Leadership no game of chance

Take a systematic approach to enhance your leadership strategy
By Karen Pastakia
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/03/2011

The recent financial crisis — as well as numerous environmental and public safety disasters — has been directly linked to leadership failures and many senior leaders are feeling the crunch, according to a survey by Deloitte.

Thirty-eight per cent of senior global business leaders said “developing leaders and succession planning” is their most pressing talent concern, according to Talent Edge 2020: Blueprints for the new normal. While organizations have always made some investment in the development of future leaders, they are now realizing leadership must be a major priority, not only for success but survival.

The growing talent shortage complicates matters considerably. Many leaders and senior executives will soon retire and succession candidates who are ready, willing and capable of filling those roles are in short supply. Prospective leaders from generations X and Y have the ambition and raw capability but lack the skills and experience to step directly into senior positions, and certainly not in sufficient numbers.

With 56 per cent of survey respondents forecasting leadership shortages, it should not be surprising developing the next generation of corporate leaders is seen as a clear talent imperative among senior executives. Despite this, organizations continue to, predominantly, employ a programmatic response that delivers debatable results.

Current leadership development: Hope for the best

While investment in leadership development programs bears fruit, many organizations are unclear as to what kinds of leaders are needed to execute the current strategy and grow the business. It is increasingly important for organizational leaders to understand, at a much more granular level, their industry, business and the emerging trends that will impact them down the line, such as the increasing presence of global markets, diverse workforces and the scale and complexity of technology.

When leadership programs or solutions are the starting point, rather than a result of business and leadership strategies, a lot is left to chance. In an ever-changing business environment, a more systematic approach to the development of leaders is required — one that is fully aligned and integrated with corporate goals.

The next level of leadership: Systematic design, strategic focus

While many organizations understand the theory behind systematic leadership development, they often fall short on implementation. Too often, they lack the connective tissue between business strategy and leadership strategy: A clear point of view regarding leadership governance and full alignment of talent processes. In essence, they don’t have a guiding framework or mechanism to bring the parts together to work for the whole.

While there may be a leadership pipeline, it often does not define the kinds of leaders needed for the future. There may be essential processes and programs, such as career mobility and performance management, but they’re not aligned with a leadership strategy — or even with each other. Perhaps there’s a powerful organizational culture but it’s wholly unrelated to where the company is heading.

Building this connectivity requires the entire leadership development process — from strategy to solutions — be treated as one system. No single element can flourish on its own. It’s the interactions among them that make the system agile and robust enough to weather the changing demands of the organizational environment.

While this is challenging, it usually requires rethinking and reorganizing rather than rebuilding. Many of the processes are likely in place already — they just need to be integrated in a new way. An organization can then start to consistently generate the leadership it needs, rather than leave it — and the business’ future — to chance.

Follow the leaders: Survival may depend on rethinking leadership strategies

Only 20 per cent of global business leaders consider their company’s talent management programs to be world-class, according to Talent Edge 2020. These companies approach external and internal talent issues differently from companies that feel they are underperforming. World-class talent leaders not only think and act more globally on multiple talent fronts, they exhibit greater integration between internal talent programs and overall business strategy. These companies appear to have different priorities than underperformers and a stronger focus on long-term talent investments.

Over the last couple of years, there has been a renewed focus on leadership development but most organizations still lack a comprehensive leadership strategy that goes beyond individual programs, taking a systematic, organization-wide approach.

The first step is to be clear on the business strategy, both the short- and long-term, and then define the kind of capabilities needed from leaders to execute this strategy, now and in the future. It’s important to understand how these capabilities are different or similar to those there today and how the experiences or skills can either be acquired or developed.

It’s then important to ensure the leadership pipeline, talent management processes and corporate culture are aligned and integrated. In creating this alignment, you may begin to instil the desired leadership behaviours. This often includes conversations regarding governance and trade-offs. Are we focused on developing dominant or multi-disciplinary leaders? Will we build or buy the pipeline of leaders we need? Will we manage our leadership development centrally or locally?

Next, look at the current pipeline of leaders. Who is in the pipeline and do they have the right capabilities? Have we exposed all emerging leaders throughout the organization? It’s about proactively ensuring there is a pipeline for today and the future and, if there are gaps, being better positioned to fill them in a timely way.

All the talent programs in the organization need to support the leadership strategy — including sourcing, recruitment, training, coaching, compensation and recognition — to ensure these programs are building the kind of leader the strategy requires.

As critical as a development strategy is, it can be wasted if it is not aligned with and embedded in the organizational culture. If the culture’s shared values and observable behaviours successfully support and drive business goals, leadership initiatives must be aligned to avoid creating conflict. If the culture isn’t delivering what is wanted, changing it may be where the leadership strategy begins.

Leadership matters and everybody knows it. But knowing it and taking the right steps to develop it are two different things. Take the time to pause and ensure you are taking a systematic, integrated approach to leadership development.

Karen Pastakia is senior manager of human capital consulting at Deloitte in Toronto. She can be reached at kapastakia@deloitte.ca.

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