Unlocking Leaders' True Potential

New research finds many business leaders feeling their organization could do more to help them pursue their motivations and goals. Are you doing enough to help executives flourish?

By Mark McGraw

As a good HR leader, you no doubt spend a lot of time creating opportunities for everyday employees to gain the skills and experience they need to continue their professional growth.

But what are you doing to help those at the highest levels reach their career goals?

It's tempting to think that your brightest, most accomplished, ambitious and self-motivated leaders have already achieved all of their career goals. New research from global executive search and talent advisory firm Egon Zehnder finds that not only do executives crave the chance to continue their professional development, but many of them feel their organizations aren't giving them ample opportunity to do so.

As part of its Leadership Identity -- What Makes You Thrive study, Egon Zehnder polled 1,275 senior executives from Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America.

When asked if they felt their organization helps them unlock their professional potential, 40 percent replied in the affirmative, while 31 percent said "no" and another 27 percent reported feeling neutral. In addition, 72 percent said they would welcome more help from their company to "pinpoint and pursue [their] motivations and goals."

These findings came as no surprise to study co-author Wolfhart Pentz, who notes that executives have a part to play in their own professional development -- but don't always articulate their personal goals or take steps toward ensuring their growth continues.

"It's what we see every day," says Pentz, who heads up Egon Zehnder's leadership services practice in Berlin, Germany. "Leaders are aware of their values and their sources of meaning and motivation. Still, they often don't pay enough attention to them."

In high-potential employees, HR leaders sometimes "foster a sense of self-responsibility for their own development, which is great," he says. "But some leaders of the older generation have never had a chance to develop that kind of self-responsibility and tend to wait for HR or somebody else to talk to them."

In many instances, executives may simply not have the time -- or think they don't have the time -- to tend to their own development needs, says Pentz.

"It's like doing a short relaxation exercise. We all know how useful it is, and that we will be more effective and efficient afterward," he continues. "But we still don't do it, because we feel we don't have time for the shortcut."

From an organizational standpoint, shortcomings in this area may in some cases be a product of their own progress in terms of talent management, says Marie Holmstrom, director of talent and rewards at Willis Towers Watson.

"With the advancement of talent management practices in recent years, employees at all levels are expecting the organization to be doing the hard work necessary to understand the unique capabilities and aspirations of their people," says Holmstrom. "HR and leaders can get caught in talking a good game, with the plethora of talent assessment, talent review sessions and succession planning work done on an annual basis."

If, however, the organization's talent management processes don't result in understanding how employees -- up to and including senior leadership -- want to add value, "then all is for naught," she continues.

"Time is wasted and your 'rich' process will do more harm than good. Expectations will be raised but go unmet. And key talent will feel passed over [and] ignored, [will] become disinterested and bored, and, at best, decide to leave for an employer that is authentically interested in stretching and nurturing their full potential. Assuming, but not verifying, what you know a leader is capable of, ready for or willing to take on is dangerous."

Some companies' leadership development efforts may also suffer from taking the form of "one-off interventions," says Deborah Lovich, who leads the Boston Consulting Group's Leadership and Talent Enablement Center.

By definition, such an approach "cannot address personal motivations and goals," says Lovich, "which need to be addressed and reinforced in 'everyday work.' "

Lovich also echoes Pentz's sentiment that leaders must "take an active role in [professional growth] conversations and the ensuing development to realize the results they're looking for."

While HR leaders are becoming increasingly aware of the potential still waiting to be tapped within their organizations' leaders, "very few have regular conversations with their top leaders" in which development is discussed.

And, when these talks do take place, they are often "rather technical in nature," more focused on potential career moves or relocations, for instance, "and less meaning-driven."

Lovich urges HR professionals to not only initiate these talks, but to partner with leaders to design and build robust development initiatives, as opposed to "off-to-the-side 'programs' or check-the-box development conversations that are not connected to a deeper conversation about the leaders' personal and professional vision."

Moreover, while HR can provide the process and ensure expectations for growing future generations of leaders are "embedded in every people manager's performance expectations . . . no process will close the gap [if] top leadership fails to embrace this true talent mind-set," adds Holmstrom.

Organizations and CHROs must "see [that] the fight for talent is a street fight, with an every-day focus on their leaders, what special potential they have, how they can be elevated to grow further faster, and on finding the best match between what inspires a leader [and] the contribution he or she can make to the organization," says Holstrom. "HR can [be] -- and should be -- leading the charge for this critical culture shift."

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Apr 21, 2016
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