Looking inside for leaders at CCL, Alliance Atlantis

Those on the management track can no longer hone their skills solely by promotions through a series of increasingly responsible positions

Finding and grooming future leaders is the number one concern for many HR departments.

No matter the goals or objectives an organization sets, leadership talent is critical to translating corporate strategy into action. At the same time, organizations have been challenged to do more with less.

The practical implication of this, particularly throughout the ’90s, was an increase in corporate downsizing initiatives and the outsourcing of non-core operations which led to flattened organizations typical of the new millennium.

No longer can those on the management track hone their skills solely by promotions through a series of increasingly responsible positions. Neither can executives expect to find home-grown management with the same diversity of experience that they might have had a decade ago.

“Companies lack the depth and breadth they had in the past to develop talent through a range of assignments over time,” says Gord Wilson, of Wilson Partners in Mississauga, Ont., a company that provides interim managers to business.

“When an organization is flattened, or when it is too small for several layers of management, then other strategies have to be used to foster leaders. The two broad options for leadership talent are to develop it from within or find it outside. Interim management is a third option that combines the freshness of external talent with internal development of employees.”

At CCL Industries, a manufacturing company in Toronto, about 1,000 employees have completed its leadership training program since it started in 1992. Participants get a leadership certificate after eight sessions that cover everything from motivation to conflict resolution. A new “elite leadership” program with weekly sessions over a full year is building on this foundation.

“I define leadership as the ability to move people towards a common goal,” says Donna Kirisits, director of HR.

“Every single person can be a leader, whether they work on the line or are a supervisor. Our leadership training is open to everyone in the company. We schedule sessions to overlap the beginning and end of shifts to make it easy for people to attend and to minimize business disruption.”

CCL draws on its leadership pool for projects and assignments. In the competitive business environment of manufacturing, the leadership training has helped in implementing continuous improvement projects and made employees feel better about the company. “Growing talent inside the organization is great for employee morale. Employees feel valued that the company is investing in them. They take pride in their new skills. And managers know they have people ready to take on new challenges,” she says.

Alliance Atlantis also grooms leaders from within as part of retaining a strong talent base. With relatively few management opportunities, the company uses projects rather than positions to develop leaders and evaluate their skills, says Sandy Walker, vice-president of HR and administrative services. Training gets potential leaders into the game but on-the-job challenges are what moves the individual and the company forward. Projects are the vehicle to see who has the capacity to grow and who is holding the organization back, she says.

“We encourage staff to take a step even if it is a stretch,” says Walker. “We want to provide the maximum opportunities for people who make a commitment to the company. It could be a project, an international assignment, managing an acquisition or opening a new office. We need adaptable, nimble thinkers who can solve problems for which they have had no previous experience. We want to identify those who can take us to the next level. This applies both to those who mentor and those who take on the assignments.”

Alliance Atlantis also values employees who get involved in volunteer work. Walker says volunteering puts staff in new situations and sharpens their problem-solving abilities. They benefit from exposure to executives from other industries with different ways of thinking. The involvement helps keep the leadership team from stagnating.

There are times, however, when an internal leadership pool does not address the current business challenges. It could be the acquisition of a new line of business, a special project or an unexpected vacancy or leave of absence. Time may be critical, the source of talent unknown, and the risk of failure unacceptable.

Wilson, of Wilson Partners, says such situations have led to an increase in demand for project-based interim management.

“By in-sourcing skilled interim managers, the usual worries about corporate fit and delays associated with conventional recruitment are avoided. The organization gains immediate access to leadership skills. The interim manager brings ability, expertise and business contacts to a company for as long as is needed to accomplish the required task. Quality managers can build careers by delivering results on a project basis to organizations faced with challenging, time-limited assignments. Part of the task can be to mentor internal talent and to transfer skills to the organization. When the interim manager moves on to the next assignment, the organization will have met its benchmarks and gained a new perspective.”

While it can be challenging for small and flattened organizations to identify, develop and ultimately reward leadership hopefuls drawn from within, there are companies that have succeeded in doing so. Through training, strategic assignments, and in-sourcing management support, employees can be challenged to meet the leadership needs of their organizations.

Susan Singh is principal of Sumack Consulting, which provides business writing services. She may be contacted at [email protected].

Latest stories