Demographic realities and lack of long-term leadership development programs are leaving many organizations with a dearth of candidates ready to take on senior roles. Accelerated leadership development strategies may help organizations fill the void.
Senior leaders in many organizations are facing a crisis of leadership. According to a study by The Conference Board, approximately 40 percent of the nation’s workforce — nearly 64 million workers — will be eligible for retirement by 2010. In addition, 73 percent of baby boomers give younger supervisors low ratings with regard to being supportive of their success, according to the Families and Work Institute. Younger managers and would-be supervisors who are not properly trained to fill leadership roles and manage their staffs could cause serious problems for many organizations.
When a growing need for new leaders is met by lack of employees skilled and experienced enough to take on these roles, the result can be haphazard, disorganized or stifled growth — or worse, no growth at all. The greater the talent gap, the less able an organization is to quickly and effectively address the demands of a fast-paced world. However, by the time such a leadership drought becomes evident, many organizations have difficulty developing employees rapidly enough to meet the need for both mid-level and senior positions.
Accelerating leadership development is one way to fill the talent pipeline. By working with the right candidates through intensive experiential learning, critique and feedback, leadership skills can be introduced in a condensed period of time. When carefully targeted toward key skill sets, this accelerated development can cultivate the leadership competencies to separate candidates from the rank-and-file and increase the speed to proficiency to fill ready-leader voids.
Through years of working with many organizations in filling their leadership pipelines, Booz Allen Hamilton identified the following five factors that, when applied together, can accelerate leadership development, ensuring that high-potential talent is given the foundation to achieve a qualitatively different level of performance at the end of the development initiative.
Factor 1: Leadership development outcomes tied to organizational priorities. To quickly address an organization’s leadership challenges, development programs must be the logical outcome of an overarching and dynamic human capital strategy. That strategy needs to be tied to the organization’s strategic priorities. As the pace of change quickens, the question “Where are we going?” is increasingly important to every organization.
Accelerated leadership development may be considered “just in time” succession planning because the need for it often results from lack of long-term and systematic succession planning. Organizations in growth or transition mode also may find themselves in need of accelerated leadership development, when candidates must be developed quickly to address new organizational needs.
Because accelerated leadership development is inextricably linked to succession priorities, it needs to focus on the desired outcome, requiring a larger, systematic view of the organization and its short-term and long-term needs. The program may target an immediate need, requiring a specific capability, or a general need for a cadre of strong leaders.
Factor 2: Identification of participants based on multifaceted criteria. At times, seemingly high-potential employees fail to deliver at the next level. This may be because the individual initially was motivated but did not have the skills or ability to be successful. Or perhaps he or she was a high performer unwilling to take on more responsibility. Since accelerated leadership development is a significant investment, how can the organization ensure it invests in the right people?
Organizational thinking about leadership candidates needs to consider factors beyond current performance to include a multifaceted assessment of potential. A 2005 study by the Corporate Leadership Council found that high-potential employees should have the ability to perform at the next level, as well as high levels of organizational engagement and aspiration to ascend. Assessment centers and objective tests are useful in measuring ability, engagement and aspiration, and are more effective when paired with self-nomination processes and strong performance management systems that are tied to individual development plans.
However, before the key behavioral criteria can be set, the baseline competency models must be right. There is a growing belief that current leadership competency models no longer adequately predict performance. The dawn of the global economy has introduced new leadership factors, including systems thinking, dealing with significant complexity, the importance of deep collaboration and boundary-spanning skills, which older models either don’t identify or properly weight. Using multifaceted criteria for identifying high-potential employees is effective, but only when organizations know the skill sets and abilities they are seeking.
Factor 3: Development activities customized to meet individual developmental needs. The results of the selection process often will shine a spotlight on key areas for individual development. Some candidates may require technical skills, such as operational or subject matter expertise, while others need to hone soft skills such as political savvy or communication.
Competency assessments can determine specific enhancement needs of the employee. This type of customization also can be a key benefit in engaging and retaining younger employees who may thrive on the attention to their individual needs.
This also is where assessment centers can be effective. As candidates demonstrate their skills through a number of job-relevant situations such as role play, exercises or simulations, trained observers make decisions about the viability of the individual’s leadership potential and also the skill sets that need to be developed to make that person an effective leader.
Factor 4: Immersive and experiential learning. Scholar and Yale Professor Connie Gersick suggests that organizations cycle through long phases of equilibrium punctuated by revolutionary periods of rapid change and development. Equilibrium periods are characterized by the maintenance of organizational structures and patterns, with only small adjustments to accommodate standard environmental and market changes. Revolutionary periods occur when significant shifts lead to the establishment of new or qualitatively different structures.
The process of leadership development also must include periods of evolution, or learning, punctuated by periods of revolution, or discovery. Accelerating development boils down to helping individuals arrive at those “Eureka!” moments of realization and understanding that revolutionary growth results in significant strides in development.
Hands-on, experiential training is more engaging and generally more effective for adult learners than classroom-based learning. By performing the actions of the role, candidates often have epiphanies with lasting effect. Solving a real-world problem or task through action learning allows the individual to immediately reflect on the experience and draw lessons from it. The organization also benefits when the employee is solving a real-world problem of significance.
Factor 5: Continuous and intensive performance feedback. Sustained results require that employees be evaluated regularly and their immersion learning be reinforced with honest and constructive feedback. In traditional leadership development, there is a feedback loop between action and learning from that action. In accelerated leadership development, that loop is condensed, and feedback on multiple projects or work streams is increased. High-potential employees continually are evaluated and critiqued by varied sources, mentors and coaches on many aspects of their work.
However, frequent feedback and correction can be difficult to receive, especially for younger employees who may not have the experience to absorb criticism constructively and keep negative feedback in perspective of overall performance. In these cases, extra care needs to be taken to ensure feedback is delivered in sensitive ways.
Likewise, it needs to be made clear to employees that the intensity of feedback is because they have been identified as strong candidates, not because they are failing. Organizations should elevate the concept of direct feedback in importance — maybe even integrating it into their core values for real performance power.
Hitting Speed Bumps
Of course, there are challenges to accelerated development, as there are in any intensive programs. While there is common push-back from organizations, each concern can be met with effective mitigation strategies.
• Speed Bump 1: It’s resource-intensive.
• Mitigation Strategy 1: Manage expectations and focus on long-term gain. Both employees and managers must realize this may be a period of intense demands. As accelerated leadership development activities permeate the ranks and yield results, they can evolve into less resource-intensive development programs.
• Speed Bump 2: Leadership development takes employees away from mission-related tasks.
• Mitigation Strategy 2: Ensure senior leadership engagement. Leadership development is, or should be, a mission for organizational leaders, and they need to champion its efforts. Since this is not always the case, designing and internally marketing leadership development programs to support organizational priorities will reduce the perception that they detract from the mission.
•Speed Bump 3: Choosing some employees for leadership development may look like favoritism.
• Mitigation Strategy 3: Establish an application process and clear criteria for acceptance. The tension around selecting high-performance employees includes finding ways to identify the best without alienating the rest. To prevent backlash and perceptions of unfairness, employee selection must be transparent with clear criteria. Making these criteria well-known and having a formal application and selection process can reduce the likelihood of negative reactions. Also, we know from the rich body of adult-learning literature on life-stage development — as well as learning and leading readiness — that many potential leaders aren’t always ready to take the reins at the first opportunity. Therefore, candidate selection should offer multiple opportunities for high-potential individuals to join the leadership pool so that readiness is well matched with opportunity.
• Speed Bump 4: The investment is lost if the employee leaves.
• Mitigation Strategy 4: View leadership development as a retention strategy. Employees who recognize organizational investment in their development are more likely to remain loyal to the organization. While attrition can’t be eliminated, accelerated development opportunities will improve attraction, reciprocal loyalty and retention of high-potential talent.
Accelerating Toward the Future
As new advances in learning technology emerge, organizations will be further able to increase employees’ speed to proficiency. As organizations create centralized administration tools, they can manage face-to-face, Web-based and experiential training using a single dashboard, allowing them to view and track hundreds of learners at once.
Blended learning programs with such centralized administration enable organizations to stay in touch with learners, coaches and trainers. Simultaneously, they can host discussion forums and track completion of e-learning modules, on-the-job-training assignments and coaching/mentoring sessions, facilitating organizations’ understanding of what went right and how to repeat it.
By making an investment in and commitment to accelerating leadership development, taking actions to mitigate challenges and setting up the technology to track and repeat successes, organizations reduce the risk and challenges in accelerated leadership development. Such initiative will effectively address a critical need: developing the next generation of organizational leaders.
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