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Leadership Development: Secure the Future

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or to get all the credit for doing it. - Andrew Carnegie

At a senior level of an organization, the ability to adapt, make decisions quickly in situations of high uncertainty, and steer through wrenching change is critical. But when the need for superior talent increases, big U.S. companies find it challenging to attract and keep good people. Executives and experts point to a severe and worsening shortage of the people needed to run divisions and manage critical functions, let alone lead companies. Everyone knows organizations where key jobs go begging, business aims languish, and compensation packages skyrocket.

In a recent interview, Dr. Jay Conger states that business organizations are not designed to be great training grounds for leadership development. They are great training grounds for executing an existing business model, and if [the business model is] suitable, all you need are managers. The problem is that every few years, that business model comes under attack; when it does, you need leaders. The problem is that you have not been developing them, so you get blown out of the water. î (why Chief Executives Fail, î May 2003, Management Today)

As faithful readers know, I have had the pleasure and honor to meet the world’s most outstanding leaders and leadership gurus, from Sir Richard Branson, General Tommy Franks, and Captain Mike Abrashoff to Dr. Warren Bennis, Dr. Henry Mintzberg, Tom Peters, and most recently Dr. Jay Conger. Through our work with Linkage Inc., we help support broadcasts of these famous people by designing and developing participant and facilitator guides that clients use to turn a 90-minute presentation into an authentic learning and growth opportunity.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Jay Conger to discuss the topic of leadership development and succession planning. Dr. Conger has found that companies who are successful at finding and developing leadership talent address each of the following key components:

Sponsorship – personal, active, and regular involvement at the highest levels.

Selection - matching capabilities with organizational needs; avoiding complex competency models; acknowledging and addressing things that will derail a potential leader.

Assessors - objectively and subjectively measuring performance and results.

Participants - engaged and personally committed potential leaders, resulting in greater self-direction and organizational loyalty.

Development linkages - using stretch goals and various assignments, participants are being developed, not merely found for succession in a purposeful and planned manner.

You are tracking - measuring the leader's effectiveness and the leading choice and development process to ensure continual improvement in developing the leadership bench.

In his book, Growing Your Company’s Leaders: How Great Organizations Use Succession Management to Sustain Competitive Advantage, Dr. Conger outlines the characteristics of companies winning the war for talent through their leadership development systems. These characteristics include:

First, the most effective systems are simple and easy to use. All participants, not just those running the plans but candidates, have easy access to them. Data is secure but open to those who need it. The winning systems are nonbureaucratic, uncomplicated processes. As an element of that simplicity, there is a unified approach to succession management to ensure consistency and keep the objectivity of succession management between different business units, organizational levels, and geographic areas.

Second, the best systems are developmentally oriented rather than simply focused or replacement oriented. System processes are more concerned with the continuing growth and development of the employee than with an ultimate job title. They introduce a discipline into the organization that continually reminds everyone that leadership development and talent retention are critical priorities and every manager’s responsibility. The system becomes an initiative-taking vehicle for managers and executives to reflect on the progress of their talent and the opportunities they need for genuine development.

Third, highly effective systems always actively involve the very top players of the organization. The CEO and the executive team are committed sponsors and champions-proactively taking part in determinations of talent and in the following steps to ensure the full development of their talented employees. Senior executives see effective succession management as a critical strategic tool for attracting and keeping their most talented leaders.

Fourth, best practice succession systems effectively spot talent gaps and find important linchpin positions. They highlight existing or emerging needs with potential talent shortages within the firm. They focus on classes- a select set of jobs critical to the organization's overall success. These positions and those who fill their merit receive regular and intensive attention. The better systems also find the best jobs for development and whether there are a sufficient number of these or shortages.

Fifth, succession planning still checks the succession process, enabling the company to ensure that the right people are moving into the correct positions at the right time and that gaps are being spotted early. The best systems incorporate frequent checkpoints throughout the year. These checkpoints check who is where and where the person should go next. A checkpoint function is built into the system to spot a problem before it becomes a problem! Succession management is so essential that the best practitioners do not ignore this function for even a quarter.

Finally, the most successful systems are built around continual reinvention. One of the most precise insights from our research is that effective succession management is a journey, not a destination. Best practice companies failed in their first efforts at succession management. Similarly, none have rested on their laurels since having their process up and running. They continually refine and adjust their systems as they receive feedback from line executives and participants, check developments in technology, and learn from other leading organizations. To avoid the ever-present danger of becoming bureaucratized and mechanical, best practice systems actively incorporate dialogues and debates about talent and the succession process. There are continuous conversations about what is needed for the future of each candidate, about who should be where, and when. There are ongoing conversations on the part of the guardians and designers about the planning process and how its use can be improved.

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