Right now, somewhere in a sunny boardroom, a leadership strategy is being born.
Learning leaders are clicking through a fully researched, neatly packaged, well-rehearsed presentation, unveiling a stark reality about the senior management team. Their story is vivid and sobering. If something isn’t done immediately, the business will soon face crippling leadership shortages.
Growth, technology, globalization, culture change and leaders retiring all have conspired to create imminent leadership shortages beyond the limits of current or near-term capability. External hiring won’t be enough. And so, like a crisp smack to a newborn’s bare bottom, another plan to grow leaders from within is launched.
More likely than not, however, the plan doesn’t stand a chance.
Truth is, most leadership acceleration plans will fail. While arising from urgent need and logical design, the data show the majority don’t generate the capability they were built to deliver. Leadership readiness is low and declining, according to two consecutive Global Leadership Forecast studies from DDI — 2011 and 2015. [Editor’s note: Author works for DDI.] Of participating organizations, only 18 percent (2011) and 15 percent (2015) had sufficient bench strength to meet oncoming business demands.
But the shortages are not for lack of trying. Two-thirds of organizations sampled reported having leadership acceleration programs in place to generate greater readiness. Yet, of those, 74 percent reported their efforts were not working.
Why? Most strategies define success criteria, find people with potential, assess leadership capability accurately, provide learning experiences, etc. What they’re often missing, however, is focus.
Like any good business strategy, a leadership strategy is more than a series of programs. It’s a discipline, a management routine. It’s not enough for a business leadership team to sanction learning and development activities and then watch from the sidelines. Management needs to get in the game, commit to a plan for acceleration, and manage it as a priority equal to other top business objectives.
Staying focused requires five elements. None are complex, but to sustain progress all must be in place, and the senior management team must be aligned around these five steps to focus and sustain a leadership acceleration strategy.
- Isolate your top leadership priorities. It’s one thing to understand the business and have a plan for growth with a few critical priorities. But every business situation has its own specific leadership challenges. Some situations require leaders to drive efficiency or control costs. Others need leaders who can spur innovation or develop a new competitive approach. If you haven’t zeroed in on the three or four critical challenges your leaders will face as they execute the business plan, you won’t have a way to know if your leadership capability is keeping step with your organization’s strategic and cultural priorities.
- Size your leadership capacity gaps. You may know that you need more leaders, but do you know precisely how many — and where — in which positions, levels, countries, etc. — you’ll need them? What new or different skills will be required? Do you have enough mid-level leaders? General managers? Executives? Quantifying your leadership gap is key to making your business case for the leadership acceleration plan. As your plan unfolds, you’ll refer to it constantly and update it continually. Goals will be more tangible and accountabilities for meeting them will be clearer.
- Tune your growth engine. Based on your leadership priorities and gaps, choose which programs and initiatives to build or improve so you can stock and grow your leadership pipeline. Consider how you should identify leadership potential, assess readiness, accelerate growth and drive performance. Continue to fine-tune these levers to your organization’s specific needs.
- Keep score with an acceleration dashboard. It’s well known that “what gets measured gets done” —and like any strategic objective, you’ll need a way to chart progress. You won’t be able to measure everything, so choose the few make-or-break metrics that most readily demonstrate that growth — not just learning activity — is happening. Find a way to display and discuss it regularly. Don’t skip this step.
- Secure your focus. This is the Achilles’ heel for many a failed leadership strategy. Focus requires communication about why leadership acceleration is essential to the business. It requires a commitment to building skill, which isn’t always easy. And it requires that roles and accountabilities be clear. Paying attention to these focus factors can keep your efforts alive over the long term.
Together, these five tactics can convert a marginalized leadership agenda into a top business priority, ensure that growth happens and that the acceleration plan lives on and outlasts the people who launched it. A complete leadership strategy will prescribe a way of operating that makes your leadership growth efforts work better by getting more people in the game, earlier in their careers, with the guidance they need to develop capabilities for your business. It’s more than simply helping your organization learn. It’s helping it grow by applying learning to the problems your business is facing.
Matthew J. Paese is vice president of succession management and C-Suite services for Development Dimensions International, and co-author of “Leaders Ready Now: Accelerating Growth in a Faster World.” To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.