What’s pushing the development of “leaders at all levels”?

Talent Acquisition social media strategy

Posted by Neil Neveras on September 24, 2014

Our Global Human Capital Trends 2014 report points to leadership as the No. 1 talent issue facing organizations around the world and highlights a significant “readiness gap” between the need to develop leaders at all levels and organizations’ ability to actually do it. Let’s take a closer look, first examining how CEOs and CHROs are thinking about this issue of leadership development and building their pipeline, and then looking at how they’re going about it.

First, organizations are thinking about leadership capability as it relates to their corporate values, or as my colleague Josh Bersin says, the company’s “soul.” This idea is increasingly important because many of the leading companies that are performing well commercially and attracting talent are focusing not just on products, services, and numbers, but on their mission and making a difference in the world. So, organizations are looking to mesh business strategy and broader social purpose with specific leadership capabilities they want to see in all leaders. They’re asking, “What are the qualities that would make someone identifiable as one of our leaders?” and “What does it mean to be a leader at our company?”

Second, organizations are thinking about how to prime the leadership pipeline given challenging demographics marked by waves of Boomer retirements, too few Gen-Xers to replace them, and large numbers of Millennials entering the workforce. In the past, when demographics weren’t working against them, companies could systematically groom people for leadership roles over many years. Today’s reality is that development of Millennials needs to be accelerated. As a result, organizations are wrestling with how to identify high potential in less-experienced people and how to chart a development path that gets them ready to take on senior leadership roles in less time.

Finally, when thinking about leaders at all levels, organizations are thinking globally. There’s already a shift underway in some companies, and it will likely continue to grow, where senior positions are no longer being filled by people from the central headquarters location. So, tomorrow’s global corporation based in, say New York City, is likely not going to have a U.S.-based leadership team, but rather one that’s deliberately global. And while people from HQ still have the opportunity go out and work across regions, we’re seeing an evolution away from “expat exports” toward more bidirectional fluidity, as well as local leaders being developed to lead locally. So, in the global sense, leaders at all levels reflects more of a matrix or lattice of people and movement, rather than the more traditional notion of global mobility built around expats moving out from the center.

This is the framework underlying organizations’ need to develop leaders at all levels. So how are they acting on it? The companies I’m working with are approaching the task systematically, starting by defining what leadership is, and then determining the system of leadership development interventions needed to achieve that definition.

When organizations talk about defining leadership, they talk about three things:

  • Nonnegotiables. These are the core values of the company and what leaders must bring to the table without development. Some are more obvious — integrity, trust — others are more organization-specific, such as mobility/ability to follow customers and markets.
  • Capabilities. What do you want leaders to know and show? In our recent Dbrief webinar, we covered this topic (and the following topics) in some detail, including highlighting eight core leadership capabilities identified by analyzing Kaisen Consulting’s database of some 18,000 assessed leaders.
  • Potential. It’s absolutely essential that the organization has a validated, scientific definition of potential along with a way to identify and assess it in people. Without this, companies risk filling the pipeline with the wrong people and seeing no meaningful return from their disproportionately high investment in their development — essentially betting millions on the wrong horse.

Once they have a definition of leadership, organizations focus on building out their system of developmental programs and interventions. Schema-based development, which emphasizes learning how to think like an “expert” leader, is upending traditional content-based or behavior-based development methods. Experiential learning, particularly through stretch experiences, is particularly effective in schema-based approaches because leaders have the mental model to apply to their experiences and learn more from them. Building future leaders’ exposure through sponsorship and networks is another key developmental tool.

Finally, leading organizations are figuring out how to align performance expectations with their expectations of how leaders “show up” and present themselves as a leader. They’re looking beyond simply “making the numbers” to look at how leaders achieve performance goals while demonstrating the desired capabilities.

Building leadership bench strength and managing succession has always been a challenging proposition, but the need to get it right has never been more urgent. Only 13 percent of companies we surveyed rate themselves “excellent” in providing leadership programs at all levels. (See more results here.) There’s much room for growth, both for leaders themselves and the organizations that rely on them.


Neil Neveras helps clients solve many of their most complex leadership challenges, including defining leadership capabilities to drive business priorities, succession/pipeline planning, leadership assessment, development planning, career path, coaching/mentoring, using social networking to link leaders and global assignments/mobility for development and metrics.

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