There have been numerous Fortune, Forbes, and BusinessWeek stories in the last year citing the importance of growing leaders and the challenges organizations are facing with the coming paucity of leaders due to the demographic shift occuring with the baby boomers retiring and leaving a void.
Paul Reilly of the venerable Korn/Ferry states in the Forbes article linked to above that over 50% of all C-level execs will retire in the next 5 years.
That begs the question: what are organizations doing now to prepare for this difficult challenge? In every crisis, lies opportunity. And, certainly, this immovable fact is good news for the Korn/Ferry’s, and Monster’s of the world, as it suggests an increasing need from Corporate America for recruiting top talent.
However, the best organizations do not over-rely on recruiting firms to “fix” their lack-of-leadership problem. They look inside and set up processes and programs which ensure that their “Leadership Funnel” is as full as their “ sales funnel.”
Of course, everyone pays homage to GE, when talking about leadership development. Yet, very few actually do a great job to coach, mentor, and develop top talent.
Here are some quick tips on what the best companies do to ensure an adequate supply of leaders for years to come:
- Leadership Development happens at multiple levels within the Organization – Not just below the C-Level. We all like short cuts. Yet, we know that, in important areas, we can’t take short cuts. Developing an adequate supply of leaders is a long-term investment. The best companies understand that and work at bringing their people along no matter the level of the organization — from entry-level to the C-Suite.
- Assess Where Leaders Are At Today, to Measure Where they will be Tomorrow. You can’t improve something, if you don’t measure it. Doing a leadership assessment at the front-end of any development program gives you a baseline to measure someone’s development — and hold them accountable if they don’t develop. 360s are great as a tool, but the most reliable measurement of a leader’s strengths and weaknesses comes from a process called an “Assessment Center” which uses multiple methods (including case studies, work simulations, and behavior-based interviews) to measure someone’s leadership performance and potential. One thing that surprised me when I started to “coach” “high-potential” leaders is how many of them were hungry to know where they ranked relative to other leaders out there. Most people work for one company for a long time – sometimes 10, 15, or 20 years. They lose sight of their “market value” relative to other execs. Being able to tell them that they are in the top quartile on “strategic orientation” relative to others is very interesting to them; often raising their confidence levels. By contrast, it can be an eye-opener when they are in the bottom quartile on a number of important leadership dimensions.
- Meet with your Boss to discuss the Results of the Assessment and Build an Action Plan. Leadership Development programs fail if the leader’s boss is not involved. It’s critical to meet with the boss to discuss the strengths and weaknesses that were identified in the assessment. The leader is always interested to have the opportunity to hear how his/her boss sees his/her strengths and weaknesses. This meeting also needs to focus on building a Leadership Development Plan, which the leader and boss buy-in to and endorse.
- Track the Leadership Development Action Plan over time. What good is a plan if you don’t track it and do what you say you will do. The process of setting up and tracking this action plan forms the basis of the “Leadership Development Program” that the best-in-class companies follow. This program is separate from any performance review process. It is a supplement to that — not a replacement. In our work, we act as external coaches who come in and meet with the leader once a quarter to review progress over time (usually 2 years). The leader’s boss is kept in the loop by receiving updates of the plan on a quarterly basis and then coming back at the 1-year mark and 2-year marks to meet with the leader and external coach. Knowing that you are accountable for progress is a huge stimulant to the leader.
- Encourage mentors in your Organization – but don’t force them.Mentors are great. Who hasn’t had someone take an interest in us at one point in our lives and give us some advice which was really valuable. Yet, a lot of organizations have tried to “assign” mentors to “high-potentials,” as part of their leadership development programs. This just doesn’t work. It’s like fixing up two people on a blind date who have nothing in common or are too busy to meet. The best approach we see is to have the leader and boss discuss some possible mentors (a lot of times the boss will have the best ideas because he/she knows a wider universe of people in the organization who might be interested and a good fit with the leader). Then, the boss should contact the possible mentor, rather than the leader. We’ve seen successful mentor relationships where the 2 people meet once a year for dinner; others where they meet every couple of months. It’s up to the two people. When it works, mentors can have a dramatic impact on “high-potential” leaders.
- Discuss Career Path. Many bosses don’t make time to sit down and discuss a “high-potential” leader’s future career path at that company. However, the ones that do can create tremendous loyalty. People appreciate it (even highly talented people who you might think get tired of all the acclaim they receive) when their boss closes the door and says “let’s talk about what you want to accomplish here and how I can help.” Ideally, this career vision gets tied into the Leadership Development Plan.
Leadership Development is tough. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be having a “crisis.” Recruiting is an answer to a short-term need, but it doesn’t address the underlying problem. The best organizations understand that — buying into it whole-heartedly — and build systematic processes to ensure their best people know where they need to develop and what their future career path looks like at that company.