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Leadership development: What are you doing wrong?

Ignore the fads, throw away the books and ditch those online lectures, developing leadership isn’t something you get from outside programs, claims a new study. If you want your high-potential employees (HIPOs) to hang around and become the future of your company, leadership development needs to be organic and woven into an organisation’s culture.

Last year companies spent nearly $31 billion on their leadership development, yet 40 per cent of the 7,000 surveyed by Deloitte said they only added “some” value and 24 per cent claimed theirs added little to none. Considering that strengthening the leadership pipeline is an urgent concern for 89 per cent of executives, that’s a stunning gap between desire and outcome.

The problem seems to be that, on the whole, the leadership industry is overly reliant on passing trends (remember “be like Steve Jobs”?), zombie ideas (plenty of companies still act as though a fear-based management vs staff model is smart), and cosmetic solutions (did that short-course actually help the employee improve your business?). And instead of using analytics to plan for and then measure the effectiveness of their organisation’s program, a sizeable swathe of companies rely solely on feedback surveys that ask program participants if they enjoyed it and found it useful. Productive analysis is another reason why brushing up on digital skills is crucial for HR.

That trends and organisational changes negatively affect leadership development is supported by the latest research from CEB, which finds that one of the most important factors in retaining HIPOs is continuity and communication.

“HIPOs often require stability and reassurance to thrive and change can negatively impact the attractiveness of opportunities within the company for them. Potentially they may seek out  career opportunities elsewhere,” says Samantha Hickey, a talent practice director at CEB.

How an organisation can improve its leadership development

The authors of the Deloitte survey report discovered that companies that have both strong finances and robust leadership development plans share these features:

  1. A sharp, company-wide focus on their culture and a clear idea of what it is.
  2. A company structure that encourages risk and forces leaders to intermingle and learn from multiple teams.
  3. A policy of education by exposure. Leaders learn through direct experience with customers and relevant members of staff. Many featured a sponsorship program.
  4. An inclusive culture that promotes knowledge-sharing and post-event breakdowns. If bad news happens, they talk about it.
  5. HR is not left alone to carry the huge weight of leadership development; it has roots throughout the organisation. The Harvard Business Review highlights the example of a pharmaceutical company that lodged senior HR professionals in each of its unit to ensure leadership-relevant tasks and conversations were relevant to the business and coordinated throughout the company.

As for retaining those employees with the most leadership promise? Samantha Hickey has a piece of advice: 
“HR must take ownership of HIPOs career progression by creating opportunities for skill development within roles and sourcing extra opportunities from across the enterprise to meet HIPOs’ progression needs.”

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