Guiding talent up the ladder

Getting rid of a lot of middle management has forced business leaders to rethink approaches to leadership development
By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/12/2004


any senior executives have suddenly realized decisions they made years ago are making it difficult to find the next generation of leaders for their organizations, says Kathleen Grace, a partner specializing in senior leadership team building with Newmarket, Ont.-based Jackson Leadership Systems.

“There is a lot of anxiety-driven business that comes in our door,” she says.

They’re doing the math and realizing the numbers don’t add up, she says. They don’t have people ready to take over.

It’s a common observation from leadership development experts who see first-hand, day after day, organizations struggling to find the next generation of leaders.

“It is a huge, huge challenging issue,” says Doug Macnamara, president and CEO of Banff Executive Leadership Inc., in Alberta. At the same time organizations were cutting out layers of management, they were cutting training budgets, he says.

“Very few organizations have invested in their leadership development over the last 10 to 15 years.” And now they are facing a leadership crisis with many executives ready to retire and shallow pools from which to fish their replacements.

The dearth of training and the shortage of promotion and development opportunities have prompted some people to leave their employers to get experience elsewhere. And organizations concerned that high-potential staff aren’t being stretched the way they need to, encourage them to get more experience from volunteer work, Macnamara says.

Still others will have no alternative but to promote people who don’t have the experience needed to do the job. It’ll happen a lot more in the future, but it is already happening today, he says. They’re being promoted for their potential rather than their proven ability, he says. Then it is up to the organization to figure out what resources are needed to help them succeed.

This approach comes with an element of risk, as demonstrated by the growing list of leadership “crash and burns,” he says.

“Well-meaning, hard-working, dedicated people are trying to do a job that they have virtually no training for and virtually no experience to do.”

Getting rid of a lot of middle management has forced business leaders to rethink approaches to leadership development, says Karl Moore, an expert in executive education with McGill University’s Faculty of Management in Montreal.

In the past when there were a lot of middle managers, it was easier to pick and choose from a relatively large pool of candidates to fill senior positions. Those employers that are doing something about it are identifying high potential leaders as early as possible and then dedicating more time, energy and money on developing the select few, he says.

“But when you do this, the danger is that you will overlook someone, or it may stir up envy among other troops,” he says. There is no real solution; it’s just something you have to be aware of.

But what’s also interesting about finding leaders in this environment is that at the same time the availability of senior positions has declined, there has been a drop off in demand for those positions, he says. “We have fewer needs for senior people but on the other hand, we have fewer people who want to get to those positions.”

He’s heard from a number of HR executives who are amazed at the difference between the motivations and personal philosophies of current leaders and the younger workers slated to replace them. They shake their heads at what they view as a lack of ambition, he says.

It is not necessarily a lack of ambition, but many younger workers simply aren’t willing to sacrifice their lives outside work to get to the top of the corporate ladder. “Fewer of them want to be president,” he says.

The basic leadership development tools are the same but they are being used differently now, says Grace, of Jackson Leadership Systems. Stretch assignments and coaching and mentoring, are still the most common mechanisms. But where stretch assignments once came through incremental promotions, more organizations are putting employees on special projects to develop news skills.

“Before it was much more linear, much more within the department and it was a clearer path. The vice-president of marketing probably came from marketing. Now we see a lot more lateral movement,” she says.

And while coaching and mentoring is vital in leadership development, fewer executives means there are also fewer able mentors available.

“In some organizations because of retirement, the number of leaders we have to develop in a short period of time may be more than the number of skilled or qualified mentors available. Not everyone is good at this.” The senior manager has to have a sincere desire to act as a mentor, she says. “If you have someone who is not interested in mentoring then all of the training in the world is not going to work,” she says.

Some organizations, where skilled mentoring resources are scarce, are doing more group mentoring. “One mentor may take three or four protegés to dinner,” she says. “There is nothing new here. But how do we apply mentoring in a scarce resources environment?”

Organizational downsizing and streamlining make it difficult to do leadership training simply because everyone is under such pressure to do more than they once were. There often isn’t enough time for training, says Jim Clemmer, author of

The Leader’s Digest: Timeless Principles for Team and Organization Success.

This has forced organizations to make leadership development more practical and less theoretical. There is, and always will be, a place for traditional classroom learning, but in some cases leadership development is actually being woven right into daily work, with coaches or leadership development trainers sitting right in on executive meetings and working with managers to hone leadership skills in the context of day-to-day activities. “That way you are doing it in real time with real issues,” he says.

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