Four Tips to Raise Your Leadership Bar

A new study finds more than half of executives worldwide agree that problems with talent and skills are affecting business performance. In other words, a company's level of revenue growth is affected by how well -- or poorly -- they are developing all of their talent, especially that of their leaders.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015
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Carl Jung once said that the privilege of a lifetime is to become who you really are. This quote always gets me thinking about how to maximize our full potential. While it is up to each of us to develop and embrace opportunities for growth and learning, it is also the responsibility of employers, leaders and managers to build a learning culture. But to understand that concept, we also arrive at the problem ┬ľor should I say the gap.

The problem is that leaders themselves aren't getting the training they need to guide the future workforce. According to a new global research study conducted by Oxford Economics and sponsored by SAP, Workforce 2020, both executives and employees agree that companies are facing a "leadership cliff" and are not focused enough on developing future leaders. The study found that more than half of executives worldwide also agree that problems with talent and skills are affecting business performance. In other words, a company's level of revenue growth is affected by how well they are developing all of their talent -- especially that of their leaders.

So how do we fix this problem? It's hard to effectively manage something if you're not measuring its progress and development -- particularly something like leadership. When it comes to cultivating and enriching the skills of current and future leaders, every organization sets its own pace and expectations -- either formally or by default. It makes sense in that case that companies with above average revenue growth are more likely than their peers to provide employees with advanced training and development programs, and provide access to the information required to perform their jobs well.

What may surprise you, however, is that underperforming companies are also more confident about their leadership abilities -- at least in their own assessment of their leadership performance and development. In contrast, high performing organizations are more cynical about their talent and continue to balance internal promotions with external hiring.

Having a critical eye towards talent is what I call a healthy "talent paranoia," which keeps successful organizations ahead of their competition by focusing on important workforce trends (think Millennials, contingent workers, globalization and an aging workforce). In fact, more than half of underperforming companies in the study cite difficulty in attracting employees with basic to moderate skills, which has a direct impact on their bottom-line. We are essentially looking at a polarized skills gap on a global scale -- a bifurcated economy of highly skilled and unskilled.

The good news is that research shows this gap can be bridged through better training and education, which has the potential to benefit both employees and employers alike. Here are a few tips on how to practice healthy "Talent Paranoia" with improved leadership development:

Work backwards. Many companies start remodelling leadership development by starting at the top level of their leadership positions. But I believe ensuring you have the strongest first line leaders who touch the majority of your workforce is the most important place to start to grow the best leaders of the future. You should be focusing on all employees to help grow their leadership strengths, but if you are starting from square one, developing your front line workers is where you should be looking.

Leverage metrics. Relying on a manager's subjective assessments of employees can be helpful, but often times can only get you so far. Objective measurement is important for measuring the success of your training program, and for identifying those who are selected to take part in leadership development to begin with. Many HR departments now have in depth data that you can look at to assess employee potential. However, if you are not sure where to find that data, start by identifying specific criteria based on the leadership roles you know you need to fill. Eventually, by paying attention to both the hard data you have gathered and the subjective views of your managers, you will be totally armed to identify the top leaders in your company, and what areas they need to work on to improve.

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Extend the timeline. Understand that leadership development is a long-term company goal that should always be tinkered with and improved upon. Building your leadership program isn't going to happen in a couple of staff meetings; you also don't need to pony up a lot of money for MBA-styled courses for executives. Give employees the proper time needed to focus on strengthening their leadership skills over an extended period. In general, people tend to learn more when they're able to devote attention and generate their thought processes on the subject at hand. By reinforcing that this is a continual effort for the company at large, and not a rush to change your employees, the company will see stronger leadership over the long haul.

Seek Mentors. Mentoring should be a necessity when it comes to planning out the improvement and development of future leaders. Mentoring is a popular idea for growth when it comes to leadership training. Make sure that your employees' mentor-mentee relationships don't just happen in a vacuum, however. One of the best benefits of mentoring is knowledge transfer, so give mentees and mentors structured ways to share what they've learned from these relationships. Successful employees have multiple mentors, so by building on that network effect, you allow leaders to branch and ultimately thrive.

The reality is that most companies still have a lot of ground to cover to prepare for tomorrow and need to rethink how they approach leadership development today. Carl Jung is right in that is it a privilege to become who we really are. As employers, we have a responsibility to enable our employees to develop their talents and leadership skills for the benefit of both themselves and their organization. That requires HR to be at the forefront of creating a learning culture, and technology to be the catalyst for change.  It is important to lay the ground work now for making HR and learning strategic priorities. Now is the time! Carpe Diem. 

Brigette McInnis-Day is executive vice president of human resources for SAP.

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