 is nearly five times bigger in terms of revenue than it was in 1990. That means more leaders with much larger spans of control are crucial for success. Yet, only 25% of organizations say they have the leaders ready to meet tomorrow’s business challenges. Time and again, corporate executives are finding themselves delaying or withdrawing strategic priorities because they don’t have leaders ready to take them on. That’s bad news for these businesses and our economies.
“Leaders and the decisions they make—good and bad—can have a snowball effect. They can profoundly impact people’s lives and, simultaneously, they can greatly influence the markets, currencies, and economies as a whole,” shared Matt Paese, Vice President at DDI, and author of the new book Leaders Ready Now.
Matt continues, “Organizations are in need of fresh ideas that align organizational strategy with leadership development—and show how to grow leaders.”
Matt is Vice President of Succession and C-Suite Services for Development Dimensions International (DDI). Matt’s work has centered on the application of succession, assessment, and development approaches as they apply to boards, CEOs, senior management teams, and leaders across the pipeline. He consults, coaches, speaks, and conducts research around all those topics and more.
Here’s Matt’s take on how to close the dangerous leadership readiness gap:
Kathy Caprino: Why do we have such a leadership gap today – why is leadership development still so elusive and confounding for most organizations?
Matt Paese: We actually know a great deal, and we might actually be spending too much time and mindshare using that knowledge to perfect learning tools and technology.
All this “stuff” we create won’t grow leaders. Only leaders and experiences grow leaders. And the reason leaders aren’t doing that enough these days is because of one simple reason: Most leadership growth programs don’t generate energy. All you have to do is think about the moment in your career when you were learning the most rapidly, and you’ll quickly realize that growth feels exciting and even scary. Growth generates energy.
But sadly, that’s not how people describe leadership development programs. They may say they’re interesting and relevant, but that’s not enough. The world moves so fast and changes so much that the only way to respond is to begin using what we know about leadership development in far bolder and more aggressive ways.
Caprino: What are the four common missteps in organizations that hurt leadership growth?
Paese: Here are the common organizational mistakes I see frequently that damage leadership growth:
Too Much Process
The fastest, most powerful learning experiences create energy, but this can be difficult to scale. It’s not uncommon for management to roll out learning initiatives to large groups, after which those new processes become burdened with guidelines, meetings, documentation, and progress checks. Participants see little connection to what they view as mission-critical. Soon what was built to generate energy dissolves into apathy and annoyance.
It is not the process that’s failing—it is the absence of energy to fuel it. It’s essential to reconsider how the process was built in the first place, and change the rules so that there’s more at stake. Organizations must be far more aggressive by setting bigger development targets, creating more meaningful rewards and consequences, and doing so for more people, earlier in their careers.
Not Enough Purpose
Many organizations make a big mistake by making the case that development will be good for the careers of the participants. “This will be great for you.” They’re not wrong to make that case, but they’re also not making the strongest case possible
If you think again about moments of rapid learning, most of the time they happen because there was some urgent need. Your boss desperately needed you to step into a difficult situation, or there was an opportunity that needed your complete attention, right now.
People don’t dive into these situations because they expect it to be good for their careers. They do it because there’s a big, important need.
The simple translation is that organizations can make the “why” of accelerated growth much bigger, and about the nature of the organization’s need.
Lack Of Management Involvement
Too often, management attempts to do things “to” people, without doing anything “with” them. We once asked a high-potential leader if he really wanted to be in his company’s accelerated development program. His answer was telling. As he went through all of the courses and learning activities, he found them interesting. But what he really wanted was, in his words, “a piece of the action.” He meant that he wanted to work on real business problems with executives.
A critical component of accelerated learning is to get people in the game sooner. Executives and leaders need to bring people into their work, and create opportunities for less-experienced leaders to participate in the gritty, gnarly problems that the organization is facing. Simply sending talent leaders to learning programs is not sufficient.
Lack Of Management Modeling
When management demonstrates that they are committed to learning, the effect is multiplicative, and the reverse is true as well. Seeing evidence that senior management is engaged in continuous learning is unparalleled in its effect on generating a growth culture.
Some may elect to openly share personal development goals with their teams, while others may make it a point to more proactively ask for feedback (and use it). The key is that these efforts not remain a secret, because that robs the organization of the critical modeling that’s needed to foster a culture of growth.
Caprino: Matt, how can organizations spot real potential, and develop it effectively?
Paese: The sober truth is that most executives overestimate their ability to spot great leaders. It turns out that accurately identifying people who have leadership potential is more difficult than it seems. They often overweight current performance, so they favor high performers as the ones who have the best possibility to be future leaders. This leads to promotion mistakes and the propagation of narrow, often functional skill sets that don’t strengthen overall leadership capability at higher levels.
Making more accurate predictions about leadership starts with a good definition of potential, and with using objective data gathering technique to augment managers’ judgments. A good assessment of potential will look beyond current potential at factors like adaptability, curiosity, bringing out the best in others, and navigating ambiguity.
With accurate evaluations of leadership potential, emerging leaders can be channeled into the development experiences that are most appropriate to their ideal path.. The right definition of potential — and well-validated tools for measuring it — can help organizations target their investments more appropriately.
Caprino: How can leaders today accelerate growth rather than crush it?
If we’re lucky, we can each look back on our lives and recall a time when someone chose to believe in us. These moments are powerful and permanent in our minds, and help to shape how we approach new challenges. Leaders can do that with people they are responsible to develop. They can prove that they believe in their people. And they can make that tangible in at least two ways.
First, they can learn and practice better approaches to giving feedback.
When managers provide feedback, they tend to focus on the past, and what an individual may not have done well enough.
Managers seeking to give great feedback will inspire more positive action if they focus their feedback on the bright possibility that lies ahead, if and only if the individual can enhance his or her skills and gain more useful experiences.
Second, leaders can help their people experiment with more challenging leadership assignments.
Leaders who develop other leaders are continually on the hunt for ways to stretch their people into bigger assignments, taking on more substantial responsibilities, and contributing more significantly to the success of the business. They find small opportunities so that failures are less costly and painful. And they do it continually so that experimentation becomes a routine part of how they operate.
Caprino: Finally, how should we be promoting and encouraging failure in business, and why do we see so many leaders afraid to do it?
Paese: Organizations develop allergies to failure because they haven’t sized risks in the appropriate way. Growth won’t happen without risk, but if those risks are too big, they will never be justified as appropriate, and failure will tarnish the reputations of leaders so badly that recovery becomes impossible. It’s a catch-22. So the solution is to conduct smaller experiments (developmental assignments) that carry less risk and allow emerging leaders to “fail fast,” and come right back around to take on new challenges. But if the only way that leaders are developed is by changing jobs, then the risk of failure will often be far too high if the leader is not fully ready to succeed.
Assignments, task forces, project teams, and other short-term, lower risk activities are essential to helping organizations develop healthier relationships with failure.
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