Strategic Leadership Development

A strategic leadership-development and succession-planning program helps recruiting, retention and employer branding. This excerpt from "Built on Values," looks at some factors essential to creating values-based leadership development and succession plans.
This article accompanies Keeping the Keepers

Monday, February 7, 2011
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The final pieces to the puzzle of continuous culture advancement are strategic leadership development and succession planning.

Up-and-coming leaders, thoroughly immersed in and invested in your ideal culture, will keep it thriving for decades to come. Developing those values-rich leaders and enmeshing them in your leadership team must go far beyond typical management training, however.

When considering future leaders, you should also think far beyond the typical candidate with an MBA. There may be a terrific A Player on your front line who would make a wonderful CEO someday because he or she is the perfect exemplification of your values.

Open your leadership development programs to anyone who aspires to move up in the organization. Anyone. And let them do it on the clock. That will convince everyone that you are serious that A Players with potential can be found anywhere.

Leaders used to start in the mailroom. Who says they can't anymore? Keep your eyes open as you make your rounds, and take names.

A good leadership development program will even help with recruitment and values branding.

In a recent study of large company programs, a group of Harvard researchers found that "there is a direct relationship between a strongly defined leadership development program and the type of job candidates the company attracts, external stakeholder's perceptions of the business and employees' understanding of the firm's values and strategies."

Values-based leadership development and succession should allow learning in both business skills and values, in both the workplace and the classroom.

The actual shape of it will be determined by what you consider to be the most salient attributes you wish to pass along to people who may succeed you one day. Essential: you cannot just add a "values module" to your existing management development program.

Ask your Values Team and HR to completely rethink it: this is where your culture is revealed. Here are some factors we have found essential to include:

1. Figure out your own personal Values Blueprint and teach it. Whatever turns you on as a leader needs to be a big part of your leadership development process.

"To be inspirational, you need to be inspired yourself," notes Christopher Rice, CEO of BlessingWhite, consultants in employee engagement and leadership development. "Leaders need to articulate goals, paint a compelling vision of the future and help employees connect the dots."

White recommends that leaders constantly coach team members to be high-performing leaders at every level, even if the only ones they are leading are themselves. Inspiring an organization full of committed values coaches is never a bad thing.

2. Focus far beyond "training." You cannot train people -- even leaders -- to have values.

Leadership development in sound decision making must now move beyond number crunching and business models. Leaders must have abundant opportunities to learn to make decisions based on values. These could be simulations at first but must eventually move out into the real world.

Leaders must deeply understand, before they begin making strategic plays, that even one decision that does not reflect the values can have a huge impact on the success or failure of culture change.

3. Emphasize communications skills. Slickness is not required in a values-based organization; believability is.

Many executives, even the most sincere, struggle with conveying their commitment to the values when they get in front of groups. In fact, the "best" communicators, pre-Values Blueprint, may be the ones who struggle once values are implemented, as they may have previously relied on prepared, teleprompted remarks that won't fly in the more intimate settings and smaller groups of employees where storytelling skills are required.

Coaching and practice in this area should revolve around (a) matching behavior to words so that your behavior reinforces your words; (b) relating to small groups of front-line people as a coworker, not as their superior; (c) conveying common sense and not talking down to people; (d) always having facts and figures at hand, but not being afraid to say "I don't know"; and (e) respecting your audience at all times.

Your leaders never have to prove how smart they are, just how passionate they are.

4. Make values more than just another component of leadership development. Each component of training must be remade so that the values are incorporated at the cellular level. Each aspect of the training should also be revised to ensure that it reinforces rather than undermines your culture.

That goes double for training provided by outside firms, including management training at the university level.

A Values Team member, most likely from HR, should take responsibility for vetting and revising leadership development programs with values alignment in mind. There should also be specific training developed to help leaders and prospective leaders feel comfortable conveying the values to others.

It begins with discussion about how they are personally living the values or struggling with them. This exercise lets leaders develop the vocabulary and the behaviors they need to coach their teams. We encourage them to discuss one value and behavior each month in staff meetings and allow employees to discuss situations in which they lived the values (or didn't) themselves.

Learning how to show vulnerability -- willingness to fail or fall down -- is a key factor in developing credibility for the values among the staff. You and your leaders want to engender a realization along the lines of: "Oh my gosh, he's willing to get back up and try again. That must mean this is really important."

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Get across the idea, any way you can, that this is a process, not a light switch you can flip on and be done with it.

5. Provide education in the intricacies of your business. Employees, even those who work the front line, are better positioned to contribute to the financial health of your organization if they know the details of how the business operates.

We recommend offering instruction on interpreting basic business reporting and jargon, to demystify business talk and allow employees to build a higher level of trust in the organization. Such knowledge will also allow them to find and suggest efficiencies in their own work surroundings that could save the company a great deal of money or amaze customers.

6. Teach executives and managers to plan for succession. Successful transmission of the values and behaviors to the next generation requires systematic succession planning.

Eventually, every single executive, manager, and supervisor should have a successor in place. Why is that necessary if every part of your organization is steeped in the values?

First, designating people as named successors who cherish the values of your organization conveys the importance of those values in an exceptionally clear way. Want a promotion? Live the values.

Second, naming successors allows their leaders to become conscious mentors, conveying their knowledge of how they have integrated the values into their daily lives and decision making. All of the successors should also be invited into leadership development training.

Picking a successor, for leaders at any level, can be psychologically difficult. Suddenly it seems as if there is an expiration date on your forehead and you are on your way out.

Leaders must encourage each other to look at the situation differently. If everyone has a successor, then everyone also has someone above them whose job they will eventually take.

After some years of mentoring and learning, moving up in progression will feel inevitable. Even the chairman and CEO can start thinking of the next opportunity, which could come in identifying and acquiring businesses compatible with the values and taking the time to smoothly integrate them into the Values Blueprint.

Your stars will thrive, knowing that they have been picked as a successor to a superior. Retaining high-flyers is often a challenge because they don't need a lot of guidance, although if they are not a part of your formal succession planning they will end up feeling ignored instead of engaged. Focus them on the road ahead and give them the mentoring they need to remain motivated. You know who your stars are; let them know, too.

Ann Rhoades is president of People Ink (, a culture-change consulting firm, and the author, with Nancy Shepherdson, of Built on Values: Creating an Enviable Culture that Outperforms the Competition. She is also a director of JetBlue Airways and P.F. Chang's. 

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Built on Values by Ann Rhoades . Copyright (c) 2011 by Ann Rhoades and Nancy Shepherdson.  All rights reserved.

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