The best way to help an individual become a better leader is dramatically different from what organizations need to do to create a better pipeline of qualified leaders for the future.
How Individuals Improve
Individuals become better leaders by identifying a behavior that, if increased or introduced, would make a significant difference in their overall leadership effectiveness. It could be an improvement in their frequency of communication, or the clarity and force of that communication. It might be a heightened practice of coaching their direct reports. It may be some behavior that is already seen by others as being executed at an above average level but could be improved until it becomes a profound strength.
On the other hand, for less than a third of all leaders, the behavior may be something that is currently missing or executed poorly. These behaviors become an enormous drag on the leader’s effectiveness, like having a hundred barnacles on the bottom of a speed boat or an anchor that totally impedes progress.
Identifying the behavior that would make a big difference, then working to improve it, has been shown to produce the best results for individuals. Experience has proven that this method works best when the individual focuses on one thing at a time.
How Organizations Develop Better Leaders
Without exception, every organization I meet expresses genuine concern about finding and creating the leaders that will carry them forward. Leadership development is invariably one of the top three concerns of the executive team. But what is the overall key to success at the organization level?
Ironically, it is almost the polar opposite of the “choose one thing and work on it” mantra that works for individual development. Success at the organizational level depends on several elements being in place simultaneously. The more elements in place, the better the outcome. If any one of these elements is missing, it invariably detracts and often leads to failure.
The necessary ingredients of success at the organizational level fall into six categories:
- Tailor the Leadership Development Initiatives to the Organization
Identify key behaviors that are the “musts of the future” and select a competency model that fits the organization. Use science rather than hunch and opinion as the basis of this model. Be clear about the business objectives of the development effort, from improving employee engagement, reducing turnover, elevating the leadership behavior of all managers, or filling the pipeline needed in the future. Finally, capture what is working and change what isn’t.
- Define Scale and Scope
Consider who will be included in the program. How do individual contributors with perceived leadership potential fit—will the program focus on a select few in a high-potential program? Or is the target audience senior executives? Front-line leaders? Is this a remedial effort for those in the bottom quartile of effectiveness? The broader intent may be to improve the behavior of all leader demographics, and the program should address each appropriately.
- Ensure Senior Manager Support
Determine to what degree senior leaders are in agreement with the objectives of the effort. Will they:
- Actively and openly support the initiatives?
- Meet with their direct reports before and after their attendance at a session?
- Hold direct reports accountable for implementing what they learn?
- Teach, speak, and attend sessions?
- Utilize Powerful Learning Interventions
Clarify to participants that the objective is behavior change, not simply information or personal insights. This requires experiential, highly visceral learning experiences that interweave the experience with actual work responsibilities. Emphasize building strengths and provide opportunities for rehearsal and practice along with feedback from other participants. Transfer responsibility for results to the participants themselves.
- Build Development into the Culture
Incorporate the content of leadership development into the prevailing management practices by imbedding the competency model into guidelines for recruitment, selection, onboarding, performance management, promotion practices, and compensation. Utilize the participants’ current position as the ideal laboratory or classroom in which to apply what is learned. Organize and monitor the involvement of the immediate manager in the development of their direct reports.
- Provide Ongoing Sustainment
Measure outcomes. Utilize repeated administration of 360-degree feedback along with organizational surveys. Initiate a series of sustainment activities including refreshment sessions, ongoing coaching, articles to read, video clips to review, and messages from senior executives.
The above six elements are not the same as the leadership competencies that make an individual leader extraordinary. These are like the main ingredients of a recipe for preparing a classic soufflé. Leave out any one ingredient and the outcome will be seriously damaged. Organizations do not have the luxury of choosing which of these to include and which to leave out. While some additional ingredients could be added to make the outcome even better, these six basic ingredients are vital for success.
Many organizations embark on a seemingly endless search for the one step to take that will solve their problems (e.g., the one new marketing technique that will boost sales). The evidence is clear, however, that when it comes to filling the organization’s leadership pipeline to the brim, it is best to forget the quest for any silver bullet. Instead, focus on insuring that all of the necessary ingredients for success are in place. Should one be weak or missing, fix it. Fill the gap. Insure that all the cylinders are firing.