A recent Deloitte study found that 56% of executives believe their companies are not ready to meet today’s leadership needs. Many companies are responding, last year spending $31 billion on leadership development programs, and since 2015 alone spending on such programs has increased by 10%.
Jesse Demmel, vice president of platform engineering at Under Armour, rewrites an old adage: “Some leaders are born. Many are made.”
But not all attempts to “make” leaders are created equal. Matt Norquist, CEO of Linkage, a global leadership development consultancy firm, says, “I think that, despite all the effort, a lot of the companies I see aren’t making sustainable progress.”
So, what are some key elements that make a leadership development strategy successful?
One mistake organizations make when it comes to leadership development is sporadic or inconsistent development opportunities. For example, leaders take hour-long online seminars or employees only meet with managers at annual reviews.
Consider The Global Good Fund, a leadership development nonprofit that focuses on social entrepreneurs under 40. Once accepted into the program, the entrepreneurs or “fellows,” as they’re referred to, take a 360-degree assessment to identify their strengths and weaknesses. They’re then paired with an executive coach to create a personal leadership development plan. Over the next 12 months, they execute that plan with the help of an established business leader as their mentor. An online dashboard keeps track of the progress, and every one, three, five and 10 years after the program, fellows retake the assessment.
“Those dashboards are really prepared for them so they can see their personal leadership growth, their enterprise growth, their business growth, and social impact over time,” says co-founder Carrie Rich.
“Without structured ongoing development most of us sort of revert to our old habits; some of our habits are good and some are bad,” says Norquist. To illustrate, he uses the metaphor of learning to play the violin: “You don’t just listen to the radio and try and copy the songs,” he says. “You need to first understand how do you hold the violin, how do you hold the bow, where do you put your fingers, when do you tilt your head, when do you press harder on the strings and lighter on the strings, etc. You learn through practice, through instruction, through learning the theory behind what you’re doing.”
This is the difference between what Norquist calls “training vs. trying.” He says, “It’s not that you don’t want to put in effort, but you want the effort to be structured.”
Alignment With Business Goals
A successful leadership development strategy must also align with business goals. If a company is paying for one of its managers to go back to school, for example, does the company have a plan for how that’s going to benefit the business? If leadership development efforts aren’t tied to business strategy, there’s no telling whether they will help the company long term.
According to Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), companies must establish why they want to develop leaders (what CCL calls “key drivers”) — whether it’s to support innovation, increase global market knowledge, improve operations, etc. “Particularly as budgets for leadership headcount and development tighten, it is more critical than ever to demonstrate a clear line of sight between investments in leadership and desired organizational outcomes,” states a CCL white paper by William Pasmore.
At Under Armour, which has seen 20% revenue growth over the last 25 quarters, cultivating leadership from within is critical. Demmel, whose own leadership path was spurred by an appetite to solve hard problems, says the process “starts with hiring teammates who are hungry for growth and demonstrate the ability to do so. Upon starting, we have intentional conversations around career development with every teammate. Plans are created and tracked and there are many resources available to help. There is also a newly launched training platform available to all teammates that includes career growth training and in-depth, leadership specific courses for those who progress.”
A Strong Leadership Culture
At Meals on Wheels America, where “learning” is one of the company’s four cultural values, all employees are encouraged to seek out development opportunities, which are overseen by each individual’s manager, and each department budgets per employee for development.
Just last fall Jenny Bertolette, vice president of communications, took a leadership development course through ProInspire. As a new leader, she knew she would be supported in pursuing her own development because the culture encouraged it.
“My workload has shifted immensely since I joined the leadership team,” she says. “I was used to being a worker bee and all of my satisfaction came from cranking things out and checking things off my to-do list. Now, I’m participating in strategic conversations and then passing things off to managers. I take the 10,000 foot view and it informs my decisions and directions.” But Bertolette had to work at getting to that point. Leadership competency doesn’t just come with a new title; it takes a leadership culture to optimize it.
For high-growth companies, giving control to employees to pursue their own development communicates trust and relieves pressures on both budgets and on leaders, who may be head deep in the complexities of a scaling business. Bertolette uses regular 1-on-1 meetings to find out what her direct reports might be interested in and how to help them take advantage of it.
The most successful leadership development is a shared responsibility between leaders and their direct reports. “Once the goals are understood, it’s critical that the leader provides the opportunities and coaching that will set the teammate up for success,” Demmel says. “However, the teammate owns their career and must also push hard to create new ways to make it happen.”
Continual Flexibility And Curiosity
There is no one size fits all when is comes to a leadership development strategy, and that’s why it’s important to understand “best fit vs. best practices.” Norquist says, “You’re going to make your mistakes, you’re going to have your successes, you’re going to say, ‘Wow, that really worked,’ or ‘Man, that hit like a lead balloon,’ and then you adjust and grow and develop.”
The most successful organizations take steps to align the business with leadership development, creating a strong pipeline that understands what it is now, what it wants to be, and how to get there.
What is your company currently doing to develop its leaders?
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