Every company knows the importance of keeping its leadership pipeline flowing with a healthy supply of top-notch talent. Some recent data, however, suggests many organizations are producing bona fide leaders at a pace that’s more of a slow drip than a steady stream.
Take, for example, a recent Boston Consulting Group poll of more than 4,000 senior business and HR leaders worldwide. Despite citing “improving leadership development” and “managing talent” as their two highest business priorities, respondents also ranked these areas among their company’s most significant weaknesses.
Or, consider a recent MOVE Guides poll of 80 companies, in which just 18 percent of respondents indicated that their talent mobility programs meet their own expectations. Only 10 percent said these programs were effective at building a leadership pipeline.
Executives in HR and beyond like to talk about the time, energy (and expense) their organizations put into finding and grooming leaders within their four walls. So, why don’t the results match the effort?
Mike Fenlon, global and U.S. talent leader at PwC in New York, sees an outdated approach to talent management hampering leadership development within many firms.
“The world is changing faster than some organizations are able to adapt,” says Fenlon. “So I think there’s a fundamental disconnect — and this is broader than just leadership development. A lot of companies are saddled with an industrial-age approach to talent, [including] leadership development.”
Aiding this mindset is the idea that leadership and talent are strictly “HR issues” at some organizations, says Debbie Lovich, who heads up Boston Consulting Group’s Leadership and Talent Enablement Center in Boston.
“As soon as that happens, [talent issues are] disconnected from the business. You see it happen when line leaders are developing plans for their businesses, and ownership for anything to do with talent goes to HR,” says Lovich, who notes that BCG’s 2011 Creating People Advantage study found a mere 18 percent of 279 executives saying their companies align talent planning with business planning.
“But, the best-in-class companies don’t just throw it over the fence to HR,” she says.
Rather, leadership development initiatives should be line-led, says Lovich. That isn’t to say that HR shouldn’t play a part: But HR should be more of a partner. And there are a number of ways that HR can partner with line leaders on leadership development.”
This partnership may start with creating one-off workshops or training programs dedicated to building leadership skills — “I’m a huge fan of them,” she says — but that’s just the first step.
“I tell leaders all the time, ‘If you think about anything you weren’t naturally good at in your job, you didn’t improve by going through a course or reading a book,’ ” continues Lovich. ” ‘First you realized that you needed to be good at it, and you tried and failed, and tried and failed, and eventually learned it on the job.’
“So it’s not OK,” she continues, “for managers to just step back and say, ‘HR, train my people.’ It’s a matter of line leaders building opportunities to develop leadership attributes into employees’ day-to-day routines.”
The line leader should own this process, but HR “can help create muscle-building programs for employees, by working with [managers] to identify what muscles need to be built,” says Lovich.
For example, these programs can consist of experiential elements such as job assignments, rotations and shadowing; recurring meeting agenda items and checklists; peer-to-peer, mentor-provided or outside coaching; and real-time, on-the-job, ongoing feedback, she says.
“Then,” she says, “HR can also help design the formal line leader-led training sessions to teach them how to get the most of these integrated programs.”
Line leaders should indeed take control of such programs, with HR acting as a key partner in their design and execution, adds Chicago-based Jessie Leisten, global project director of Aon Hewitt’s Top Companies for Leaders, a global study the consulting and outsourcing firm conducts annually to examine the link between leadership practices and financial results.
How can senior leadership — including the top HR leader — help encourage them to grab the reins?
“Leaders pay attention to what is important to their strategic objectives. So it’s essential that senior leaders explicitly communicate the importance, ownership and expectations they have for their leaders to be an integral player in developing future talent,” says Leisten,
Measuring line leaders’ effectiveness and holding them accountable for the results of their leadership development efforts — using engagement, turnover and promotion rates, for instance — “will be essential to establish and drive change,” she says.
Fenlon agrees that accountability is critical, and stresses that addressing leadership development is “the starting point” for revitalizing talent-management processes within many organizations.
“When you think about the obvious transformations in the workplace, technology, generational differences, global economic shifts and so on demand that we’re more innovative than ever before,” he says. “Broadly speaking, we’re at a turning point in HR, where there’s an imperative to innovate in talent management. Leadership development is a big part of that.”