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Your Company: The Next Generation

How leadership training has evolved – and why yours probably needs to do the same

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based business writer. She can be reached at strategy@albertaventure.com

Apr 1, 2013

by Marzena Czarnecka

No one has to tell you today’s workforce is mobile. People come. People go. Mostly, it seems, they go. They’re so mobile, in fact, that you’re becoming less and less inclined to, well, train them at the junior levels. You’ve been steadily eroding the human resources department’s professional development program for years. Because, well, you train them, they leave. What’s the point?

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Illustration Pete Ryan

Here’s the good news, sort of. You’re not the only one doing this. In fact, everyone’s doing this. Giving lip service to professional development yadda-yadda-yadda but clawing back the dollars as employees do six months here, two years there, which means the up-and-coming cadre of senior people – the people who will eventually be your C-suite, your top leaders – haven’t received the type of training coming up through the ranks as you did.

Oops.

“There isn’t the kind of long-term thoughtful employee development that there had been 15 or 20 years ago,” says Jim Fries, partner and lead coach with Cenera Human Resource and Business Consultants. He doesn’t judge or condemn: He gets the business case for the clawback. And frankly, even if you had a stellar lower-rank employee development program, workforce mobility trends mean hardly any of your senior people will have actually gone through it. And that means, if you want your top leaders to have skills and clout, you’ve got to ramp up your C-suite training. Now.

“Great managers offer a competitive advantage. No global enterprise can maintain a competitive edge without capable leaders at every level of the organization.” – Tasha Giroux, Regional Operating Officer, RBC

You knew that, right? That the VP you’re considering as your successor (and the senior manager you think might then replace her) needs to be trained, groomed and developed? That they’ll both need skills they won’t just automatically learn on the job or magically absorb from riding the elevator with you occasionally? Good. Sometimes, especially at mid-market and family owned companies, people forget that leaders – even natural – born leaders – need to hone some key skills to be truly effective.

Fortunately, as the level of professional development at the bottom has been dropping, “the calibre and quality of the training at the executive level is going up,” says Fries. In Human Capital Trends 2012: Leap Ahead, Deloitte’s consultants note that CEOs in every industry rate leadership development as a top-three priority, and that they are “investing in an integrated set of data-driven activities to accelerate the development of their most promising leadership talent.”

How companies do this varies immensely, by individual company and industry sector. But there are clear best practices and governing philosophies. Tasha Giroux, regional operating officer with RBC, describes the leading Canadian bank’s “management curriculum” as designed to develop leaders with abilities such as “the softer side of leading people (how to inspire, motivate and engage employees),” “business and financial acumen,” and “strengthening client relationships and loyalty.” The driver behind RBC’s investment in leadership training is simple. “Great managers offer a competitive advantage,” says Giroux. “No global enterprise can maintain a competitive edge without capable leaders at every level of the organization.”

And frankly, a local enterprise is going to struggle too.

But if you’re a smaller shop grappling with the big issue of developing your C-suite stars, don’t panic.

For Fries’s Alberta business clients, the most important training trends for execs are pretty simple and revolve around an increased focus on collaboration and more pervasive use of coaching – with almost everything a company does on C-suite training plugged into its succession planning strategy. (You’ve got one of those, right? No? That’s a problem. We’ll talk about it in a couple of months …)

C-suite collaboration is really an extension of the recognition by businesses and organizations of how interdependent its various parts are. The old school approach to facilitating top performance from your various departments or offices (this was rampant in the oil patch, and it isn’t dead yet) was to sic your teams against each other. Fries offers up the example of CEOs who “felt the best outcome was when engineering and construction and operations were all fighting with each other.” That provided the company with checks and balances – and the individual leaders and teams with “motivation” to get the job done. “I just don’t see that anymore, not on a conscious level, anyway,” Fries says. “The more conscious strategies are about improving collaboration, improving trust, and building executive teams.”

(Executive teams work together, and that means aligning reward (i.e. compensation) strategies with collaborative themes – giving leaders not just skills on how to work collaboratively but also rewards for doing so.) “If you and I are working together and we have no shared goals, then why would I work with you – other than that I’m a nice guy?” Fries says. “When push comes to shove, me collaborating with you and giving you support takes money out of my jeans.” Unless the organization actively addresses that. Do you?

Awesome. You’ve sent all your VPs and senior managers to Collaboration School, you’ve made them take the online seminars and bought them the books (they’ve read them, of course …). What now? Well, perhaps the biggest change in C-suite management these days is follow-up coaching. Ten years ago, coaching was, as Fries puts it, “the launching pad for poorformers.” That is, it was the last thing you did for a failing executive before you showed him the door. Today, a company serious about C-suite development may well have a coach for each of its key leaders, some on a short-term basis to support the leaders as they work to implement skills, theories and models they’ve learned in professional development programmes, and some on long-term basis with a view to maximizing their potential for your company.

“Today, coaching is really about working with high-potential leaders or newly promoted leaders,” says Fries. “It’s a big move to go from being an individual contributor to leading others, or from leading a group of individual contributors to leading a group of managers.” Or from being an operations manager to a VP, never mind from being a VP to the CEO, the one person in the company with no true peers.

Tying both of these trends – and indeed, any of the best practices in leadership development – together is about embracing a big-picture view and recognizing that C-suite development isn’t about bolstering the skills of the individual or even an individual business unit but about the long-term good of the company. In other words, almost all development you do at this level – scratch that, all of it – is ultimately about succession planning. Not just for the top job, but for the entire company.

“The need to develop people in the senior management level, to set them up to succeed and move up in the organization is very much on the agenda of every CEO,” says Fries. You don’t do that, and your organization’s chances of outliving your retirement are slim. Sorry.

Good news, though: RBC’s Giroux says “it’s evident that many organizations are investing in their leadership and management capability as a strategic competitive advantage,” globally and locally in Alberta. The best of these strategies, she says, are about developing “leaders’ capabilities for … adapting to a changing world.”

If you can get your C-suite talent to collaboratively take on the changing world, you’ve got it made. So, get to it.

What is a good leader, anyways?

Kaisen Consulting’s research suggests the most effective senior leaders do the following six things consistently:

  • Drive business competitiveness and innovation
  • Build key relationships and win people over without using position
  • Develop their people for the longer term
  • Achieve results through the performance of others
  • Set and effectively communicate vision and direction for people
  • Model a true sense of collaboration

Leaders with the greatest potential possess four additional attributes that enable them to develop leadership capabilities faster than others:

  • Change potential. Driving and responding to change; seeing opportunity
    in uncertainty
  • People potential. Adapting to changing and complex interpersonal demands
  • Intellectual potential. Thinking quickly and flexibly
  • Motivational potential. Adapting personal drive and focus to perform well in new and changing contexts
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