The idea of leaders developing other leaders is not new. As author Ed Betof wrote in his book, “Leaders as Teachers,” “The leaders as teachers, coaches and mentors concept has evolved through the centuries, but is even more crucial in today’s fast-paced, ‘perform now’ organizations.”
In organizational learning — where it’s commonly accepted that 70 percent of successful development comes from on-the-job experiences and 20 percent from feedback and coaching — the most effective tool with which to develop leaders is other leaders. But according to the Human Capital Institute and talent mobility company Lee Hecht Harrison, organizations continue to struggle to implement and deliver these programs.
The groups’ report, “Leaders Developing Leaders: Capitalizing on the Demographic Gift to Revive Your Leadership Development Program,” found many reasons why leaders struggle to develop other leaders, including a lack of time, accountability and information to successfully mentor and coach others.
Human capital research and advisory firm Bersin by Deloitte has covered corporate learning since 2001. It recently found that nearly 6 in 10 global leaders consider a lack of leadership to be a major cause of their company’s inability to deal with business changes. They also found leadership development spending rose 14 percent last year, to nearly $13.6 billion. If costs are rising, and key stakeholders have identified the problem and determined that its solution will affect business success, something should be done.
A Lack of Time and Accountability
Most of the money spent on leadership development is used for training courses and administration, assessments, competency mapping projects, external professional coaches and other programmatic items. These programs take a significant amount of a leader’s time to facilitate and develop. But programs don’t develop people — experiences do. A leader’s most effective role in developing other leaders is to be a guide through those experiences.
Personal attributes and environment dictate an individual’s performance. What seems like effective training content one day can quickly become outdated as organizational changes occur. Required competencies can quickly change as well and are often unique from job to job and organization to organization.
Instead of spending time developing complex frameworks, leaders should look to provide personalized opportunities to those they wish to develop, giving direct feedback and coaching along the way. Of the three practices discussed in “How High-Performance Organizations Accelerate Executive Leadership Development,” a 2013 study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity, or ic4p, coaching had the highest correlation to market performance, as defined by revenue, profit, market share and customer satisfaction.
Consider the 70:20:10 ratio. Morgan McCall, working at leadership consultancy the Center for Creative Leadership, is usually credited with originating the concept. With two of his colleagues, Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger, McCall surveyed high-performing managers and found that “lessons learned by successful and effective managers are roughly 70 percent from tough jobs, 20 percent from people — mostly the boss — and 10 percent from courses and reading.”
Lombardo and Eichinger provided the rationale that “development generally begins with a realization of current or future need and the motivation to do something about it. This might come from feedback, a mistake, watching other people’s reactions, failing or not being up to a task — in other words, from experience.”
Mike Myatt, a leadership adviser and author of “Leadership Matters … The CEO Survival Manual,” said training is often a rote, one-dimensional, one-size-fits-all, authoritarian process that imposes static, outdated information on people. “Perhaps worst of all, training usually occurs within a vacuum driven by past experience, not by future,” he said. “Development is nuanced, contextual, collaborative, fluid, and above all else, actionable.”
Programmatic interventions usually exist because organizations think they need a scientific approach to categorize a learner’s strengths and weakness and provide the developer with guidance on where to focus. Instead, organizations should provide new experiences for emerging leaders and communicate the experiences of established leaders to others.
Among other activities, Bersin by Deloitte found organizations that were great at developing leaders were those where senior executives are actively engaged in building better leaders through high-impact learning experiences — including mentoring, coaching, action learning, rotational assignments and simulations — that are relevant to the leader’s work. Leaders transfer stories of best practices and lessons learned — bits of pragmatic and actionable wisdom, not just knowledge.
Talent and leadership development conversations are a way of life at these companies and happen at the senior level at every opportunity, and as a result these organizations were 12 times more effective at accelerating business growth.
There are some considerations when coaching and providing feedback. The most important is building trust. Kim Lamoureux, vice president of leadership research at Bersin by Deloitte, said “trust continues to play an important part in the coaching relationship because each party should be comfortable disclosing and acting on information received from the other. It allows for reflection on the part of the leader and consideration of alternatives within a supported environment.
“Interestingly, if senior leaders do not continue to practice and receive coaching on basic skills such as listening, empathy and other interpersonal behaviors, they can lose their expertise in these areas,” she said. “Many organizations assume that lengthy tenure implies possession of basic coaching skills, but they do not provide senior leaders with ongoing opportunities to support the retention of these skills.”
Making It Personal
The most effective experiences for developing leaders are highly personalized. Organizations may find that standardized leadership development or rotational programs often don’t work. In the i4cp study, only 11 percent of high-performance organizations reported using rotations to another major strategic business unit, function or geographic location to a high or very high extent.
Instead, giving developing leaders a business challenge to solve and supporting them with feedback, sponsorship and collaboration can be the best way to develop them. Here, the individual’s personal set of skills can be used in a unique way in a real business setting to produce real results. Unlike a defined rotational or project-based assignment, the learner’s vision is also tested.
Leaders also should look for opportunities to share their own experiences. In Chief Executive magazine’s 40 Best Companies for Leaders 2013, General Electric Co. was cited as the company from which others recruit talent the most. J.P. Donlon, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, said, “GE has many well-established, formal processes for developing leaders, including annual talent management programs, succession planning and training. However, because the world in which they operate is always evolving, they continuously adapt the way they develop leaders. They believe in leaders developing other leaders, which is why they launched the Leaders in Residence program in 2010.”
The weeklong program is taught by a senior leader using telepresence to connect with others globally. According to Donlon, “He or she also conducts mini-coaching sessions with program participants, networking dinners, fireside chats and reverse mentoring on technology and trends. They also share leadership stories through dialogues — both inside and outside of the classroom.”
A Lack of Information
In today’s dispersed organizations, leaders often lack the necessary insight or awareness into their employee population to understand who to focus on and how. Many organizations have three or more HR systems where information is stored, and this information is often incomplete or outdated. Leaders can’t wait months for the data they need to uncover high-potential employees.
As a result, many organizations are consolidating data in HR systems to get the information they need. These efforts are often costly and time consuming and don’t always provide the level of insight expected. Instead, some organizations have used innovations to create a virtual system of record where information about employees from multiple systems can be integrated, stored and accessed by leaders at any level. In this way, an organization can quickly overcome challenges related to missing or inaccurate information and gain a comprehensive view of its people.
In the U.K., Howden has done just that. Howden, a 150-year-old midsize organization that designs, engineers and supplies air and gas handling equipment, has 4,200 employees spread out across 17 countries. Information on these employees existed in several different systems.
“By deploying a virtual system of record on a unified talent management platform, we were able to create a single system for all our HR and talent information,” said David Tough, the company’s global HR operations manager. “This is critical because now managers and executives can make HR and development decisions with the information they need right there.”
Some organizations are wary of giving leaders access to information about other leaders’ employees. Internal talent poaching, as it is often known, is a short-term issue with significant long-term benefits, and one that the best organizations have come to embrace.
A recent Forbes study stated that 91 percent of Generation Y expects to stay in a job for less than three years. Organizations that do a good job of sharing employee information across business units and using that information to develop leaders internally can expect to reap the benefits that come with retention and promotion of top talent.
Matthew Bidwell, an assistant professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, found that internally developed leaders have significantly higher performance in the first two years on the job, 20 percent lower turnover rates and are up to 30 percent less expensive to hire.
Leaders developing leaders can be the single most effective leadership development initiative an organization employs. While many organizations have tried to execute on this concept, most are over-engineered, creating issues related to time, accountability and lack of information. At their core, these efforts revolve around the relationships between the participants and include personalized experiences and conversations that lead to skill development and success.
Steve Parker is a former HR practitioner and the vice president of solution marketing at software company SumTotal Systems. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.