It’s often assumed great leaders are born and not made — that somewhere along the way, they’re recognized for their talent and placed in a power position where they immediately flourish and never look back.
Somewhere between being noticed as a high-potential candidate for an organization and ascending to the top spot in a large enterprise, though, is leadership development. In years past, the rise to the highest roles often could be an informal, secretive and somewhat dysfunctional process. Leaders were often selected based on their loyalty and standing in an organization, which, while admirable, didn’t always yield what was best for the company nor broaden the applicant pool.
Leadership development has since become an institutionalized part of the organization, a necessity overseen by seasoned professionals who institute wide-reaching programs to prepare the candidate for a career of making critical decisions.
Modern leadership development programs often feature combinations of external coaching, simulated scenarios and self-assessments, in addition to other varieties of learning and evaluation. Administrators of these programs might disagree as to how much of one element is necessary vis-a-vis the others, but there is one aspect of the leadership development process that should be top of mind: personal attention. Leaders must learn how to deal with certain situations they’ll face from other leaders, plain and simple. This can either come from someone internally or an external consultant or leadership coach.
In a world where hardly a month goes by without reading about a controversial CEO being forced to resign, it’s not hard to connect the dots back to that leader being unprepared for what he or she might face. Thus, someone who runs a personalized leadership development program understands, regardless of the company’s size, the need for attention and feedback consistently tailored to the individual.
Debbie Friedman, operating vice president and head of the Leadership Institute at Macy’s, has worked at Macy’s for 20 years and in the leadership development program for about half of that tenure.
During her time with the company, she’s seen the formalization of their leadership development program. She’s responsible for developing hundreds of high-potential candidates to take on upper-management positions, so the program has been structured with care.
Macy’s senior leadership education focuses on two particular areas: first, helping people transition into the senior level of management and defining the attributes individuals must have to be successful at this level; and second, determining and developing high-potential executives for senior levels in the organization. This involves a process that can take up to 18 months, whisking candidates across the country and giving them personal attention in the form of executive coaching and personal assessments.
Friedman agrees with the idea of personalizing leadership, but also must compromise due to the large size of her company. This is a common theme with leadership development programs in large organizations: balancing personal leadership development with the efficient yet sometimes impersonal operating mode of a big company.
Before attending the weeklong group program, participants meet with their supervisors to set objectives for their development. The preinterview helps give leadership applicants a chance to succeed while also providing them with the personal attention required to develop into great leaders. Following this session, part of the time is spent in a group setting, and all participants have equal access to the methods used to determine the aspects of leadership they need to work on individually.
“I believe you can give participants the best of both worlds,” Friedman said. “In a structured program that has a personalized component, you’re helping people learn the overall strategies, business perspectives and skills that are required for success. You’re also personalizing it, so that individuals know exactly what they need to do on a personal level to enhance their leadership effectiveness for the future.
“Although participants attend a program in a group situation, and many of the experiences throughout the program might be similar, there’s always the personal-assessment and action-planning component for individuals. That may be in the form of psychological testing, interviews and the executive-coaching component. That makes it very personal, even though it’s a structured program and similar to what other participants would be experiencing while in the same program.”
Before she became the company’s vice president of U.S. human resources two months ago, Sherry Vidal-Brown served as vice president of learning and development at FedEx Kinko’s for four years. In her previous role, she played an integral part in developing the leadership developmental program. Divided into four different parts that increased in responsibility — Levels 1 through 3, plus an executive tier — this program attempts to inject personal influence throughout each phase.
“You have to be able to manage yourself before you can manage others,” Vidal-Brown said. “Our leadership model is one where that is put first, and then you can manage a system or a department. That’s why personal leadership and self-assessment components are critical. The types of self-assessment we use with an entry-level supervisor are a ‘paper and pencil’ kind that asks a series of questions about what their interests and preferences are. They’ll complete that during the training and walk away with three or four different things they’re going to take action on. We send a follow-up note card around six months later to inquire on the progress of those various issues they were working on.”
Even though that basic structure is followed throughout all of FedEx Kinko’s learning program levels, there are some distinctions between them. For instance, the executive program lasts a year, whereas the entry-level portion is only a couple of weeks. Fundamentals of business and managing people are covered throughout each program, but an emphasis is placed on mentoring when it comes to high-potential candidates.
FedEx Kinko’s has formal mentoring, aimed to pair candidates with executives within the company as part of their high-potential program. The mentors are there to guide the candidates through the process and prepare them for what to expect as they move on to their next role in the company. Vidal-Brown said that every leader from the CEO down is a ready and willing mentor when called upon.
The in-depth assessments and training for FedEx Kinko’s executives are another point of pride for Vidal-Brown. Viewing personal relationships as the basis for great leadership, the program takes candidates away from the office for a week devoted to progressive team-building activities and personal reflection.
“The later part involves making a ‘leadership compass’ as a way to personally guide not only how one leads in the workplace but how they lead in their personal life as well,” Vidal-Brown said.
The team-building exercises at the retreat use related role-playing business scenarios to help determine how, as a leader, an employee would react in a particular situation. The candidates are given individual feedback on their reactions to the simulations and then formulate a personal plan with their mentor on how to overcome any shortcomings, based on the exercise.
Such a personalized leadership program doesn’t come without its share of challenges. As a large and rapidly growing company, FedEx Kinko’s is training more and more employees to be leaders within their organization every day and strives to maintain a certain level of personalization in development for each position.
“Our biggest challenge is how we provide leadership training to the mass number of leaders we need to train, prepare to open our new stores and still make it personal,” Vidal-Brown said. “We have to train so many people so quickly that the ramp-up time for them to be a leader is a little more aggressive than it has been in the past or with a company that isn’t growing nearly as fast. How do we create enough time in our program to allot for that personal reflection when we’re moving at a very fast and aggressive growth pace?”
She believes that’s a worthy goal for creating good leaders who will, in turn, make sound business decisions and help the bottom line.
“If we treat our people with creating an outstanding experience focused on their development and making this a great place to work, then they will create that same experience for our customers, who, in turn, drive the kind of revenues and profits and ongoing business to FedEx Kinko’s,” she said.
In addition to training a large amount of people quickly, sizable organizations are challenged to consistently follow individuals’ progress as they go through the program. Baker & McKenzie, an international law firm with nearly 4,000 attorneys spread out over 40 countries, has revamped and personalized their leadership program recently to help include this as a priority.
Working with both the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and a professor from the London Business School, Baker & McKenzie has developed a basis of ideas on how to train its future leaders to be great.
“To be a great leader, you’ve really got to understand yourself, your own style and preferences and really figure out how you’re going to leverage those strengths and how you’re going to address some of the development areas,” said Greg Walters, chief talent officer at Baker & McKenzie. “We’ve built it as a process rather than a one-off program, which is a fundamental piece of it to allow people to practice stuff back on the job and for it to be very work related. We take people through a yearlong process.”
Similar to Macy’s and FedEx Kinko’s leadership development programs, Baker & McKenzie’s is broken down into phases of preinterviews, assessments, mentoring or coaching, actual work time and review. One of their assessments is a customized 360 evaluation based on predetermined personal qualities Baker & McKenzie deem necessary to be an effective leader.
“We did a whole mapping exercise between the 14 personal qualities we have that we feel make up the success of this firm; we did a mapping exercise of those against the CCL database of their hundreds of competencies and found the ones that directly correlated with them,” Walters said. “We already had the qualities our firm wanted. They were set a while ago, and it became a sort of matching exercise of our different outlets”
Having spent years as a CLO, Walters knows from experience the more personalized your leadership development is, the more engaged and effective your leaders will be. He says this particular program is far and away the most personal he’s seen. Baker & McKenzie’s program does stand out in one respect, because the firm uses both internal and external mentors and coaches to guide candidates through the program.
The external executive coach is intended to be an objective sounding board the employees can talk to and ask questions of with professional confidence. The internal mentor is there to oversee the day-to-day behavior of the candidate within the company. Where the executive coach can talk broadly and generally about leading others and the personal attributes it takes to do that, the internal mentor can talk specifics and give direct and immediate feedback while on the job.
While his experience taught him such personal practices are always beneficial to the individual and the organization at large, Walters was initially worried about the audience this time around.
“Lawyers are by nature skeptical people,” he said. “I think there is a level of reasonable skepticism around the whole idea of leadership assessments and the whole inward-looking, ‘what I look like as a leader’ mentality. I think people thought that’s a very soft skill, very emotional intelligence, where many lawyers, I think, will naturally want to focus on the IQ side rather than the EQ side.”
Macy’s, FedEx Kinko’s and Baker & McKenzie’s leadership development programs have different needs and operate under a different scope, but all three share one thing in common: the pursuit of personalization.
Walters was more than pleasantly surprised with the results of the first few programs, which he said were overwhelmingly positive and proved their efforts were worth the time spent.
“One of the partners said it was one of the most impactful weeks of his life, which was a nice little quote to get back on the evaluations of the programs,” he said.