Developing the Next Generation

An employee’s ability to learn on the job while simultaneously being selected, measured and developed as a future leader can be a headache for businesses. Every company claims it plans for the future, but the reality is that the expertise and leadership that drives it usually slip away with the best intentions of having learning and development as well as the succession plan in place.

The real-world nightmare is losing key leaders across an organization.

Those who can leave, will. Some of that can’t be prevented; some people want to move on regardless, and some people are just leaving the workforce.

According to Bersin by Deloitte’s Predictions for 2014, leadership will be a big challenge in 2014. “Executives are struggling with leadership gaps at all levels — from first-line supervision through top leadership (more than 60 percent of all companies cite ‘leadership gaps’ as their top business challenge). This year, baby boomers will begin to retire in large volumes; one oil company told me that they expect to lose 30 percent of their workforce in the next three years.”

This is echoed by Sue Ashford and Scott DeRue, leadership writers at the Harvard Business Review’s blog, “nearly 60 percent of companies face leadership talent shortages that impede performance. Even with unemployment rates as high as they are globally, that’s staggering to consider.”

That, despite the fact that U.S. companies spent upward of $13.6 billion on leadership development in 2012, according to research by Bersin by Deloitte. What’s clear is that when it comes to developing future leaders, too many organizations are simply going through the motions, or worse yet, doing nothing at all. These companies are losing out on a host of benefits, including:

  • Better business planning. Learning and leadership development leads to better succession planning, which then leads to developing and putting the right people in the right leadership roles at the right times. When organizations know they have the right people in the queue for key positions, they can proactively plan for the future of the business far more effectively.
  • Improved retention and lower turnover. Sound learning and leadership development helps to ensure that employees know they’re being groomed for a particular position, which gives them a strong sense of having a clearly defined future within the company. This is a strong retention tool and keeps people from leaving their companies for greener pastures. The resulting cost savings can be substantial, but it takes a long-term investment.
  • Improved employee engagement. Obviously, showing employees a learning plan and defined future with an upward career trajectory are powerful boosters of employee engagement and emotional commitment. And, as Gallup Inc. research showed the past few years, companies with highly engaged employees experience financial growth rates nearly four times higher than those of companies with lower engagement.
  • More accurate recruiting. Sound learning and leadership development also helps improve recruiting as well. When employers have a clear understanding of their organizations’ gaps in skills and leadership qualities, they can sharpen their focus on recruiting for specific future roles (even those not yet defined by succession plans), shortening the recruiting process and increasing sourcing accuracy.

Learning and leadership development should be part of an organization’s total approach to talent management — which, in turn, should be integrated with its overall business strategy. This integration ensures that talent management activities are aligned to business goals and objectives, that employees are given the learning opportunities they need to develop their leadership skills and that the organization itself will have the leaders it needs for the future.

“Many companies today have some understanding of the talent they have and where their skills and leadership gaps are, but they don’t have the internal development processes in place or even the external recruiting plans they need,” said Mike Williams, vice president of human resources at Trinity Industries Inc.

Better Long Range
Succession-planning investments don’t fit well within annual budgets, Williams said.

They work better with long-range planning cycles, such as three- to five-year plans. But progressive companies that continually plan ahead invest in their long-term leadership development and succession strategy, which has to have buy-in from the top down. It takes a lot of discipline and investment, but the return is the greatest for the organizations that have a complete succession strategy.

Tim Jones, vice president of HR, talent and organizational effectiveness at ConAgra Foods Inc., thinks while it’s fairly easy to pull together a short list of successors at any leadership level and to create a development plan for those individuals, executing that development plan is tough. This is why senior leadership has to be committed to the learning and development plan as well as the time investment, which isn’t easy to do when running the day-to-day operations of the organization. This is what makes peer-enforced accountability so critical, and what can only be done when these individuals can learn and develop together.

In addition, Jones said, it takes significant financial investment to maintain a quality leadership development and succession strategy. “You have to cover the costs of leadership assessments, executive coaching, mentoring programs and other initiatives. That said, companies get much more bang for their buck when they commit to long-term succession and development investments that solidify leadership continuity.”

And it starts with collaborative learning.

Investment in Collaborative Learning
With an improving economy and corporate restructuring for the most part behind them, business executives are looking to the future. Many large organizations have their sights set on global expansion, highlighting the need for new skills in global acumen, agility and innovative thinking throughout the enterprise.

After the Great Recession temporarily took the focus off learning and e-learning investments, enterprise investments in social learning technologies have increased significantly in the past few years, according to research firms like Aragon Research, Bersin by Deloitte, Forrester Research, Gartner Inc., International Data Corp. and Ventana Research. Driving this growth is the explosive demand for social learning, formal and informal knowledge-sharing and increased collaboration.

Unfortunately, today’s learning management systems focus more on scheduling and taking courses than delivering learning development results. Companies are looking for scalable, holistic and comprehensive leadership development answers that create thriving learning and leadership communities where participants create and curate relevant content to then share with peers and colleagues.

There are viable models that exist today for knowledge sharing, and while they’ll never entirely take the place of formal classroom coaching, private industry and university movements like massive online open courses, better known as MOOCs, and online learning sites like Coursera, Khan Academy, Skillshare and Udacity have dramatically changed how learners attain knowledge in thousands of different subjects.

These have become learning communities that combine social tools with the power of video, of which its impact is undeniable. According to online analytics firm comScore’s monthly index of Internet video usage in the U.S., in November 2013, 189.2 million Americans watched 47.1 billion online content videos.

These online learning sites and services have released knowledge from the time and space boundaries of the formal classroom; organizations can also do this for their leaders, simultaneously developing their leadership skills while continuing their day-to-day work. Plus, busy leaders don’t always have time to sit in a classroom to wait and watch lectures, so learning must come to them in the form of easy-to-consume mediums like video.

Leadership development is a collaborative learning and development exercise, one in which mentors and instructors should share information virtually, and where peers can learn from each other long after formal instructor-based learning is completed.

JetBlue Airways Corp. operates a “Hire, Inspire, Grow” program that creates a fully integrated talent system, with its goal being to fill 80 percent of nonfront-line positions internally. That just can’t be done today without a collaborative learning and leadership development platform. Experience-based learning that’s reinforced by colleague and expert networks, informal training, real-world video vignettes and the like are significantly better at reinforcing behavior change than formal training activities alone.

This is how organizations can harness some of our instinctive tendencies into collaborative learning and leadership development communities that attract, identify, engage, develop and retain today and tomorrow’s world of work stars.

Kevin W. Grossman is the director of content marketing at Peoplefluent, a talent management company, and author of “Tech Job Hunt Handbook.” He can be reached at

This story originally appeared in Diversity Executive’s sister publication, Chief Learning Officer, and can be found here: