Filling the leadership gap

Many organizations are unhappy with the leadership development status quo and are being challenged to rethink and revise leadership development.

On the one hand, leadership development has emerged as a top HR issue. On the other hand, there is a growing consensus current approaches to leadership development are not effective. As a result, senior executives are beginning to question the way leaders are developed.

The leadership gap in Canada

Ask CEOs and you’ll find one of the things keeping them up at nights is a shortage of good leaders in their organizations.

A 2001 Conference Board of Canada report, Leadership for Tomorrow: A Challenge for Business Today, found up to 70 per cent of Canadian CEOs interviewed considered building leadership capability their number one business issue. These same chief executives also admitted their organizations did not have the leadership capacity in place to succeed in today’s highly unpredictable business environment.

These findings are indicative of some of the serious leadership problems facing many Canadian organizations. In fact, the Conference Board concluded there is a leadership gap in Canada and that it is seriously affecting the overall competitiveness of companies.

But that is not all; there is evidently another serious gap in leadership development practices. Recent research conducted by Hewitt Associates suggests senior executives see current approaches to leadership development as ineffective.

Hewitt surveyed CEOs and HR executives of 240 major U.S.-based, multinational companies and found that only 32 per cent believed that their leadership development programs were effective.

Why is there a gap?

It’s becoming increasingly clear gaps in leadership and leadership development largely stem from flaws in way we have thought about and taught leadership. More specifically, current approaches to leadership development are too generic — focusing primarily on developing generic leadership attributes while ignoring organization-specific attributes that drive business results.

In Results-Based Leadership (1999), authors David Ulrich, Jack Zenger and Norman Smallwood state the problem with many leadership models is they over-emphasize generic attributes of leaders, while de-emphasizing the results leaders need to attain within their organizations.

While these models have value, they often fall short in delivering the results senior executives expect.

In the Hewitt survey, 70 per cent of respondents said internal classroom-based training was the primary strategy used to develop leaders. Classroom training does have its place in leadership development but leaders are more pressed for time and therefore less likely to sit through week-long residential leadership development programs.

What’s more, they are looking for leading-edge ideas to help them solve complex business problems. Generic models, by definition, are not leading edge and don’t change quickly enough to address complex business challenges.

Successful leadership development is enhanced through the following strategies.

Engage senior leaders. In organizations where leadership development is working well, senior leaders are engaged. This engagement goes beyond support to actual involvement. In many cases leadership development is part of the CEO’s agenda, rather than the HR agenda. The CEO and members of the executive team assume accountability for developing leaders. Senior leaders are directly involved in delivering content, facilitating discussions with learners and in assessing leadership capability.

Engaging senior leaders is not always easy. HR professionals need to position leadership development as a critical business issue. When it is effectively portrayed as vital to the very survival of the business, the management team will listen.

Define the leadership story. The fundamental tenet of generic leadership models is that leadership is the same across many different types of organizations. This is wrong.

Leadership means different things in different organizations. Leadership within a financial institution is different than the leadership needed to drive business results within a manufacturing setting or a professional services firm. Industries and sectors shape the type of leadership that will best drive business results.

HR must create a compelling story that communicates the organization’s brand of leadership. The process begins by defining what leadership means within the organization and why it is critical to future success. Then specific leadership values and competencies need to be defined. Organizations can go one step further and identify actual “leadership stories” that demonstrate how leaders have helped the organization overcome challenging business situations.

Integrate leadership development strategies. Organizations are trying a variety of development strategies such as executive assessment, 360-degree feedback, work associate reviews, classroom-based training, e-learning modules, real-time facilitated learning, stretch assignments, cohort groups, coaching, mentoring and action learning.

Often these strategies are fragmented and not connected to one another. Managers can’t see how strategies link to one another. And when it is not clear each strategy is part of a bigger picture, it becomes too easy for managers to simply give up on the process or simply go through the motions of what they dismiss as just another HR program. This often takes away from the credibility of HR and its leadership initiatives.

Identify a few critical leadership practices, such as 360-degree feedback, coaching and learning, and integrate them so they are seen as part of a complete leadership development process. A critical challenge for HR professionals will be to bring this sense of cohesion and alignment to all leadership development practices.

Think about the leadership lifecycle. Targeted leadership development strategies should be based on a leadership lifecycle. There are times when a leader needs extra support in her career. The first important moment in the leadership lifecycle occurs when an employee becomes a leader. Often, new managers need extra help and support but don’t get it; they feel tremendous pressure to prove themselves but won’t ask for help because they don’t want to appear weak.

Other important moments in the leadership lifecycle include the arrival into the executive ranks or a leadership role in an international setting.

The leadership lifecycle will be different in every organization. By thinking about leadership as part of a lifecycle HR professionals can focus more strategically during times that matter most to leaders.

Help leaders learn from experience. No approach to leadership development will fully prepare leaders for the judgments, decisions and challenges they will face in their jobs. This means some of the most important lessons about leadership will not come from a classroom, but from everyday experience. Most leaders say their most important leadership schooling has come from trial and error, dealing with hardships and difficult situations, and by observing others.

HR professionals must help leaders to reflect on their own experiences to develop key learnings and insights. This reflection can be done formally within leadership programs. It can also be done informally. HR professionals can play important roles as internal coaches, working with leaders, helping them reflect on their experiences, assisting them through difficult leadership situations and reinforcing the leadership values of the organization.

As the need for strong leadership capability continues to increase in Canadian organizations, HR professionals will be called upon to rethink leadership development in ways that better drive business results. Generic models of leadership will no longer be sufficient to address the needs of tomorrow’s leaders. New ways of thinking about leadership will be needed.

Vince Molinaro is a senior consultant in the firm GSWconsultants — Geller, Shedletsky & Weiss a business strategy and human resources consulting firm specializing in enhancing organizational, team and individual performance. He specializes in developing, implementing and delivering leadership programs. He can be reached (905) 338-9701 or [email protected]

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