Even for those who have years of experience, mentoring and guidance under their belts, making the leap to an executive leadership position is a challenge that is hard to fully prepare for. There’s no way to understand what it’s like to sit in an executive chair until you get there. And once there the leaders have to be in a constant state of learning to be successful.
Yet, few companies invest in the kind of learning and development programs that can ease the transition, and this lack of training translates to a distinct lack of leadership. Data from a 2015 survey from The Korn Ferry Real World Leadership Report Series found that less than 20 percent of businesses think they have the leaders they need to deliver on strategic priorities. Because of this daunting reality, attitudes toward executive leadership training are starting to shift.
Further, a 2016 Trends in Executive Development Report from The Executive Development Associates emphasizes that organizations across the world need to focus on the next generation of leadership competencies to strategically outline and address rising leaders’ needs. It is a large time and monetary investment, but the payoff is significant. So, the need is clear, but businesses must now determine how to develop effective learning programs. What follows is one potential roadmap.
There is no quick fix to develop talent and leadership from the ground up. Companies recognize this, and many look outward, turning to external vendors that offer executive development courses to get employees thinking in new ways and tap into skills not outlined on their resumes. But these programs come with a hefty price tag. According to a January 2014 statistic from McKinsey & Co., in the United States alone, companies spend around $14 billion annually on leadership development programs, and that number has likely increased since that time. While these programs can foster self-awareness and leadership skills development, these gains are often not sustainable.
To truly grow today’s employees into tomorrow’s leaders, organizations may be better off addressing this issue from within. Family-owned construction, engineering, staffing and defense firm Day & Zimmermann has developed a program that turns traditional leadership development on its head and offers some key components that would bring value to almost any organization. [Editor’s note: The author works for Day & Zimmermann]
An executive development program, or EDP, should provide employees with exposure to high-level executives to leverage internal knowledge and proprietary know-how. It should include a cross section of leaders from different functions and interests who come together to build self-awareness in their less experienced peers, help them learn the context in which they are leading, and guide their efforts to apply new skills to help fuel their next wave of growth.
In an internal EDP participants identify and solve real business problems for the company while simultaneously developing the people — something that doesn’t happen in the turn-of-the-century organizational structure or in many current external development courses.
An effective EDP also should help foster a trusting, collaborative learning environment. A team approach will allow participants to get different perspectives, while building a support network. Most importantly, an executive development program should have real effects on business processes or strategies. It’s the only way for participants to learn the lessons and consequences that come with sitting in the executive chair. The program should be structured into three parts that allow for free exploration and active participation.
- Pre-connection: Before any type of formal program is implemented, it’s important to select the right participants and the ground rules. The goal should be to not only enhance current leaders’ skills but to help them build connections across the company that will promote longer-term operational execution. With this in mind, businesses should identify a diverse group of existing employees from all over the organization. Opportunities to meet in advance of the program and take part in exercises where participants are vulnerable in front of one another can quickly promote trust, and facilitate an environment where participants can take risks, speak openly, and offer each other feedback.
- Free-connection After the program framework is set and trust established, participants must identify and scope the problem they want to solve. Overly prescriptive expectations constrain the group and deprive them of vital lessons. As our CEO Harold L. Yoh once said, “the job of leaders is not solving the problem, it’s framing it.” Leaders must determine how to scope the issue given limited time and resources. How they negotiate this task and organize is also critical to the group process. It is up to participants to tap into the networks, access information and resources, and manage stakeholder expectations. Throughout this intensive period, they often discover the way they led in the past won’t work and that new approaches are required. Open, honest feedback is critical. Finally, their efforts need to culminate in a high stakes presentation where their efforts are evaluated, more feedback is offered, and executives decide how to act on their recommendations.
- Reconnection Once the program is complete and the strategies and ideas have been implemented within the company, the group should meet regularly to check on the progress of their work and to ensure that key objectives are being carried out throughout the organization. More importantly, this group should stay in regular contact with each other. As a group of key company leaders their shared purpose and collaboration will ultimately be key to the company’s future success. Also, they should reconvene at least annually to start the process again to address new company issues.
Creating and facilitating an internal EDP is important for any large organization looking to steer away from traditional linear thinking toward an approach that solves problems and develops leaders in a more holistic, sustainable way. It must fit into the organization’s culture yet provide space for program participants to challenge the culture. Executive leadership must remain involved, open and committed. Eventually, well-conceived and successful development programs can be leveraged as retention and recruiting tools.
Business today is more fluid than ever, and those left operating on a linear model are sinking. Creating an internal executive development program is step one to make sure your organization stays afloat.
Erica Freedman is vice president of talent and organizational development for Day & Zimmermann. To comment email editor@CLOmedia.com.